Anissa boarded her plane to Hong Kong. She reached her seat and felt all eyes on her; she was the only black person on board. Anissa stored her luggage and took out Brothers by Yu Hua. She had bought the book at the airport to learn about China’s recent history, from a Chinese writer's perspective. As an exchange student, cultural immersion was her priority. When the plane landed, she was halfway through the book.
As a Tunisian in France, Anissa had two IDs: her Tunisian passport and her French residency card. Her passport, green and written in Arabic, opened from right to left. Her residency card, pink and plastified, did not display a clear picture of her face. Instead, the photo looked like a blurry dark dot trapped in melted plastic.
Anissa followed the airport signs to the customs line. The border agent took her documents and gazed at her. He opened her passport, flipped every page, then asked her to step aside. Anissa waited on the side of the line while other passengers passed the customs check. A second agent pulled her aside to another cabin and interviewed her. She answered with the calmness of a Shaolin monk and showed her documents. The agent checked her student visa, her passport, and her residency card one more time. Everything was in order. He let her through.
A sense of anonymity floats in public places. The more crowded the place, the smaller one feels. Hong Kong airport was huge. Indoor conveyor belts transported pedestrians under bright daylight. The ceilings, high, round and transparent, made passengers look like ants trapped in a giant flipped over glass.
Anissa was walking on the conveyor belt when she saw people pointing at her. Tall and slender, her silouhette stood out among the crowd. Feeling like a zoo animal, she hurried to the arrival gate. In the front row of people waiting, Anissa saw a young woman in a red shirt. The girl was holding a sign that read "WELCOME TO HKU 😊!". Relieved, Anissa waved at her.
Girl: Hello, are you Anissa?
Anissa: Hello, yes! I’m Anissa from Paris.
Girl: Welcome to Hong Kong! My name is Sun from the HKU students' committee. Nice to meet you.
Anissa: Nice to meet you Sun. Thank you.
Sun: We planned some activities before the semester starts, so we get to know each other a little bit.
Anissa: Oh! Nice. What’s the program?
Sun: Quiz game tonight, and tomorrow we go to Macau for the weekend.
Anissa: Sounds exciting.
Sun: Yes hihi. It would be my pleasure to show you around. Please wait here, I’ll be right back.
Anissa sat down and peeked at the foreigners in the crowd. Generally taller, they were the only ones with distinct hair. Sun rallied them one by one, and looked like the snake’s game on the old Nokia phones. Half an hour later, twenty-two students trailed behind Sun and stepped into the HKU shuttle.
Sun had a contagious enthusiasm. She told them about the students' committee and the HKU community hall. That was their rallying point. They had a four-hour gap before the quiz night, and went to their respective rooms to rest. Competitive and cultivated, Anissa was looking forward to it.
In the evening, Sun arranged students in groups of fours. Anissa shared her table with Dirk from Germany, Matthew from Canada, and Felipe from Spain. They introduced themselves in English. Anissa too, then she shared a few words with each guy in his respective language. Awestruck, they nominated her as the group leader.
The first set of questions was about Asian traditions. The second was about China, and the third was about Hong Kong pop culture. Anissa knew almost all the answers. Her team won the game hands down and took the $ 1000 HKD prize. Sun crowned her MVP of the night, and her teammates made a toast in her honor. They labeled her the smartest person on campus and promised to treat her in Macau.
The next morning, the group met at the community center, where Sun instructed them on the weekend activities. They would travel to Macau by ferry, tour the island in the afternoon, and have free rein at night. Macau is the “Las Vegas of the Asia”. Even though Anissa was not a gambler, she was curious to discover a new custom.
International travelers waited in line to get their passport stamped. Anissa waited with her peers. Dirk went first, then came Felipe and Matthew, who cruised through the passport check with the same ease. Finally came Anissa’s turn. She handed her green passport to the agent behind the glass cabin. He opened it, flipped it around, and asked her to follow him. Anissa did not argue.
The three friends saw her disappear behind a metal door. The agent led her to a windowless room with a chair, a small desk, and a security camera. He gestured for Anissa to sit down, left the room, and closed the door behind her. Anissa waited for her sentence like an innocent criminal.
A moment later, the agent returned with two colleagues. The three men entered the room and faced Anissa. None of them spoke English, and the little Cantonese she knew did not convince them. One agent left the room. The other two stood with their back to the door, staring.
The agent returned again with two extra colleagues. They were five men in the small windowless room, and Anissa. One agent unfolded a world map in front of her and dropped her passport on the map. Anissa pointed to Tunisia and tried to explain a bit about her country. The agent’s face darkened. She shrugged and gave up. The five agents left the room again and closed the door.
Anissa was used to discrimination. But whether in France, the UK, or Germany, she always managed to talk herself out of nasty situations. This time, none of her five languages helped. Still, Anissa did not falter. She wrapped herself in her pride and smiled with defiance at the security camera.
One agent returned with Sun by his side and interrogated her. Sun translated back and forth until everything was cleared out. Then, they stamped Anissa's passport and let her enter Macau. Unlike her friends, she was only allowed for 24 hours.
The semester went on at HKU and Anissa aced all her courses. She graduated with honors, learned Cantonese, and landed a Ph.D scholarship. She returned to France with rich memories, new friendships, and bright career opportunities.
In Hong Kong, Anissa was reminded that her worth as a citizen was not determined by her achievements, but by the color of her passport.