A Bedtime Story About ‘Immigration And Separation’

Last week, as is our custom at home, I read to my daughter before I put her to bed. (We pick a mix of ‘long stories’ and ‘short stories’ and settle on a number beforehand, one which has to be conformed to by a ‘promise.’) On this particular night, the ‘long story’ was Edwidge Danticat‘s Mama’s Nightingale; I did not know what the book’s contents were and only picked it up because, well, the author was Edwidge Danticat. That’s not entirely accurate: the subtitle did say A Story of Immigration and Separation but I presumed it was about an immigrant child feeling homesick for the home she has left behind. Perhaps, subconsciously, I had hoped to be able to tell my daughter about my migration to the US, my occasional nostalgia for an older ‘home.’

The opening passages of Danticat’s story soon dispelled these hopes:

When Mama goes away, what I miss most is the sound of her voice….For the last three months, Mama has been at Sunshine Correctional, a prison for women without papers….Every night after he makes dinner for us and helps me with my homework, Papa sits at the kitchen table and writes letters to the judges who send people without papers to jail. He also writes to our mayor and congresswoman and all the newspapers and television reporters he’s heard of. No one ever writes him back.

I’ll admit to hesitating when I read the bit about an imprisoned mother; I was reading to a not-quite-four-year-old after all. But I pressed on. My daughter’s curiosity about why this girl had been separated from her mother was not easily satisfied; I did the best I could to explain the surrounding context.

Danticat’s story is ultimately one with a happy ending–a family reunification–in which the young girl who is the subject of the story plays an empowered and leading role. I read–with some relish–those parts of the book in which the young daughter of the imprisoned mother is able to intervene in her mother’s case; there was ample opportunity here for my daughter to find behavior and attitudes worth emulating.

My story reading over, I noticed the book carried a postscript by Danticat, which I read aloud as well. In it, Danticat notes that she is the child of parents who migrated to the US before she could, that she was unable to join them because they were ‘without papers,’ a notion which fascinated her then and resulted in her writing this current story. And then at the end, there was a straightforward recitation of some grim numbers, an accounting of the tens of thousands of who have been ‘returned’ or ‘removed’ from the US–thus splitting many, many families asunder–by the Obama administration.

I have heard of, and read, those statistics many times; they have featured in many political debates I have participated in. But my relationship to them, despite being an immigrant myself, has always been a rather peripheral one. Not on that night, not with my daughter sitting on my lap. As I tried to finish reading Danticat’s postscript, my daughter looked at me in some surprise: my voice had caught in my throat, and I was unable to continue reading aloud. I tucked her in just a little more affectionately that night.

Top Ten Reasons America Needs Taco Trucks On Every Corner

Marco Gutierrez, founder of the group Latinos for Trump, ‘warned’ the United States about an impending disaster in an interview with Joy Reid on MSNBC on Thursday night:

My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.

Mr. Guiterrez does not seem to have done his homework on this. Taco trucks on every corner are hardly a threat to America. Rather, they represent a golden opportunity for all kinds of invigoration of our increasingly moribund republic. Indeed, it is not too hard to think of several–to be precise, ten–reasons why they do. Without further ado, here they are. (The numbering of the list below does not indicate any prioritization of any kind; these reasons are equally important for the continued health and prosperity–in several dimensions–of great nation.)

10: Late-night revelers will wonder what old-timers are talking about when they speak of ‘hangovers;’ no drinker will go to bed hungry, an achievement every developed nation should be proud of.

9: Mongolian barbecue will never, ever, make a comeback. Unless the folks in the trucks start offering fusion specials.

8: As Spanish moves toward becoming the US’ first language, it is imperative American citizens acquire adequate proficiency in this language of our new colonizers; the unavoidable and indeed, almost obligatory, daily conversational encounter with taco vendors–who, we can be pretty sure, will not bother to learn English–will greatly facilitate this process. (Though our children will certainly never be able to appreciate the pleasures of asking, and receiving an answer to, that age-old question, “Donde puedo encontrar un camión de tacos?”)

7: America’s chronic constipation problem, which forces millions of young and old uptight Americans to force oversized bran muffins down their gullets every morning–washed down with a bitter brown water mysteriously referred to as ‘coffee’–will vanish overnight.

6: The irritating gluten-free craze, which has turned many of our friends and family members into aggravating proselytizers, will finally run out of steam; Americans will go back to eating, guilt-free, all the cake and bread and pizza they want, thus restoring America to its former glutinous greatness.

5: ‘Soft shell or hard shell?’ will soon morph to ‘soft or hard?’ thus providing endless entertainment for pre-teens, late-night talk-show hosts, and the occasional presidential candidate. (Sometimes bloggers too.)

