Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

478. Sheer Cruelty

In Family, health, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on May 14, 2020 at 2:48 pm


In 2018, 18.3 million people lived in mixed-status families in the United States. A mixed-status family has at least one member who is an undocumented immigrant. Hundreds of thousands of young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients live in these mixed-status households with one or both parents undocumented as well as younger siblings who are citizens. Everyone in these households is subject to tremendous stress at the best of times, living in poverty, having to keep their precarious status a secret, and living with the knowledge that one of their loved ones could be deported at any time. Even when the citizen children are old enough to sponsor family members there are roadblocks put in their way; and family members who are citizens are frequently denied benefits for which they are eligible.

Soon after Donald Trump took office as President he announced his intention to do away with the DACA program, established by President Obama in 2012 as a stopgap since Congress had been unable to pass the DREAM Act, which would have offered a path to citizenship to millions of hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding undocumented Americans. At one point he floated a deal to DACA recipients that he would offer them a path to citizenship in exchange for getting the funding he wanted to build the massive border wall between the U.S. and Mexico . To their credit, DACA recipients refused to throw their even more vulnerable fellow-immigrants under the bus in return for their own security. Now DACA is before the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds of thousands of young people are waiting anxiously for the decision that is due any day now.

Now add the COVID-19 pandemic into this nightmarish situation. Here are two diabolical moves that the administration has made:

First: According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are 15.4  million people in mixed-status families who have been denied their federal stimulus checks. Joint filers cannot receive a stimulus check under the CARES Act if one spouse does not have a Social Security Number (SSN). Stimulus checks are even being denied to immigrants who have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) instead of SSNs. According to the Center for Migration Studies, “ITIN filers pay over $9 billion in withheld payroll taxes annually.” Several lawsuits have been filed challenging this CATCH-22, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to exclude someone from financial assistance because of who they married. Meanwhile millions of hardworking people are being denied emergency help.

Lorena Espinoza de Piña, ready for work as a registered nurse

Second: US Foreign-Born Workers by Status and State, and the Global Pandemic, a May, 2020 report from the Center for Migration Studies, shows how many immigrants are putting their lives on the line as essential workers at this time. The report shows that there is a larger percentage of immigrants than US-born Americans working in essential jobs. It lists by state and occupation the numbers of immigrants doing essential work, and breaks it down by immigration status. You can see for yourself how many undocumented Americans are risking their lives taking care of our elderly and sick, cleaning our buildings, and growing and processing our food, among many other essential occupations.

President Trump and his senior adviser Stephen Miller are itching to crack down even further on immigration, taking advantage of COVID-19 fears to make sweeping changes to the U.S. immigration system. In this climate, will the U.S. Supreme Court vote to strike down DACA? According to the Center for American Progress, more than 200,000 DACA recipients alone are working on the front lines of the coronavirus response. Public health experts have made the case to the Court that their deportation would be catastrophic for the nation at this time, vital as they are to the fight against the coronavirus. Of course, it would be catastrophic for them as well and for their families: sheer cruelty.

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On the 2020 A-to-Z Challenge: Fifty Years in the United States

In blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, Media, Notes, Politics, postcolonial, United States, writing on May 4, 2020 at 1:17 am

February 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of my arrival in the United States as a new immigrant. Fifty years seemed momentous, and prompted reflection. Encouraged by Kristin of Finding Eliza (whom I met way back in 2013 during our first Blogging from A to Z April Challenge), I decided to participate in the 2020 Challenge with a theme of the past fifty years in the United States from the perspective of an immigrant–at least, of this immigrant.

Here’s a hyperlinked and annotated list of the month’s posts, from A to Z. Fellow-bloggers, please scroll down for my reflections on the Challenge.

The Theme:
Fifty Years in the United States (an Immigrant’s Perspective)

Fifty years after arriving in this country, I try to speak truthfully about what “America” evokes in me, and why.

In which I recount the terrible events in 1970 that led to the birth of Bangladesh, and the response of the United States

Prompted by recollections of my happy time in a co-op house as an undergraduate, I sing the praises of cooperation rather than competition.

Dual Identities
Back in the 1970s, before multiculturalism, you were one thing or another; I was both: what to do?

The Eighties
In which I reminisce and reflect on the nineteen eighties, the decade dominated by President Reagan but momentous for me for happier personal reasons.

Living on a small farm for nine years in the 1980s made us acutely aware of the state of American farming.

Graduate School
From the late eighties to the mid-nineties I was engrossed in graduate studies. What was that all about?

In which I think back on what it was to be a householder, as that stage in life is moving into the rearview mirror

Memories of being an immigrant in the Eighties

John Prine
In the aftermath of John Prine’s death by COVID-19, I play his songs and think of all he has meant to me over the years, including what he has meant to me as an immigrant.

The Kuwait Phenomenon
In which I remember the first Gulf War

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment
Even when migrants choose to leave the countries of their birth, they cannot help longing for beloved people and places left behind. I reflect upon this love and longing, and its impact on the present.

Middle Age
As I move out of middle age, I remember moving into it and consider both external and internal perceptions of that stage in life, particularly for women.

New England and New Mexico
The two regions of the country in which I’ve lived are deeply shaped by Native American history, struggles, and continued presence.

