I moved to California twenty years ago.
This is nothing like the type of immigration I’m about to talk about, but, no mistake about it, I was a stranger in a strange land. CA and CO are two very different states, with different populations and different paces.
I was alone and didn’t know how to not be around my family or the people I grew up with. I thought I liked being alone, but had no conception of what absolute solitude meant, and had no idea of what it truly meant to be cut off from your family or the people you grew up with.
Dealing with immigrant populations has been a wedge issue in American politics for a long time, but in the fifteen years or so that I’ve actually been paying attention to politics and current events, this is probably the worst it’s ever been. I keep waiting for Donald Trump to embarrass himself to the point where even the lunatic fringe refuses to take him seriously, but not only is it NOT happening, it’s triggering a fervor I honestly find frightening. A colleague of mine remarked (Godwin’s Law notwithstanding) that it reminded him of Hitler’s rise to power, and he’s right. Less than 100 years ago-a blink of the eye in the scope of human history-millions of human beings were herded up like cattle and executed as a result of rhetoric that doesn’t sound that different from Trump’s.
Months ago, I had a discussion with one of my classes about empathy. I went around the room, and told each student something I had in common with them. One of them struggled with feelings of inadequacy in my class: who hasn’t felt that way? Another one had a parent who taught in the school: every time I had a substitute teacher in choir or band, they knew my parents. If you meet someone on the street and try to find something in common with them, you usually don’t have to try that hard.
Another aspect of empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, which by all indications seems to be a dying art. Do people look at refugees on TV-regardless of their country of origin-and ever wonder what it would be like to be them?
What would it be like to be an immigrant?
And, mind you, I’m not talking about the “oh, we lived in London for five years while I was a project manager for Google” kind of immigrant. I’m talking about the “we fled Latin America because the local cartel was going to kill my family” kind of immigrant.
So, if I go somewhere in the multiverse where I, Paul Nemeth, am forced by war or famine to move to a different country, here’s what I think I would be like:
I’d be very angry. I’d have grudging gratitude that I’d have a country to go to, but I’d be angry. And, that anger would be palpable. I’d be angry for the chaos in my homeland, I’d be angry about dead and lost loved ones. I’d be angry because I’d most likely be at the bottom of the ladder when it came to food and housing. I’d be angry if I’d been a doctor or a lawyer or a general in some other country and was emptying bedpans or cleaning toilets for a living. Is eating better than starving, and is having a roof better than not having one? Sure, but I’d still be angry. Admit it, you’d be, too.
I’d cling to every other American expatriate I could find. We’d become insular, clannish even. We wouldn’t trust the police, and the police wouldn’t trust us. If I ran a restaurant or store, I’d do business as fairly as I could, but-let’s face it-if one of my countrymen came in the door, they’d most likely get preferential treatment. And, another American broke the law and was wanted by the authorities, I would probably prioritize their “American-ness” over whatever local law they were accused of violating.
I would still speak English whenever I could. I’d do my best to learn the local language (and probably wouldn’t have much trouble, since I pick up language pretty quickly) but would never stop speaking English. If I was with another American in a roomful of people, I’d speak English if I didn’t want the others in the room to understand what we were talking about. Even though I pick up language easily, I would speak the local language with a noticeable accent, and I’d be kind of a dick if people complained about it. Which they would-I’ve heard enough 0ld white people complain about store clerks or gas jockeys with “accents” to not have any illusions about the treatment I’d get under similar circumstances.
Would I “assimilate?” Sort of. I would accept local customs, celebrate national holidays, and otherwise follow local laws, but I wouldn’t say, “America doesn’t exist…we’re Nationality X now.” And, even if I did attempt to throw out every trace of my past nationality, who would buy it? When was the last time you saw someone from Mexico or the Middle East wearing Western-style clothing driving a Toyota and speaking perfect, unaccented English and thought, “Wow! They’re really ‘fitting in?'”
If my neighborhood ended up having a large population of people like me, I’d push for having American stuff around: statues of famous Americans, parades on American holidays and events commemorating American history. And, my new country’s version of Fox News would most likely report it as a bunch of unpatriotic, angry, suspicious-acting foreigners who refuse to assimilate and are trying to turn every country in the world into the United States.
If I felt like my culture was all I had, yes, it would become very, very important to me.
So, yeah, I’ll be the first one to admit that I wouldn’t be one of the “oh, thank you for giving me a better life,” kind of immigrants. I’d like to think that I’d behave nobly under such circumstances, but I know myself-and I know human nature.
This might piss some people off. I hope it does. Because, even if it makes people angry, it might force them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes for once.
The late KGO broadcaster Gil Gross was having a discussion about this topic, and asked, “Can we not be decent?” If I were an immigrant, I wouldn’t ask to be embraced with open arms…but I’d ask for decency. And some empathy. It’s really not a lot to ask for.