4:  They’ve got your dietary disruption right here. And there. Come to think of it, everywhere.

3: Soccer fans will enjoy the opportunity to feast on tacos in lieu of corner kicks; players will appreciate the possibility of a quick chorizo or lengua taco special while they are writhing on the ground next to the corner flag.

2: Salsa will displace that abomination, ketchup, from grocery shelves; french fries will become American, thus obviating the need to forego them the next time France doesn’t sign on for a bombing campaign in the Middle East.

1: Remember the Alamo? Me neither. Bring on the taco trucks. I can’t be bothered to make dinner tonight.

The Cruelest Cut Of All: Punjabis Are Not White

In 1921, a certain John Mohammed Ali became a naturalized citizen of the US. In 1925, this grant of citizenship was contested (United States v. Ali 7 F.2d 728 (1925) by Martin J. Kilsdonk, a United States naturalization examiner. His affidavit:

[A]lleges in substance that said defendant was born in Karpurthala, in the province of Punjab, India, on January 10, 1875, arrived in the United States on June 2, 1900, and has resided in the state of Michigan, in this district, since April 1, 1911; that when the said certificate was issued to him he was not a free white person nor a person of African nativity or descent; that such certificate was illegally procured, within the meaning of section 15 of the Naturalization Act, as decided by the United States Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U. S. 204, 43 S. Ct. 338, 67 L. Ed. 616, on February 19, 1923; and that, therefore, good and sufficient grounds exist for the cancellation of said certificate.

In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind the Supreme Court had ruled that Thind, an Indian asking for naturalization on the grounds he was a Caucasian, and therefore eligible, was instead ineligible on the grounds he was not ‘white.’ The Supreme Court rejected the ‘scientific’ classifications of ‘race’ that ran together ‘White’ and ‘Caucasian’ and instead relied on the ‘common knowledge’ that Asian Indians, ‘Hindoos’, were not ‘Whites.’

Ali, for his part, had attempted to circumvent the impact of this ruling by claiming that he was of Arabian descent and therefore not Indian, not-not-White:

[H]e is not a “Hindu” of full Indian blood, but is an Arabian of full Arabian blood. While admitting that he is a native of India, as his ancestors for several centuries have also been, he contends that originally his ancestors were Arabians, who invaded the territory now known as India, and settled and remained there, but have been careful not to intermarry with “the native stock of India,” and have “kept their Arabian blood line clear and pure by intermarriage within the family.”

The court rejected this line of reasoning:

I am unable to follow the argument thus sought to be made. No reason has been suggested, and I can discover none, why the mere fact that the early ancestors of the defendant came to India from Arabia, where they had been called Arabians, renders the defendant a white person. His skin is certainly not white, but unmistakably dark, like that of the other members of his race.

The court ruled for the plaintiff, and stripped Ali of his citizenship, concluding:

He is a native of the continent of Asia, specifically of the country of India, and more specifically of the province of Punjab, the place of the nativity of the alien held, in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, supra, not to be a white person. Clearly, all of the conclusions of the Supreme Court in that case, as well as the reasons on which they are based, are equally applicable to this defendant.

The court also noted:

He admits that his ancestry, like that of other races residing in India, originally sprang from Caspian Mediterranean stock. It would seem that the most that could be claimed by him, by reason of Arabian ancestry, would be membership in the Caucasian race.

And so we have it folks, the official holding: Punjabis (whether Hindu or Arabian) are not White. We just can’t seem to catch a break.

On Not Recommending One’s Choices

Recently, all too often, I catch myself saying something like the following, “I took decision X, and I have my fair share of regrets and self-congratulation about it but I would not recommend X to anyone” or “In all honesty, I couldn’t recommend that you take decision X as I did.” Or something like that: I took this path, and I’ve reconciled myself to it, but I cannot recommend that you do the same. Even with the express caveat to be prepared for mixed blessings, which would seem to provide all the ‘cover’ needed.  (The kinds of decisions I have mind included some of the most momentous of my life: immigrating, choosing a graduate education and then an academic career, entering a monogamous relationship, and having a child.)