Originals and Adaptations
In which I explore the cultural angst over lost originals as the new millennium approached.

In which I explain my objections to the term and describe the climate for Arab and Muslim Americans, South Asians, and Others in general in the aftermath of that tragic event.

This word was used in 2003 to describe the anticipated outcome if the United States were to invade and occupy Iraq, Sadly, those fears and much worse ones were borne out.

In which I reflect on the real and imagined, voluntary or forced, temporary or permanent returns of immigrants to their countries of origin.

Social Media
I document, starting in the 1990s and exploding in the 2000s, how rapidly the internet and various forms of social media changed the way we spent our time and interacted with others.

A piece of doggerel about the 45th POTUS

Under Pressure
In which I remember the the 44th POTUS and the pressures under which he had to perform.

United States society is shaped by violence and becoming increasingly militarized.

Water Protectors
In which I document the shocking statistics on the availability and affordability of running water in the United States, and showcase those–often the hardest-hit–who have taken a stand to protect our water as a basic human right.

XR — Extinction Rebellion US
This new, largely youth-led organization demands a rapid and thoroughgoing response to the climate emergency, in the face of government and corporate denial. I discuss the apparent split in the US branch on the urgent issue of environmental justice.

Youth (and Age) in a Changing America
A reflection on the growing diversity of youth in the United States and the most productive and satisfying relationship between youth and age.

After this panoramic sweep of the past half-century I zoom back in, back to myself in the present.

The Swift River (photo: Josna Rege)

A-to-Z Reflection: Since, as we well know, March 2020 was the month when the U.S., like the rest of the world, was under stay-at-home and social distancing orders due to COVID-19, the enforced solitude prompted further introspection, not only about my own life but about the condition of the country as a whole.

The disruption and general dis-ease meant that I had not decided in advance what my topics would be, so every day was a bit of a scramble and some of the posts reflect that lack of forethought. Looking back, my mood may well have influenced the gloomy tone that crept into some of them, but I think that the facts warranted it. There may not be as many personal reminiscences as I had initially thought there would be and there are definitely more hyperlinks to supporting documents than I had anticipated, but I hope that overall there’s enough of a balance between public and private, between documentation of events and reflection on them, and enough optimism to inspire first, tentative steps into the uncertain future.

This year I decided at the outset to visit a small group of fellow-participants regularly, and to reciprocate when people visited and comment on my posts. It turned out that technical difficulties prevented me from commenting on blogspot and some other platforms, a problem I solved eventually but by then it was the end of the month.

Thanks to the fellow-bloggers whose posts and comments informed, inspired, and delighted me throughout:
Finding Eliza (My family in the Twenties)
QP & Eye (adventures in the Coddiwomple)
The Curry Apple Orchard (Taking the Hard Road–serialized fiction. I was soon hooked!)
aliceinbloggingland (past, future, and present in time of corona)
Panorama of the Mountains (two challenges: reviews of documentares and favorite movies)
All Things Must Pass (personal and philosophical reflections)
Sharon Cathcart (Facts about Pompei)
United States Hypocrisy (examples of same)
To My Recollection (Haikus and other short poems)
365 Days (a daily photographs)

Apologies to Time and Tide (My Favorite Things to Counter COVID-19 Stress) The Old Shelter (Living the Twenties), and My Ordinary Moments (childhood and grandfather’s garden) for missing you due to difficulties posting comments. I hope to return and catch up in the weeks to come, as also with late-in-the-month finds: Discovering Mom (Remembering the author’s late mother) and Sonia’s Musings (Laugh in the Time of Corona: on Indian stand-up comedians and comedy channels).

Thanks to fellow-bloggers who visited despite not participating in the Challenge this year: Calmgrove (prolific and inspiring book reviews), and Epiphany (doing an A-Z of her own in May); to Anna and Marianne, dear friends who visited and commented faithfully; and to Andrew for his proofreading and forbearance. (All lapses, both in language and in judgement, are of course mine.) And Congratulations to J Lenni Dorner and the whole A-to-Z Challenge team for your hard work, good energy, and a great ride!

Stay safe, everyone, and keep writing!

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473. Violence

In 2000s, 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Britain, culture, Family, Immigration, Media, Politics, Stories, United States on April 27, 2020 at 2:11 am

This is the twenty-second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The United States is characterized by violence. After 50 years in this country, I am still not inured to it. Is it more violent than other countries? Certainly more violent than other wealthy countries. And the violence is not only measured in firepower, although there is plenty of that, but in the less visible structural violence of a dog-eat-dog society, and the epistemic violence that creates and marginalizes people whose lives are expendable.

I could write a long, mind-numbing piece documenting the violence at every level: the permawar, the mightiest military by far on the planet by just about every metric, a military presence in the most countries–of military bases, combat troops, and counter-terrorism forces–the preemptive strikes, the drone bombings, the U.S. as simultaneously the world’s foremost arms exporter and the world’s policeman. I could write all that; but you already know it, don’t you?

