After I had spent most of the day at the windowless embassy, filling out Thai police reports and new passport applications and swearing in front of a notary that my passport - and my flip-flops! - really were stolen in Koh Phangan, the Thai woman behind the bulletproof glass released me with the instruction to get a new pair of passport photos taken and report back to her in exactly one hour.
At least that's what I thought she said. Though my Foreign Affairs Saviour had been well instructed in both of Canada's official languages, she had got the idea that English and French were basically the same, their words easily interchangeable. As I'd just spent three weeks smashing Thai's tonal syllables around my mouth in night markets and restaurants, ordering water and inevitably getting fish sauce, French was the last thing from my anglophone mind. So, when my FAS handed me a map to the nearest photography studio and directed me to "Exit gauche from the building, righting yourself at the corner," I just assumed she was making some sort of comment on my frenzied appearance.
My long, curly hair, which had been steadily soaking up the rainy season's humidity, had become impervious to hairpins, preferring to rearrange itself into a nimbus of mostly vertical fuzz. Throughout Songkran, the New Year's celebrations that cumulate in a giant water fight, deflating my hair had been a happy novelty for cheerful locals - even a nun had dumped a bucket of water on my head.
Once I had become accustomed to the general amusement over my unruly tresses, I had mostly given up trying to contain them, but when I entered the studio and pointed at the passport photo chair, the photographer laughed and circled both arms over his head in the international symbol for "Afro." I laughed too, but, knowing Passport Canada's photo regulations, tied my hair back as best I could.
Returning for my photos 40 minutes later, I learned the true extent of the Southeast Asian custom of "saving face." Watching me struggle with my hair, the photographer had surmised that unruliness was prohibited in Canadian passports. After taking his digital photograph and waving me away, he'd opened an airbrushing tool to shave my hair down into a neater, much more manageable do. Instead of a wild nest of curls, my face now appeared beneath a short, fleecy helmet.
Certain that this was not only humiliating but illegal, I was horrified. But the clock was ticking. "Rapidement," my Foreign Affairs Saviour had said. "One hour." I paid my bill, gathered my now-gauche likeness, and returned to the embassy.
As I slid the photographs into the metal tray beneath the bulletproof glass, my Foreign Affairs Saviour cocked her head and pursed her lips.
This is bad, I thought. I'm in trouble now.
Then she giggled.
"Your hair is awful. What did you do? It looks okay now, but … perruque? Why do you look like you have a perruque?" She shook her glossy bob.
A perruque? I raced through vocabularies from high-school French class.
"Ah," I said, chuckling nervously. "A wig! Yes, I suppose so." I shifted my gaze to the reflected silhouette in the bulletproof glass. Squinting, I could see something that looked like Marie Antoinette. Or a Q-Tip. I patted my head in a futile attempt at compression, hoping to ape my photograph. For good Canadian measure, I stopped smiling.
"Don't worry," my Foreign Affairs Saviour said reassuringly, tapping the glass. "Your hair … well, it doesn't really look this bad."
Then she stamped the photograph and sent me on my way.
My new passport would be ready in a week. Thankfully, I get another one in two years.
Special to The Globe and Mail