Some of this hesitancy is, I think, quite straightforward. Many of these reasons–cultural, intellectual, psychological–are familiar and infected with a favorable assessment of ourselves and others. We are reluctant to preach and proselytize; we are modest, and think it inappropriate to convey the impression of having gotten things right; we do not want to oversell the good and we do not want to understate the bad–we do not want to brag, we do not want to whine; we want others to take on the terrible responsibility we felt when we took those decisions; we value the boundaries of the autonomous protective space that others have built up around themselves (see: ‘reluctance to preach…’ above.). And lastly, I think, a less exalted, but related, reason: we do not want to saddled with the burden of having pointed out the path to someone, we do not want to be ‘blamed’ when things go wrong.  (There are dozens of web sites, or at least pages, which are dedicated to getting ‘modern, sensitive’ parents to overcome their loathing to preach to their kids, urging them to ‘just do it’ and ‘say something’; don’t be afraid of being a ‘hypocrite’ or a ‘preacher’ if your child’s safety is at stake, and so on.)

I experience my hesitancy as grounded in all these reasons, of course. But there is also another quite fundamental grounds as explanation for my–and possibly others’–failure to preach. I am never quite sure if my interlocutor and I are talking about precisely the same thing: too many dimensions and facets of their existential choices remain hidden, unclear, or ambiguous to me. I do not know whether all the paths of conduct that are entailed by these decisions are understood as such by them; I do not know if they mean, or refer to, the same objects and states and affairs as I do. These differences, always minor in the context of conversations with most we know, acquire an added facet when we encounter something like a truly crucial choice–made by someone else, another possessor of a unique, only partially accessible perspective.

That is, much like in another state of ignorance that I described in an earlier post about not interfering with others’ self-conceptions, I am reluctant to act for fear of blundering into an unknown space with inadequate navigational aid.

The US Information Service and the Power of Air Conditioning

Shortly before my teen years commenced, my parents arranged a library membership for me at the American Library in New Delhi. (The library was administered by the United States Information Service; its membership rules only allowed adults as members, but my parents spoke to the librarians, signed up for two library cards, and handed them over to me). I was too callow to be anything more than an uncritical consumer of what I read and watched (the library featured an extensive video archive and it showed a weekly capsule of ABC news broadcasts). It was an ideal location for the concoction of elaborate fantasies about leaving India and heading straight for America’s shining shores. It all too quickly became another venue for learning another nation’s history, for processing its narratives about itself, all the while not noticing the absence of an Indian one.

The American library carried no cricket on its shelves, a fact that placed it one rank lower than the British Council Library in my mental peggings, but it did feature–among many other collections–elaborate histories of the Second World War and the American Revolution, tales of the American West (including, thankfully, many books on Native Americans), miles of American fiction and popular science, all of which I avidly consumed. I spent many summer afternoons there, reading books on American history and culture, watching videos—which provided little snippets of American life and thus made me privy to its details in glorious color—and looking through periodicals for a glimpse of the present-day US. The USIS could perhaps not have hoped for a more ideal purveyor of the information it hawked. During my reveries in the libraries’ spaces, it was all too easy to dream of a life elsewhere, perhaps on a sylvan campus, perhaps in a manicured suburb, away from India.

And nothing quite set you up for that indoctrination experience like walking into the American Library’s cool, air-conditioned interiors after a hot and sweaty ride through Delhi’s crowded buses; that change, as I walked in from Delhi’s loud bustle to the pristine silence of the library’s shelved spaces was a blessed relief; it hinted of the change that would presumably be introduced in my life once I left India and moved to the US. Outside was heat and noise, the bedlam of the street, the sounds of street vendors and honking traffic; and then, as you pushed open the glass doors, you felt the first blast of air-conditioned air, instantly settling on your perspiring skin, cooling and calming. You walked on, flashing your identification–the treasured library card–and then upstairs, up to the brightly lit main level, with its neatly arrayed shelves, its glass-top tables, its soothing tranquility. This didn’t feel antiseptic and colorless then; it felt like a balm to ease a soul made restless and agitated and eventually, inert in all the wrong ways, by the furnace outside.

Ideology promulgation takes many forms; sometimes it appears as a set of functioning air-conditioners, symbols of efficiency, power, and relief from the world’s troublesome afflictions.



Relativity and the Immigrant

As a postscript to an essay explicating the theory of special relativity–written at the request of the The Times (London), Albert Einstein wrote:

Here is yet another application of the principle of relativity…today I am described in Germany as a “German savant” and in England as a “Swiss Jew.” Should it ever be my fate to be represented as a bête noire, I should, on the contrary, become a “Swiss Jew” for the Germans and a “German savant” for the English. [originally published November 28, 1919; reproduced in Ideas and Opinions, Souvenir Press, London, 1973.]

A year or so ago, after returning from an academic trip to the University of Luxembourg, I wrote a blog post on some thoughts sparked by my trip. It began with me quoting a short note I had posted on my Facebook wall:

As an American in Europe, I am getting shit for (on this trip): Budweiser (as always), the lack of a really good football/soccer team (as usual) Lance Armstrong (a new one), and the fact that fifty million Americans think universal healthcare is a bad idea and worth repealing.