What about the culture of violence at home, the militarization of our society that goes so deep we no longer even notice it? Take the top-grossing movie in the U.S. in 2019: Avengers: Endgame. It had been one of the most expensive to make, but soon paid off and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. I haven’t seen it, but watched the trailer (which, like the succession of trailers one is forced to watch whenever one goes to the movies, was absolutely draining, and robbed me of any desire I might have had to watch the whole film). Take a look and see what you think of both the violence and the militarization. I read the plot summary, then went to the parents’ guide to the movie to see what they had to say. By the way, it is rated PG-13, and according to Commonsense Media, not only have films got much more violence of the past few decades, but the rating have changed accordingly as viewers have become desensitized to the violence. Most films rated PG-13 today would have been R-rated in the 1970s. The parents’ guide described the scenes that might be experienced as disturbing, of which here are just two:

At the very beginning, Thanos is decapitated by Thor. We briefly see it fly off. This is somewhat graphic, but later on in the film we see a flashback through Nebula’s eyes showing it up close. This is extremely graphic and gruesome. However the disturbing aspect of this scene is lessened by the fact that the character deserved it.  

As long as we label the recipient of the violence the bad guy, it seems that we need not be disturbed by the gruesomeness of the violence inflicted on him. Interesting too, that beheadings are supposed to be the province of the barbarians. But when the good guys decapitate the enemy, it is something to revel in.

During the battle at the Avengers’ headquarters, the final battle between the Avengers and their now restored allies against Thanos, numerous filler characters / minions die, including getting blown up, tossed about, stepped on, impaled, blasted or shot, etc. None of it is bloody or dwelt on, less so than the climactic battle of Wakanda in “Infinity War”, but it’s still rather brutal and it has an even higher body count.

I flinched when I read the term “filler characters”, since the deaths of these characters were clearly not expected to be as disturbing because those killed weren’t the main characters with whom the viewers identified. In a battle with say, ISIL forces in Iraq, would ISIL and Iraqi casualties alike be in that same category of “filler characters” to an American TV audience, even though the Iraqis were U.S. allies and would be on the ground taking the direct hits, while the U.S military personnel provided the supporting firepower from a place of safety on high?

SWAT team prepared (Wikipedia)

It has been increasingly evident over the past decade—actually, since the beginning of the never-ending War on Terror in September, 2001—that U.S. society itself has been becoming more militarized, as has the police force and policing in general. A recent study has demonstrated that the police use of SWAT teams more often deployed on communities of color, is counter-productive: they do not reduce crime or protect the police but they do hurt the reputation of the police in the eyes of the public. Whether studies like this one will affect policy remains to be seen.

The violence at home has also been amply documented and, I have already prevailed upon your forbearance too long. Suffice it to say that the U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world bar none, that there were more mass shootings than days in the year in 2019. The Gun Violence Archive documents them, and the Giffords Law Center both document and seeks to prevent gun violence in general, pointing out in its informational brochures that Americans are 25 times more likely to die of gun violence than residents of peer nations—France, Canada, Germany, Australia, the U.K. , and Japan.

But there is yet another pervasive violence that is less visible but no less deadly. It’s the jungle of unregulated U.S. capitalism, a structural violence that creates ever-deepening economic inequalities in American society. The more than half-a-million Americans homeless on any given night attest to it, as do the 8.5% or 27.9 million Americans uninsured against medical expenses as of 2018; and of the people who were insured, 29% were underinsured. The uninsured and underinsured people are disproportionately poor and people of color; and for those whose health insurance coverage came with their jobs, the massive job loss that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions more Americans without health insurance in a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made American society’s invisible structural violence starkly visible in the shockingly high percentages of the coronavirus fatalities who are African American and Latino who are dying at two to three times the rate of white Americans. On the Navajo Reservation during COVID-19, where the death rate is nearly 10 times higher than in the State of Arizona, many people are unable to take the basic preventive measure of hand-washing because 30% of homes do not have running water. Similarly, in the hard-hit hotspot of Detroit, Michigan, where approximately 80% of the population is African American, the city shut off water to 11,000 homes in 2019, and many have still not had it restored.

This is the daily violence of pervasive inequality in the richest and most powerful country in the world, which shows in poor health, high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes and respiratory conditions, higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and death. Poverty is violence; and so is our political system with its roots in slavery and dispossession. The very language we use is structured in violence, epistemic violence that dehumanizes whole groups of people and makes their lives cheap.

The English side of my family always thought we were fabulously wealthy because we had moved to America. Little did they know that even the poorest among them, at least before the recent cuts to the National Health Service, were more at peace than my immigrant parents were in their old age, despite their house and car and bank account. The Welfare State that was put in place after the Second World War was a safety net for elderly and vulnerable Britons, providing a sense of security that my parents, who had both worked hard to enable us to attain a comfortable middle-class life in the States, just didn’t have.

It’s a jungle out there.

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472. Under Pressure

In 2000s, 2010s, blogs and blogging, Immigration, Media, Music, Politics, Stories, United States on April 25, 2020 at 10:10 pm

This is the twenty-first entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

President Barack Obama, former President Jimmy Carter, first lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton wave at the end of the Let Freedom Ring ceremony, Washington, Aug. 28, 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

I haven’t spoken yet about the Democratic presidents over the past 50 years. There was President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), an honest and decent man whose presidency was overshadowed by the hostage crisis in Iran. Then after two terms of President Reagan (1981-1989) and one of President Bush, Sr. (1989-1993) we had two terms of President Bill Clinton (1993-2001). He did fulfill his promises to balance the budget and strengthen the U.S. economy, but at the expense of welfare mothers (through his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act) and a further widening of the U.S. and global wealth gap by his acceleration of neo-liberal economic policies such as free trade and deregulation of finance. Clinton also continued harsh sentencing practices like the “three strikes” crime bill that disproportionately targeted black and low-income people. After President Clinton we had two terms of President Bush, Jr. (2001-2009), marked in my memory by war and more war. So when Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, I felt a great sense of relief, and allowed myself to hope for better things to come.

