Thirty Years After: Reflections On Migration

Thirty years ago on this day, I migrated to the US. At New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, I boarded a British Airlines flight to London Heathrow from where I would board a connection to New York City, and set off. My mother and my best friend dropped me off at the airport; my grandmother had bought me a one-way ticket with her savings as a farewell gift. I ran to the gates; I was eager to leave, eager to move on to a new life. Thirty years later, in at least one measure, I haven’t gone too far; I’ve only moved from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Brooklyn in New York City; I’ve remained stuck on the East Coast, only able to make a short hop across the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York City–with a short, two-year stint in between in Sydney, Australia. But much–besides the progression of visas and residency permits from F-1 to H-1 to ‘green card’ to ‘US passport’–has changed.

Then, I was twenty; now, I’m fifty. Then, I was single, about to commence a graduate program in computer science and go on, hopefully, to a ‘respectable’ job. Now, I’m a husband and a father, a professor of philosophy at one of America’s largest urban public universities. Then, I would speak of a ‘home’ left behind; now, I can only write ‘home’ in scare quotes, even as I acknowledge that I have found one on this side of the world, one in which my daughter will grow up and find her way about, one whose well-being and future concerns me more than other places elsewhere; it is the place in the world to which I’m the most committed, emotionally and politically.

I’m a mongrel now; I sound funny to both Indians and Americans because my accent has morphed; both ‘sides’ have accused me, on occasion, of being insufficiently ‘genuine,’ of not being ‘the real thing’; immigrants can never be the McCoy; we will always be ‘outsiders’ no matter where we go; more than one group can tell us to ‘go back where we came from.’ Back in India, I feel like a tourist who can speak the local language really well; that land too has changed while I was ‘away.’ My in-laws live in the US; my daughter will find grandparents only here. She will know little of India and where ‘I came from’; she will not speak an Indian language. Children are always strangers to their parents (and vice-versa); the children of immigrants perhaps even more so.

In an essay I wrote recently, I made note of my aspiration at one time to be an ‘American immigrant’–it was a description that spoke of both success and a virtuous kind of work, one that elevated the very being of those who undertook it; it was how I understood the American immigrant experience from afar. Like all things observed from a distance, many of its most crucial features became visible on closer inspection; the life I was to undertake in the US would be considerably different from what I had imagined it to be. I was often found wanting; as was, it seemed, my home of choice. I considered myself prepared for this new life; I was not. But those shortfalls, those gaps, those mismeasures, they all added up to a new understanding of myself and this place. ‘America’ and ‘I’ both acquired new contours thanks to this encounter of ours. America acted on me, and I on it; it was bound to be an asymmetrical relationship; I changed more than America did in response to my presence here. But I like to think I’ve made this little patch of mine distinctive too, and brought to it my own peculiar and particular stamp, my own unique influence and signature.  My childhood in India colored my sense of time and space and still influences the way I see the world; but America, and its landscapes and light and air and skies have crept into my being too; they too, now, afford me the lenses with which I sense and experience the world.

In these three decades past, I learned, in America, all over again, that I was not and could not be, a self-made man; that I would always rely on the aid and succor provided by others. Sometimes they were other immigrants; sometimes they were Americans, of all stripes, kinds, and colors. They all helped me, all loaned a helping hand. Some loaned me money, others bought and cooked me meals, gave me a place to sleep, told me where to go, what to do, spoke up for me, taught me, loaned me books, read my writings–this list could go on. I’m not a self-made man; I’ve relied, unashamedly, on others, on friends, family, and strangers. An immigrant’s story can never just be about the immigrant; it must also be about all those who made that life possible. I’m glad that others have helped write the book of my life; and I’m glad that so much of it has been written in America, by Americans.

My political stance often casts me as hyper-critical; it is an anxious one, eager to make this land into a better one for my family and my friends and for the communities that have given me a home over the years in this land. My concerns for my former homeland are far more limited; my political ambit is circumscribed by my location and my available commitment; I have become an American by dint of where I live, and what I care about the most.

I have not stopped moving yet; I sense more displacement in my future. I am reconciled to it; it seems like a way of being. Indeed, I feel restless now, astir again. Migration induces a restlessness that will not cease; the initial inertia of our first home is never regained. I used to bemoan the lack of a resting place; now, I could not abide the absence of motion, possible or actual. Other migrations might lie yet in my future.

‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay ‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination‘ is up at Three Quarks Daily. The following is an abstract of sorts:

American immigrants, especially the first and second generations, were sometimes reckoned a safe vote for the Republican Party’s brand of conservatism. This was not just the case with immigrants from formerly communist countries who might be reckoned willing and enthusiastic consumers of the Republican Party and American conservatism’s historical anti-communist stance. Rather, American immigrants of all stripes have often shown a marked allegiance to conservative causes and claims. This trend, which did not always translate into major electoral gains, was attenuated by the Republican Party’s continuing adoption of nativism and crude populism, of xenophobia, of the crudest forms of racism and exclusivism. But it was not always thus; there were good reasons to imagine the immigrant was a  was a possible Republican and conservative mark.

In my essay, I argue that the immigrant imagination, tinged as it is with a hint of the romantic, bears some explanatory responsibility for this political predilection. In particular, by examining recent descriptions of conservative intellectuals–ranging from Edmund Burke to William Buckley Jr.– as a species of romantic reactionaries, and comparing them to immigrant self-descriptions of their migratory journeys of arrival and accomplishment, I claim that the immigrant and the conservative are united by a species of self-conception that views them as outsiders subverting and eventually mastering–in their highly individual and particular ways–a dominant system. Like the conservative, the immigrant too, sometimes finds himself suggesting ‘the ladder be pulled up,’ now that he is aboard. The immigrant is in sympathy with a conservative vision then, because romantically, like the conservative, he sees himself as an outsider who has ‘made it.’

I will explore this claim–via an autobiographical perspective–in the American context, thus illuminating the ways in which so-called ‘model minorities’ have conceived of their place in the American nation. The reflexively conservative standpoint I adopted when I was a brand-new migrant to the US should help explain why immigrants have not always been successful in building multi-racial alliances with African-Americans, and thus, why American anti-racism politics remains handicapped by a lack of solidarity between its demographic components. They suggest the Republican Party could further find in its electoral toolbox a rhetorical appeal to divide the current anti-Republican coalition by attacking one of its most vulnerable points.

The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.

A Mere Taste Of The Refugee’s Desperation

In 1990, my visa status in the US changed from ‘student’ to ‘skilled worker’; in the alphanumeric soup of visa designations, I went from being F-1 to H-1. This was occasion to celebrate; I could now legally work in the US, and earn more than the minimum hourly wage. There was a glitch though: the F-1 was a ‘multiple-entry’ visa; I could come and go from the US freely for its duration. The H-1 was a ‘single-entry’ visa; if I left the US, I would have to apply for a visa renewal to gain reentry. Such renewals were not guaranteed. Very soon, a tale of disaster made the rounds. A friend went home to Bombay to attend his sister’s wedding; when he applied for a renewal, his visa was denied. Despite repeated entreaties from his employer (and from my then graduate adviser who wrote in support of his personal qualities and work ethic) he was ‘stuck’ in Bombay. There he stayed.

Very soon, H-1 visa holders began to devise a ‘work-around’ to this problem: departures from the US to Canada or Mexico, which lasted less than a week, were counted as ‘non-significant departures.’ If so, you could leave the US, visit an American consulate in Canada or Mexico, and then apply for a new multiple-entry H-1 visa there. If you were successful, all was well; if not, well, you just went back to the US, and planned something else, perhaps a trip to another consulate somewhere else in Canada or Mexico. (On the grapevine, news spread of so-called ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ consulates; those who were lenient at granting renewals, and those who weren’t.) One reason given for asking for a renewal during a so-called ‘significant departure’ was that the applicant was soon going to be making a business trip overseas for his employer; the length of the trip would be too short to allow the time to apply for a renewal while traveling. This tall tale was supported by a letter from the employer (almost all of whom, quite naturally, supported their employees’ attempts to return to their jobs.)

In the spring of 1992, I desperately wanted to return home to visit my family; I had been away from ‘home’ for almost five years; in that period of time, I had only managed to make one trip home; it had lasted three weeks. Three weeks in five years seemed awfully slim pickings. But if I wanted to make a trip back to India, I’d have to go through the ‘traveling for a new H-1’ runaround. So I did.

