Over the course of my life, I’ve spent countless days waiting in single-file lines at United States embassies and border crossings. Each time, I’d react in Pavlovian fashion. As I approached the single pane of opaque glass occupied by an officer in a dark blue uniform, my palms would begin to sweat, my throat would constrict, adrenaline would start coursing through my veins in massive quantities, my eyes would avoid contact with theirs, and I would lose all ability to speak. I assumed they were out to get me, and that each “random” selection for further questioning was less about statistics and more about my funny name and country of origin.
I was born and raised in Turkey, and left at 17 to attend college in the United States. In the next two decades, I collected an alphabet soup of visa types, ranging from F-1 to H1-B. With each visa application, and each return trip to the United States, my fate would rest with the all-powerful government officer who—with one click and stamp—could make the unreviewable and irreversible decision to end the life I had built for myself in my adopted country.
If they had a soundtrack to their lives, I assumed it would be the rap song “I’ve got the power” by Snap! (the one percent of you will get this 1990s German rap reference).
It’s been hard to shake off this conditioning even after I became a U.S. citizen. Just as the dog begins to salivate the moment the bell rings, I still get sweaty palms the moment I spot an immigration line—marching without fail to the resolute beat of stimulus-response, stimulus-response.
A few weeks ago, waiting with sweaty palms in yet another immigration line , I had a “thought” (or a “revelation” if you’re into that sort of thing). I asked myself, “How does the officer behind the single pane glass feel?”
I doubt powerful is the word they would use to describe their job. I’m sure some of them go on the occasional power trip (as we all do), but the mechanical “click, stamp, process” routine probably makes them feel, on many days, like a powerless cog in the enormous immigration machine.
Everything we observe in the world is through our own eyes. Every one of us is walking around with our own version of the “truth.” We project our truths onto other people, which obfuscates their truths and conceals their humanity. We refuse to make eye contact with them, as I did with immigration officers, let alone see the world through their eyes.
The lenses you put on shape and determine your reality.
It’s helpful to take yours off once in a while and try on a different pair.