Inauguration Day

Barack Obama was the first President who was younger than I was, seven years younger. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had been born in 1946. Obama, born in 1961, was only 47 when he took the reins, the first child of the 1960s to enter the White House, and of course, the first black President. Like me, he was born of parents from different countries, and had even spent four years living in Asia as a child. Not only that, he had been a college friend of the sister of one of my best friends from school in India, and she and her husband were very active in his election campaign. After Barack Obama had won the election I remember going to a party thrown by friends of mine who had campaigned for him and people were in a state of euphoria that I had never seen before in connection with party politics. There was a large American flag in the room, and people took it in turn to hold the flag as they went round the circle talking about what this election meant to them. As I recall, one even wrapped the flag around him as he spoke, which, as someone who is very leery of nationalism, even at its best, I found disturbing. However, It was the first time that many Americans of my generation were able to identify themselves positively with the United States at the national level.

Given such high expectations of change, Barack Obama’s Presidency was bound to disappoint; from Day One he and his administration were under tremendous pressure. There was no honeymoon period with Congress; Republicans were determined to cross him at every step, and they did. Every single initiative he brought forward, they voted down. If he said Yes, they said No. If he reached out to them with a No–and he did reach out, again and again–they switched to Yes. And this was a President who had run as a centrist, even slightly Right of center, who was committed to reaching across the aisle and healing the national divide.

As the first black President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama were under intense pressure and scrutiny, and remained calm and dignified, even while facing down a steady stream of vicious racist attacks. Conspiracy theories proliferated. There was the claim that he was a secret Muslim because his middle name was Hussein, when it was well known that he and his family were devout Christians who had been attending the same church for nearly twenty years. (In fact, that too, had been controversial, because it was an African American church whose pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had made what were condemned as anti-American and racially charged remarks during his sermons. Pressure on this front caused the Obamas to leave the church in May 2008, because it had become such a liability to his candidacy.)  And who can forget the Birther Movement conspiracy, peddled by Donald Trump, among others, which insisted with no evidence to support the claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States and therefore was an illegitimate President? As late as September 2016, only one-third of Republicans believed that President Obama was U.S.-born.

Every little thing President Obama–that model of moderation and product of interracial love–did or said was seized upon as evident that he was driven by racial hatred. I particularly remember the fallout after an incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the summer of President Obama’s first year in office, when the eminent scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct after the police were called to his house at the report of a break-in, when Professor Gates had just returned from a trip to China and, finding his front door stuck, had enlisted his taxi-driver’s help in forcing it open. Even proving that his house was his own by showing his Harvard ID and Massachusetts driver’s license was not enough, and his outrage led to his spending the night in jail.

When asked what he thought of the arrest at a news conference (on health care) later than week, President said, in part:

“I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that [Gates case]. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.” (McPhee & Just, CNN)

The white backlash sparked by the President’s having said that the police acted “stupidly” was out of all proportion to his reaction. American police unions demanded an apology And such was the self-control that President Obama had to exercise every minute of his eight years in the White House, that, under pressure, he actually retracted the remark.

Walking back his sharpest criticism but stopping just short of a direct apology, the President said:

“In my choice of words, I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically. . .But. . .I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Prof. Gates out of his home and to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Prof. Gates probably overreacted as well.”

As Ta-Nehisi Coates commented in his 2016 story, My President was Black:

Obama’s embrace of white innocence was demonstrably necessary as a matter of political survival. Whenever he attempted to buck this directive, he was disciplined. His mild objection to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009 contributed to his declining favorability numbers among whites—still a majority of voters.

Meanwhile, in self-described White America, in stark contrast to the President’s measured response to racism, a very ugly, unapologetic racial hatred was smoldering, and being kindled and re-kindled. I witnessed an everyday instance of it inadvertently, through the feature on Facebook that allows one to see photos that one’s Facebook friends have “liked.”

One day, browsing through the Facebook photos of a young relative based in the American Midwest, sometime during President Obama’s first term, I came upon some photos that I thought he had taken but it turned out were from an album posted by a friend of his. They were from a child’s birthday party, but started in the trunk of their car on the way back from shopping for the party, where they had bought a piñata. Father and son bundled it into the trunk and then took it out together and hung it up high, for the party guests to swing at. All this was lovingly documented. When the time came, in another moment of father-son bonding,  the father blindfolded the child, perhaps five years old, helped position him with the bat in his hand, and showed him how to swing. The child was a fast learner and the piñata was soon cracked wide open, its content strewn all over as the children rush to pick up their spoils.