In May 1992, armed with my visa application papers and a supporting letter from my employer, I drove to Montreal, to apply for a H-1 renewal. A Canadian friend offered crash space, which I gratefully accepted. I had managed to take a day off from work with some difficulty; I would drive up on a Thursday, apply for the visa on Friday, spend a day in Montreal on Saturday and then drive back on Sunday to resume work on Monday.

The best laid plans of man, etc.

On Friday morning, I submitted my application to the consular officer, and went to wait. A short while later, I was summoned by the consular officer and informed that I would have to return on Monday to find out the fate of my application. (Apparently, Montreal residents got priority, and would be served the same day.) I stared at him dumbfounded; consulates always processed visas on the same day; I could not possibly take another day off from work; this policy seemed exactly backwards for surely Montreal residents could easily return next week while out of town applicants could not. I asked for accommodation; I explained my case and said that I had to return to the US to go back to work; my employer would not let me take another day off; surely Montreal residents could come back on Monday to pick up their visas? And so on.

All to no avail. I was speaking to a bureaucrat, frozen, unblinking, uncaring. As our conversation stumbled into another zone of futility, my vision began to cloud. I wanted to see my mother and my brother and my sister-in-law; I wanted to see my infant nephew and hold him in my arms; I’d only been home for three weeks in five years and now this automaton was trampling callously on those barely expressible desires.

I snapped, and raged; I loudly proclaimed the stupidity of this policy. The consular officer had had enough and called security to remove me. I shook them off and walked out of my own accord, cursing as I went.  Back in my truck, I crumbled, sinking into a teary despondency. I was ‘stuck’ in the US; I would not be allowed to see my family after all.

Compared to the refugees now seeking entry to the US, I was a vastly, monumentally, privileged and fortunate person. I was able to apply again for a visa. (A month later, I made another road-trip; this time, to Quebec City. My visa application was successful and I traveled to India in August 1992 for four weeks.) I was able to visit my family and play with my little nephew, take long walks with my mother, share a drink with my brother, enjoy my sister-in-law’s cooking. The problem I faced at the US consulate in Montreal was a relatively minor one; I could have tried for an extension of my vacation, and after all, I was able to afford another trip to Canada relatively quickly. But that sensation, that sick feeling of being denied contact with one’s family, a kind of refuge–thanks to an impervious bureaucracy–has always stayed with me; it was a peculiar kind of nausea and fear and hopelessness. I can only imagine–very dimly–what those must be feeling who have been denied entry to the US over the past day or so because of Donald Trump’s racist executive order. This one cuts quite deep, quite personally. I’m united–through my differences–with all immigrants, all refugees.

Note: As a reminder: the stay order issued by the Federal Court only applies to those refugees who have already traveled to the US and were denied entry at US ports; those who had not started their journey yet remain in limbo, as so do those who now wait at detention centers at airports, waiting for their cases to be processed.

The Endless Surprises Of Memory

Memory is a truly wondrous thing. A couple of weeks ago, I met an old friend’s younger brother for lunch in midtown Manhattan; we were meeting after over thirty years. We ordered food, grabbed our trays, and headed to a table, our conversation already picking up pace as we did so. We talked about our high school days (his brother and I had been in the same class; the ‘kid’ had been a year junior); I asked about his sister, whose home in Delaware I had visited a few times during my first years in the United States; we laughed uproariously, as all those who reunite seem to do, when recounting tales of days gone by, which now suddenly seem more peculiar, more distinctive, with their ever-increasing vintage; and of course, we talked about my friend, now physically absent, but who loomed larger than life as the reason which had brought our two lives together. In the course of our conversation, I made note of how I  used to walk over to my friends’ home in New Delhi; the section of town I lived in was about a mile or so away, and walking and biking roads offered an easy connection. As I offered up this little recollection, a thought went through my mind; my friend’s house, like all those in planned ‘residential colonies’ in New Delhi, had an alphanumeric address consisting of a ‘block’ letter and a number; it seemed to me I could remember it. (Mine was S-333; the three hundred and thirty-third residential ‘plot’ in ‘S’ Block. Quite obviously, I remembered this address; only a nihilist cannot remember his childhood home’s location.)

