September 26, 2011
Late one night in India my friends and I were going through customs at the New Delhi airport when I was pulled aside by a very tall Indian man. He held my passport picture next to my face and said with complete certainty, "This is not you." His head bobbled side to side and for a second I was distracted from the problem at-hand. He repeated himself, "This is not you." I was traveling with three friends and by this time they had already left customs and were making their way to baggage claim.
Back in 2001, I took a photo in a little store in Kerman, California and that picture has followed me around the world making a mockery of my face. "I was told not to smile. It was a bad hair day. My eyes are mid-blink! It was before digital cameras!" were the excuses I'd list off when my friends would laugh and point. The truth is, up until that point I had never taken such a horrible picture and I haven't taken one since.
But in the New Delhi customs line, that funny picture had just gotten serious and it seemed that the Indian man and I were now in a stare-down. He was studying my nose and lips for a match, and I was studying his thick beard. He called over a friend. They, too, were baffled. And for what seemed like 30 minutes, but was probably just 5, we stood there comparing my current face to the worst picture I've ever taken. To help matters, I tried to replicate a mid-blink. I laughed, but they didn't.
They spoke in Hindi for a bit and it seemed that they had reached a solution, "Sign your name", he said. So I signed my name. "Not the same", he said. "Whaaaa...Ohhh, you want me to match the passport signature? That was when I was 16..." He didn't say anything, but it head bobbled side to side again. (After 3 weeks in India, I came to know that as a nod.)
At this point I was distressed. It was late, my friends were gone, and I imagined myself getting put on the next flight back to China. I won't tell you how many attempts I made at recreating my 16 year old signature from memory, but I will say it came to a point when the man at customs was wanting to believe it was my passport. His friend walked away and he quickly flashed the signature to refresh my memory. I exclaimed, "There are hearts on the i's?! What was I thinking?" I signed again, dotted the i's with hearts and the man stamped my passport and let me go.
This afternoon I'll be taking new passport pictures. I will try my best not to blink and might even sneak in a smile.