It was an effigy of President Obama swinging on the tree. Father and son had brought it gleefully home and strung it up together. The goodies were inside the head, the contents that spilled out were the brains. This was what some parents in the Midwest were teaching their children. For Americans, the figure of a black man strung up on a tree cannot fail to evoke the hideous history of public lynching in America after the end of slavery, between 1977 and 1950, used as a tool of racial terror to assert white supremacy over African Americans. It was sickening to see that some Americans were teaching their children to think this way about their President, even if only in effigy, and to think that this was an acceptable way to express opposition in a democracy. This was not a game; it was a ritual.

One line stands out to me in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, My President was Black.  Speaking of President Obama’s  high-minded refusal to respond to the racists on their own terms, Coates is awed by his skillful negotiation of the impossible position he was put in:  “But through it all, for eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell.”

This is not to say that I personally agreed with all the actions and initiatives of President Obama’s administration; I didn’t. Just to name a few, I didn’t agree with the way he hired foxes to guard the chickens, appointing Tim Geithner, President of New York Federal Reserve Bank, as his Treasury Secretary, and Larry Summers as President of the White House National Economic Council. With these men at the helm, the Obama Administration’s economic bailout bailed out the banks and financial institutions from the subprime mortgage crisis without helping the people who lost their homes to foreclosure. It did pull the economy out of the tailspin it inherited, but at the expense of an even greater gap between rich and poor. It did end the war in Iraq but it reopened U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, killing hundreds of Afghan civilians with a previously unmatched number of drone bombings.

There are many smaller, positive achievements of the Obama years. This article, and this one, enumerate some of them; chief among them for me as an immigrant was his executive order to establish the DACA program, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to protect from deportation a group of aspiring but undocumented young people who had immigrated with their families as children. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, it bought time for these young people to pursue a path to citizenship. Some other achievements: his commutation of sentences of people serving long prison sentences for nonviolent drug possession; his trip to Cuba to begin the process of normalization of relations between the two countries; his passing of the Affordable Care Act, for all its flaws (and there were many); his role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal; his appointment Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The mass shootings that punctuated the Obama Presidency were heartbreaking, as were the failures of his administration to enact significant gun control legislation in the face of the gun lobby—most powerfully, the National Rifle Administration (NRA). President Obama wrote and delivered many powerful speeches during his two terms in office, but of his most moving was his eulogy at the funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the congregation members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where, on June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot 12 people, killing 9 of them in cold blood during a Bible study. His aim, he said in his confession, was to start a race war. It’s not possible for me to start a discussion here about what drove the white supremacists out of the woodwork during this time, but perhaps they realized that America was changing, and that there would soon be no tolerance for their hateful ideology.

Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at The White House

Looking back now, from the ever-deepening depths of horror of the Trump Administration, I think of the moments of joy that I felt during the Obama Administration. First Lady Michelle Obama turned part of the White House lawn into an organic vegetable garden as part of her project to educate children on the value of healthy eating and exercise. Thousands of children from inner-city Washington DC and around the country were welcomed into a very open White House and were able to meet a black First Family up close and personal. President Obama gave the 2014 National Humanities Medal to Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. I awaited the release of his summer reading list every year as he prepared for his short summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Actor and comedian Kal Penn, famous for the Harold and Kumar movies and his role in Mira Nair’s The Namesake, served as President Obama’s associate director of public engagement. Far from slashing support for the arts and humanities as the current administration is doing, the Obamas’ In Performance at the White House concert series screened on PBS were a joy to watch, especially seeing musicians, singers, and poets welcomed into the White House as if it was theirs, the people’s house. Especially touching were the tributes to black artists whom President Obama introduced–as he introduced all the performers–as quintessentially American, as having created the best of what this country has to offer the world. Here’s a link to Love and Happiness: An Obama Celebration, the final White House concert in the BET-sponsored series and here is the President himself in another concert finale with Buddy Guy and Ensemble (including Mick Jagger), singing Sweet Home Chicago.

Grace under pressure.

              President Obama hosting In Performance at the White House (PBS)

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469. Return

In blogs and blogging, Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, singing, Stories, Teaching, travel, United States, Words & phrases on April 22, 2020 at 6:43 pm

This is the eighteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Here in the United States there is a general impression that, given the choice, just about everyone in the world would want to immigrate to this country. But in fact, this is far from the truth. The experience of emigrating from the place of one’s birth is a wrenching one, and migration is never taken lightly, whether or not it is driven by choice. Even when a migrant has settled into their new home, they continue to have home- thoughts (from Robert Browning’s poem), and even a parallel phantom-life, comparable to phantom limbs felt by amputees. What Americans may not realize is how many immigrants eventually return to the countries of their birth by choice, sometimes even resulting in a net loss, with more leaving the U.S. than coming to it.

Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins (Jim Sullivan)

Let’s take Mexican immigrants, for example. It will not have escaped anyone’s attention that Donald Trump and his administration have given the impression that hordes of Mexican immigrants are overrunning the United States, threatening our livelihoods and our daughters. However, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, between 2009 and 2014 there was a net loss of 140,000 Mexicans, as fewer came to the U.S. than returned to Mexico. In its discussion of return migration, the 2015 Handbook of the Economics of International Migration reported that “until recent decades, most Mexican migrants did not settle in the US. Instead, they spent an average of six months to a year in the US per trip and made four to five such trips over a lifetime.” Ironically, they found that the harsher border enforcement in recent years has had “a significant negative effect on migrant outflows” because it “deters return migration, leading to permanent settlement among illegal immigrants from Mexico.” What I take from these studies is that, left to themselves, immigrants would come and go freely, based on need. They need to support their families but their greater desire is to be with their families. So U.S. anxiety about a Mexican “invasion,” is actually having the opposite of the desired effect, because it is no longer possible to move back and forth seasonally, as needed.