This fact, of my being able to remember my friend’s old address, caused me some astonishment; I sought confirmation of this remarkable feat. I asked my friend for some; he supplied it. I had remembered his childhood home’s address–I-1805–clearly and distinctly. I had not thought about this alphanumeric combination for over thirty years now; and yet, somehow, by dint of being placed into a context in which it was relevant, I had been able to summon up its details with little difficulty. Other details came flooding back too, unprompted and unbidden. I felt an older self within me stir; amnesia fell away.

I will freely admit–as an immigrant who lost his parents a very long time ago–to being obsessed with memory and nostalgia and recollection. (I am surprised that I did not do more academic work on memory, given my interests in the philosophy of mind and the conceptual foundations of artificial intelligence; I am unsurprised that I was deeply fascinated by the work my friend John Sutton did in the same field.)  Here again, was another instance of why this particular human capacity captivated me endlessly. And I could not but wonder yet again about the nature of my self, and of the interactions of memory with it: how much remained, ‘locked away,’ in the recesses of my cranial stories, merely awaiting for the right contextual cue to be reinvigorated; are there other discoveries and understandings of myself possible as a result?

Thanks Joan Williams, But I ‘Get The US Working Class’ Just Fine

You know the refrain by now: cease and desist from calling Trump ‘fans’ or ‘voters’ ‘stupid racists.’ We must not think of them as ‘ignorant’ They are, instead, ‘economically disempowered’; they constitute a distinct cultural class, one which must now be listened to and studied with all due care and respect; we must understand and try to ‘get’ this ‘culture.’ For all the care that we are being asked to exercise in our interactions with the Trump demographic, Americans might imagine they are budding anthropologists or sociologists being asked to exercise due diligence by some Institutional Review Board for the Politics of Human Subjects. The latest salvo in this unceasing broadside of paternal instruction now appears in the Harvard Business Review, where we are told by Joan Williams that we don’t understand the ‘American working class’ or the ‘white working class.’ (Incidentally, these two terms seem to have become synonymous with ‘Trump voter,’ which is a bit of a mystery when we remember that many ‘working class’ and ‘white working class’ folks voted for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and would not have dreamed of voting for Donald Trump.)

So, here is the ‘class culture gap’ that liberals, members of the elite, east coast intellectuals of all stripes apparently do not get:

One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.

Doctors are quacks, lawyers are shysters, professors are phonies, teachers are condescending and unhelpful. Got that. So, I get the components of this world view but I’m afraid this is not remotely helpful in helping me bridge the culture gap and disabusing me of my prior prejudices about this ‘group.’ These points of view are, how you say, infected by ignorance and resentment. Reading them articulated as Williams would have us do does nothing to change my opinion of Trump voters as ignorant and racist. (I draw apart ‘working class’ and ‘white working class’ in this fashion because interestingly enough, I have met many non-ignorant, non-racist members of the working class; they are resentful, all right, but they are not resentful of the people whom the Trump demographic appears to be resentful of.) So, I might understand why Trump won, but my understanding will not consist of coming to the realization “Aha, Trump voters aren’t actually ignorant and racist; they’re just resentful of elites.” For I will be tempted to ask: Which elites? The public service lawyers who help the weak assert their rights against the state? The public school teachers who work for low salaries and teach their kids? The doctors who went to medical schools and heal their bodies when they are hurt on the job? The professors whose classes they do not attend? Do the esteemed members of the working class that Williams is pointing us to not know of the entities I point to, or do they not care? In either case, they remain ignorant; their prejudiced beliefs appear without foundation; the generalizations that we are informed of remain just as infected by ignorance, resentment and anger as we imagined them before–and let us not forget, racism is merely ignorance, resentment, and anger coupled with racial prejudice and dominant race power. Williams also conveniently leaves out a description of how the WWC perceives others who are the subject of their resentments–like, for instance, immigrants. My guess is that the WWC considers them shifty sonsofbitches who steal their jobs. Sounds like a real culture clash; a clash between a culture sustained by ignorance, resentment, and racism, and one that is not. These intuitions are confirmed when Williams makes note of the tremendous masculine insecurity that underwrites this same class (or culture); we are entirely unsurprised to find that sexism and patriarchy rules the roost here.  (Trump That Bitch!)

