Traveling overseas as the son of a military officer could be stressful. When we decided to venture out and visit some of the places in the countries we were in, the government would invite us to a briefing. My mom, my two siblings and I would file into a plain room that was like a small conference room or large classroom where they would tell us about the places we would be visiting. They would give us a rundown on the current global situation, how the people we would be mingling with felt about Americans at the time and some general pointers on how to act. We were told that bad people could want to do bad things to us if they knew we were related to an officer in the United States military. They told us to always be on our guard and to look out for anything suspicious. That was the most important thing.
When I moved to Japan in the first place they told me to blend in. A job I often tried but failed to take seriously. Before I went to Hiroshima they told me to be respectful. When I went to China they said to listen to the minder, even if they told lies. When I went to Hong Kong they told me about the counterfeit markets and the wealth of low quality retail goods while reminding me that if I was caught bringing any into Japan I could be charged with smuggling. But always, no matter where we were or where we were going, they finished by telling us to always be on our guard and look out for anything suspicious. As a well meaning eldest child I took that to heart.
I was on my guard when a man swiped a wad of money out of the palm of my dad’s hand in a Hong Kong tube station. He disappeared into a crowd before I could do anything. I was alert for suspicious activity when my family and I were screamed at on a train in Japan. I used the language I learned to deduct that they were shouting about a war. Which one? I didn’t know but I knew where the nearest police officer was on the train. Every time one of these little, mostly harmless, incidents would occur I would reflexively pat my wallet which held my identification. When you are overseas, your passport and other forms of “papers” are your life and each of these little jolts reminded me of how simple of a thing your ID is and how truly fragile it is. If you lost it you would be in a world of hurt.
For most people in their day to day lives, their wallets are a secondary object that hold an immense amount of personal value. No one thinks about it until it is missing or stolen but inside people stash their credit cards, cash, ID cards, insurance cards and other things. If you lose those things in your home country it is an inconvenience at best and a major headache at worst. If you lose these things in a foreign country it could mean a long stint at the embassy or even jail depending on where you are. Jail in a foreign country is the last place anyone wants to be.
I quickly learned that it was foolish to carry everything that was near and dear to you in one single spot. I began to separate out my things as I traveled more. Credit cards in the wallet, cash in the front pockets, two forms of ID at all times and one of them always kept on your person. Sometimes I even slid one into my sock. If I ever dropped anything while fishing in my pockets, it had a lesser chance of being important. If my wallet was stolen, I had another ID in my jacket pocket and cash in my front pockets. The more pockets I had the better and I used them. Soon I began to wonder why three out of four pockets went unused in daily life.
Overall the concept worked. I lost some cash here and there, I left my wallet on a tour bus once but never did I panic and that icy specter of foreign jail never rose. I had been on my guard just as instructed and I was proud of the peace of mind it brought.
Once I got back to the States and settled back into a normal routine of living in my own country again my system slowly started to coagulate back into the brick in my rear pocket. It still holds too much for my taste but the inconvenience here is not worth the hassle of my foreign travel system. That goes for everything except for cash. I still never carry cash in my wallet.
Part of me still wonders about losing my wallet and being helpless. Even in the United States where I speak the language, know my way around and could easily get home or call help, the old memories of being caught somewhere and getting stuck are hard to shake. Cash is always useful. It can buy you a phone call, a cup of coffee, a cab, information and who knows what else. Cash is king. The cash must stay free from the wallet in case of any unplanned incidents. Always be on your guard. Always look out for suspicious activity.
To many people’s horror, I pull out sweaty balls of bills, flatten out crumpled denominations in no particular order and drop coins all over the ground while muttering apologies. Just put it in your wallet they say with more than a little exasperation. I think about it and remember my training. I look at the horribly mangled money and slowly slide it back into my front pockets. Maybe another time but not today.