Recently I watched an interview with one of my favorite singers, Linda Ronstadt, who is Mexican American and grew up in Arizona, close to the Mexican border. She remembers a childhood of easy, fluid back-and-forthing across the border for shopping, socialization, visits with family and friends. I don’t see why it couldn’t continue to be like this if we in the U.S. would let go of our siege mentality. By the way, here she is talking about the lack of interest in Spanish recordings on the part of the U.S record industry, until she became a superstar and could prevail on them to release her Canciones de Mi Padre. Here she is singing Mexican songs with her father Gilbert Ronstadt and Mexican singing star Lola Beltran and here, a song of my Indian childhood, Perfidia, in Spanish.

Returning to return migration, a 2018 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two scholars at the University of Washington, Jonathan Azose and Adrian Raftery, used a new statistical method to estimate the global flows of migrants found that yielded higher immigration numbers, that also showed, over time, a much higher percentage of migrants than previously thought returned to their countries of origin.

Estimated global migration flows by region from 2010 to 2015. Numbers indicate millions of people (Azose and Raftery, PNAS, 2018)

Azose and Raftery . . . broke down migration rates by emigration, return migration and transit migration, in which migrants move between two countries that are not their countries of birth. In general, from 1990 to 2015, more than 60 percent of migration was emigration. Transit migration never topped 9 percent. Return migration accounted for 26 to 31 percent of migrants, more than twice the rate of other migration estimates. That high rate of return migration added up over time. From 1990 to 2015, approximately 45 percent of migrants ultimately returned to their home countries. (Urton, UWashington News)

Focusing their results on migration between the United States and Mexico from 2010-2015, they found that during that period 2-1 million people migrated from Mexico to the United States, but 1.3 million returned from the U.S. to Mexico.

Americans may similarly assume that the flow of immigrants to the U.S. has historically been a one-way movement. However, Immigrants Who Returned Home: You Can Go Home Again, a short but informative essay by genealogist Donna Przecha shows that the real story has always been more complex, with immigrants moving back and forth, and a substantial number return permanently. She lists eight major reasons for return, whether temporary or permanent, and significantly, notes that women tended to have less reason to return than men did, since they found they enjoyed a greater degree of freedom in the United States. I can attest to the fact that many immigrants or children of immigrants I know maintain dual citizenship if they can, and flow back and forth as often as they can afford to do so.

During the recent era of rapid transnational networks and globalization, it seemed more likely that this two-way flow would only accelerate with time. However, from the current vantage point of the coronavirus lockdown, our families and ancestral homes across the oceans seem very far away indeed, and we wonder when we will be able to make the pilgrimage again.

There is another kind of return that I must mention, though I hesitate to do so, and that is the forced return or deportation of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, something that ICE, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, is prosecuting aggressively, both at the border and in cities and towns across the country. In 2019 alone, according to their own statistics, ICE deported (“removed”) more than 267,000 people. The coronavirus lockdown has not slowed their activities; deportation flights are continuing from detention facilities, risking the spread of coronavirus to countries like Haiti and Guatemala that are ill-equipped to handle an outbreak.

Here are some prominent artists, writers, and activists who have been deported from the United States over the years: Charlie Chaplin, C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, Emma Goldman, Claudia Jones, and Mohamad Mustafa Ali Masfaka; and two well-known figures who fought deportation and won: Dennis Brutus and John Lennon.

To close with some highly recommended reading, here are two novels that address the issue of return or being returned: Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, and The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai.

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467. “Post-9/11”

In 2000s, blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 20, 2020 at 12:33 am

This is the sixteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


Why do I put this tiny but explosive phrase in quotation marks? Because I object to it. I don’t like the way this tragic event has been packaged and sold, and what has been done in its name over the past nearly-nineteen years. I don’t want to be a part of its perpetuation in this form. Why, then do I devote an entry to it? Because if I am documenting my experience as an immigrant to the U.S. over the past 50 years, however impressionistically, I cannot possibly fail to mention the terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on September the 11th, 2001.

First, a few words on the buzzword, “9/11”: I must irritate my students no end every time I query their use of “9/11” in an essay, asking them instead, at least at the first mention of it, to name the event to which this shorthand is gesturing. They probably think I’m being pedantic, that everybody knows what is being referred to, but they don’t ask me why. I tell them anyway.

The bombing of La Moneda on 11 September 1973 by the Chilean Armed Forces

Do you know, I say to them, most of the world would refer to September the 11th as 11/9, not 9/11. When writing a date in numbers people from most countries put the day of the month first, then the month. That’s the first assumption you cannot make about your readers understanding you. More importantly, you cannot assume that the date, however it is written, will mean the same thing to all readers. In Chile, for example, the Eleventh of September, 11/9, refers to a day in 1973 that is branded into the collective memory of all Chileans: the day when the military overthrew the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende and began a reign of terror under the rule of General Agusto Pinochet, that lasted until March 11, 1990—nearly seventeen years. The United States supported Allende’s opponents and was quick to recognize the military junta. It is estimated that under that regime, more than 3,000 people were killed or went missing, tens of thousands were tortured, and 200,000 were driven into exile. The point is, if you want the rest of the world to know what you mean by “9/11”, and more importantly, to care about what you mean by 9/11, then have the humility to recognize that they may already have their own, different associations with that date.