When I travel in India, I am frequently taken to task for–among other things–American foreign policy; one good gentleman told me, back in 1998, after the US had announced sanctions on India for its nuclear tests: “You go tell Bill Clinton to go to hell!” (I am also subjected to the usual rants about the decadence of American culture and morals.) At that moment, I am ‘American’. And of course, in the US, I’m often treated as an expert on all things Indian, and expected to listen patiently to ample hectoring critique of that nation’s many faults.  Then, I’m ‘Indian.’

This is straightforward. The converse treatment–of sorts–is far more interesting. When my American political activist friends seek to enlist my support for a favored political cause, my national origin is of little interest; at those moments, I’m straightforwardly an American liberal.  When my Indian friends and family seek similar subscriptions, my citizenship and residence is of little interest to them; then, I’m Indian all over again.

I’ve done little for either of these two demographics to brag about so I cannot provide an exact analogy to the examples Einstein provides. Winning a Nobel Prize or two might help; then perhaps both nations could proudly claim me as their own. And no doubt, were I to become an axe-murderer, I would be rapidly disowned by by both nations; America would cluck over my unredeemed origin and India would point to my corruption by the US–those damn decadent morals all over again. Sports fanhood is another interesting domain: I’m often drafted in as an American fan during the time of soccer’s World Cup, and of course, when it comes to cricket, I’m treated as Indian.

My identity is a matter of much perplexity and fascination to me; it remains an ongoing of project of both discovery and invention. It is made as interestingly complicated as it is by these sorts of external understandings of it (and I’m sure, by my bilinguality); I fulfill roles and serve as target or ‘person of interest’ for a wide variety of interests, each driven by its own ends. My attributes receive selective attention depending on these interests and ends; then, one is highlighted at the expense of others and made central, essential, distinctive.

Note: I had always thought of Einstein under several different headings: ‘American academic’, ‘German physicist’, and ‘Jewish’. When I first read this justifiably famous quote of Einstein’s I was struck by how despite the prominence of Bern and Zurich in his biography, I had never regarded him a ‘Swiss Jew.’

Traveling With the Right Kind of Passport

Amartya Sen introduces us to his Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny with the following rather well-known little story:

Some years ago when I was returning to England from a short trip abroad (I was then Master of Trinity College in Cambridge), the immigration officer at Heathrow, who scrutinized my Indian passport rather thoroughly, posed a philosophical question of some intricacy. Looking at my home address on the immigration form, he asked me whether the Master, whose hospitality I evidently enjoyed, was a close friend of mine. This gave me pause since it was not altogether clear to me whether I could claim to be a friend of myself. On some reflection, I came to the conclusion that the answer must be yes, since I often treat myself in a fairly friendly way, and furthermore, when I say silly things, I can immediately see that with friends like me, I do not need any enemies. Since all this took some time to work out, the immigration officer wanted to know why exactly did I hesitate, and in particular whether there was some irregularity in my being in Britain.

The petty harassment and humiliation at this story’s core–caused by the failure of imagination on the the immigration officer’s part–is here artfully pressed into service as prologue for a philosophical discussion of the problem of identity; Sen does not dwell on it any longer.

Sen’s story does however remind us that passports, markers of citizenship, serve as guarantors of convenience and bulwarks against all kinds of threats, including the psychic ones that Sen was subjected to above. When I became an American citizen in December 2000, and began traveling with an American passport (my first journey with it was to New Zealand in March 2001), I suddenly became aware of how significantly the anxiety I associated with overseas travel had been attenuated: my pre-travel preparations became shorter; I did not have to deal with queues at consulates and embassies; I did not have to decipher bureaucratic documents to figure out visa requirements; I did not have to subject myself to inane questioning from immigration officers; and so on.

The world suddenly appeared a much more tractable space. Nothing about me, as far as I could tell, had changed: I professed the same political and religious beliefs; my physical composition–give or take a few pounds–was the same; but I was now a much more desirable person, no longer a possible societal threat, a possible burden on the exchequer of those nations who had sought extensive bank guarantees before granting me even a tourist visa.

Shortly after I became an American citizen, a friend of mine caustically suggested I had been lazy and insufficiently “loyal” to my former nation. I was stung at first, but then forgave him. He did, after all, travel with a European Union passport.

Note: Ironically, since obtaining US citizenship, the one country I did have to get a visa for was my country of former citizenship, India. My trials and travails with the processes that entailed have been described before on this blog.