So if Williams’ intention in writing this piece was melioristic i.e., she intended to bridge the divide between the two ‘classes’ she identifies, then she has not succeeded. What she has succeeded in doing is telling us that our impressions of the ‘working class’–such as Williams has identified them–are correct: they are racist, and ignorant, and resentful, and unsurprisingly, they voted for someone who encapsulated their Know-Nothing resentment. To be sure it tells us that a different kind of electoral campaign might have been needed to convince this demographic; that too much faith might have been placed in appeals to their supposed common sense; that a different candidate, who was male, and who could stroke their insecurities and assuage their anxieties might have had more success with them. But it does not make me understand the ‘American working class’ or white working class’ in a way that changes my opinion of their moral and political predilections.

I am, in making this judgment, not writing off the ‘white working class’ as Williams is worried I might; but I’m not letting them off the hook for their racism either. Many Trump voters are economically disempowered; they were right to not believe the promises of the elites, of the Democratic Party; their racism emerged when they decided: a) they knew who to blame for their troubles, and it sure wasn’t members of their own racial group; b) they could live with the overt racism of the candidate they were going to vote for.

Note: Williams confirms my intuition that her piece is suffused with apologia and appeasement when she issues the following gem:

National debates about policing are fueling class tensions today in precisely the same way they did in the 1970s, when college kids derided policemen as “pigs.” This is a recipe for class conflict. Being in the police is one of the few good jobs open to Americans without a college education. Police get solid wages, great benefits, and a respected place in their communities. For elites to write them off as racists is a telling example of how, although race- and sex-based insults are no longer acceptable in polite society, class-based insults still are.

Once again, this does precisely nothing to bridge the ‘culture gap’ whose existence Williams is pointing us to. For I find myself tempted to ask: Which communities? Do white cops get a respected place in black communities? Do blacks in white communities? I have news for Williams. It’s not just ‘elites’ who write off cops as racists; middle-class and poor black Americans do too.

The Implausible Immigrants Of ‘The Night Of’

In HBO’s The Night Of a young Pakistani-American, Nasir Khan, has a bad night out: he ‘borrows’ his father’s cab for a joyride, picks up a mysterious and beautiful stranger, parties with her, and wakes up in her apartment to find her dead, and himself accused of murder. Things look bad, very bad. And so we’re off, probing into the subterranean nooks and crannies of the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, on the ‘outside,’ his stunned and bemused parents, convinced of his innocence–remain stunned and bemused, fumbling about, accepting help as and when it is given to them by strangers. This depiction of their plight and their reaction to it reveal this show’s understanding of immigrant life to be a very superficial one.

Immigrants don’t sit around, waiting for help to fall into their laps. The fact that they left their homelands to seek a better life is a prima facie indication they don’t do so. Here is what a pair of real-life Mr. and Mrs. Khans, living in the US for long enough for their son to have been born and brought up here, would have done had their son been picked up by the police and thrown behind bars: they would have started working the phones, calling every single one of their friends and family members who could help. They would have put the word out; they would have hustled, desperately and frantically, in a  manner quite familiar to them. The would have worked every ‘angle’ available to them. Perhaps a friend knows a friend who knows a criminal lawyer (“Let me call Hanif, his friend Syed used to work with a lawyer once”); perhaps someone knows a local Congressman who could help (“Do you think we should call Rizwan to see if he can put in a good word for us?”).  The Khans are shown living in Queens; their precise neighborhood is never named, but one can guess the show’s makers had Jackson Heights–where a large Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi community resides–in mind. If the Khans had been living there for any length of time, they would have built up, as all immigrants do, a rich network of connections who would have enabled and facilitated many aspects of their life in New York City. Nasir’s father, Mr. Khan, is shown as being successful enough to have a part-share in a cab; he did not get to that point without: a) displaying considerable drive and b) cultivating partnerships and relationships.

Leaving an old life in one’s home and starting a new one elsewhere take energy and initiative, the kind conspicuously absent in The Night Of’s depiction of an immigrant family’s responses to a personal catastrophe. The networks of ‘connections’ and ‘contacts’ immigrants rely on to replace the comfortable social structures of the past are what make their lives in this new land possible; an immigrant who did not instinctively rely on such forms of aid, and who did not display sufficient initiative to draw on them, would not last too long in this unforgiving land. Mr. and Mrs. Khan do a good job of looking like shocked parents; they don’t do such a good job of looking like immigrant parents who have brought up their child away from ‘home. ‘