Sadly, people in the rest of the world do know what the U.S. means by “9/11,” and that is because, post-9/11, directly or indirectly, they have suffered the consequences of those terrorist attacks on U.S. soil many times over. The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute has been keeping track of the data, measured in dollars and human lives, for a decade. You can read their extensive findings and watch an introductory video (made in 2016) on their site, but some of their summary data are as follows

    • Over 801,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and several times as many indirectly
    • Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
    • 21 million — the number of war refugees and displaced persons
    • The US federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is over $6.4 trillion dollars
    • The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 80 countries

So, yes, the world knows what Americans mean when we say “9/11”; how it feels about it is another matter.

Post-9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans came under intense scrutiny, and the profiling they underwent made them deeply insecure about their place in this country, creating a state of “homeland insecurity,” as one study’s author Louise Cainkar put it. Their personal stories are heartbreaking. It wasn’t only Arab Americans who were targeted, but also Americans from a host of other countries in West and South Asia, from Turkey to Bangladesh and everywhere in-between, as well as a number of Americans from Central and South America. The early post-9/11 period was a nightmare for them, because overnight, anyone who looked even vaguely as if they might be “one of Them” was suspect, and to many of their fellow-Americans, the enemy.

Post-9/11, businesses run by Arabs, Asians, and Muslims of all ethnicities and national orogins were shunned. My sister told me that about a month after the attacks she went into one of her favorite restaurants to order some quick take-out food. The place was completely empty, despite a huge American flag and “United We Stand” sign on the door, and the proprietor, a Pakistani Muslim, told her that she was his first customer in a month.

In this Aug. 19, 2016 photo, Indian Sikh immigrant Rana Singh Sodhi kneels next to a memorial in Mesa, Ariz., for his murdered brother, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was gunned down at this site four days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by a man who mistook him for a Muslim because of his turban and beard. Sodhi has preached a message of peace and tolerance in hopes of helping others better understand the Sikh religion, the fifth largest in the world with some 25 million adherents including a half-million in the United States. (AP Photo/ Ross D. Franklin)

Hate crimes against anyone with brown skin went through the roof. Sikh men, many of whom wear turbans, were particular targets. According to the Sikh Coalition, there were more than 300 documented hate crimes against Sikhs in the month after 9/11 and on September 15th, a Sikh American, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who worked in a gas station in Arizona was profiled as an Arab Muslim and murdered.

Post-9/11, businesses run by Arabs, Asians, and Muslims of all ethnicities and national origins were shunned. My sister told me that about a month after the attacks she went into one of her favorite restaurants to order some quick take-out food. The place was completely empty, despite a huge American flag and “United We Stand” sign on the door, and the proprietor, a Pakistani Muslim, told her that she was his first customer in a month.

Few Americans are aware that in the immediate post-9/11 period, “thousands of men, mostly of Arab and South Asian origin. . .were rounded up and held in secretive federal custody for weeks and months.” Even their families didn’t know where they were. Some were even “held for additional months even after a court ordered their immediate release” (Penn State Law). One of the casualties of 9/11 was the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In 2002 the INS was abolished and subsumed into the newly-formed cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. The experience of immigration and naturalization has been much more punitive ever since (Penn State Law 4).

Although I was not as vulnerable as many others, I wasn’t entirely exempt. Immediately after 9/11 I was asked to speak at a forum being organized at my college with the title, “Why Do They Hate Us?” The title alone was all wrong. The “they” and the “us” made me wonder which category the no-doubt-well-meaning organizers saw me in. Nonetheless, I did speak, and tried to explain, complicating the question, as any good postcolonial critic would do. A makeshift border patrol checkpoint was set up on the highway of my weekly commute, and I was regularly stopped and asked for identification as I was driving home exhausted at the end of a teaching week. The first time I didn’t have my Alien card with me and was taken out of the car and into a small trailer set up in a highway rest area while they checked my details on multiple databases and gave me a threatening warning.

As a result of the post-9/11 climate—when, as I recall, the then-President of Harvard suggested that it was a time for professors to show loyalty to their country—I decided, at the repeated urging of my husband, that it was time for me to apply for naturalized citizenship. Nearly two decades later, in February 2020, I notice that the current administration has set up a Denaturalization Section under the aegis of the Department of Justice. Homeland insecurity indeed.

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466. Originals and Adaptations

In 1990s, 2000s, blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, Media, postcolonial, Stories, storytelling, United States on April 18, 2020 at 7:16 pm

This is the fifteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Originals and Adaptations.

There was a while in the 1990s and early 2000s when it seemed that every other book was a contemporary rewriting of another book and every film either an adaptation of a book or a remake of an earlier film. Whether or not this was a new phenomenon, it was something everyone seemed to be talking about and, increasingly, a cause for concern. It was as if we were afraid that we’d run out of things to say, and that all we could do was to recycle old stories in new guises.

There was Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, The Hours, each of whose three interwoven subplots engaged differently with Virginia Woolf’s brilliant 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway. One imaginatively follows the struggle of the author herself, another explores the inner emptiness of a 1949 version of Clarissa Dalloway, and a third focuses on a New York woman’s party preparations in the 1990s for a friend dying of AIDS. The Hours was wildly successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and later being made into a 2002 Oscar -winning film, starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. (Incidentally, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite novels of all time and happens to be a favorite of readers in coronavirus quarantine.)

Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001), billed as an “unauthorized parody” of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 blockbuster novel, Gone with the Wind, challenged the powerful myth of a pre-civil-war good life among Southern white people, and got into legal trouble with Mitchell’s estate. Unfortunately, although the novel importantly addressed matters that were regularly swept under the rug (in this case the mixed-race children born of white slaveholders’ unwelcome dalliances with black women), the rewrite was unable to challenge the seductive nostalgia of the self-justifying original.

Aladdin was criticised for its Orientalist stereotypes of the Middle East and Asia (Credit: Alamy)

Disney’s blockbuster, Aladdin (1992), was a heavily Disneyfied cartoon adaptation of that oft-retold Arabian Nights tale. I must confess that I refused to watch it on principle, much as I adore Robin Williams, who did the voiceover for the genie, because of the Orientalist stereotyping in the movie’s representations and song lyrics. Sophia Smith Galer, on Dr. Jack Shaheen’s successful campaign to change some of them, noted “The original lyric in the first verse of the song “Arabian Nights” described Arabia as [a place where] ‘Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.’” This was changed; however, many of the crude stereotypes remained.

A well-known 1990s example of a contemporary movie based on a classic novel is Clueless, the 1995 remake of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, Emma, set in the wealthy city of Beverly Hills, bordering Los Angeles and Hollywood  instead of among the landed gentry in the countryside around London, and spoiled, self-involved valley girl Cher (Alicia Silverstone) playing the Emma character. It’s not clear whether the audience of the movie were spurred to read the novel, or even how many of them made the link between the two. However, viewers of Clueless do make the link to Autumn DeWilde’s Emma (2020), yet another more direct movie adaptation of Austen’s beloved novel (which—another confession–my mother presented to me when I was about ten, but I didn’t actually read until I was well into adulthood).

Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was just one of numerous film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel going all the way back to James Whale’s 1931 sci fi horror film. Branagh’s adaptation, also a horror film, made much of its faithfulness to Shelley’s plot, just as he signaled in the title itself. And this is the point I want to make here regarding the relationship of an adaptation to the original. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein protested too much, anxious to bill itself as closer to the original than many of its predecessors, and indeed it was, at least, as far as the plot went. But the overall effect was merely gruesome. Consequently, I don’t remember much of the film except for the blood and gothic horror of some of the scenes featuring Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth.

In different ways, both the theorists Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard, point to a post-modern nostalgia in late twentieth-century works that signal the “loss of the real,” that is, the lost ability to distinguish between the real and the reality-effect, or simulation. Hence Branagh’s anxiety to point to his film as authentic because of its faithfulness to the original. I don’t know if either Jameson or Baudrillard would have said this, but I wonder if our need to link fictional works to the authors’ actual lives, as in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, or the effort to make an adaptation “relevant” by setting it in the present moment, also bespeak this anxious need for “authenticity”?

Postmodern works are particularly known for the self-reflexive “metacommentary”, that is, their tendency to dramatize and draw attention to what they are trying to do, instead of just doing it. The 2002  Adaptation was the epitome of this genre, a “meta-film” that drew attention to the anxiety of adaptation, with one brother writing an adaptation of a novel while the other brother is working on an original screenplay.

Back in the 1990s I was decidedly old-school. Having been raised amidst books and hardly having seen any film or television until I came to the U.S. as a teenager, I was a snob about literature, the literary, and the value of originals over adaptations. I never ceased to be horrified whenever my students hailed Disney’s Jungle Book as a classic, whereas I winced every time I heard Baloo the bear mispronounced. Had they never heard of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and All the Mowgli Stories? I would ask in scandalized tones, remembering my father lovingly reading them to us at bedtime. But they hadn’t, and their warm fuzzy feelings were routinely reserved for films that made me shudder.

However, the times have changed and so have I. Now I believe that a well-made film adaptation of a novel can actually improve on the original (case in point,  director Mira Nair’s film of The Namesake over Jhumpa Lahiri’s original novel of the same name). I also argue against the very idea of an original. For example, can we ever reach back to an original of the much-travelled, much-translated Arabian Nights, which has always been a compilation of disparate tales, loosely connected by a frame story? Even my beloved Jungle Book—how authentic could it be, springing out of the nostalgic imagination of an Englishman full of contradictions, desperate to recover the beloved India of his childhood but known for his jingoistic nationalism and justification of British colonial rule? Nowadays I suspend my judgement a little and just set out to enjoy the novel or film. Whether it is faithful to a supposedly authentic original is no longer so much of an issue for me; I’m more interested in how and why it speaks to me now, in this moment.

Of course, as an immigrant and a postcolonial critic I’m attentive to whose story a given work tells and from what perspective, and how the different characters are represented. Postcolonial literature is known for challenging dominant elite and colonialist representations and for privileging the voices and stories of the marginalized.

If Baudrillard and other critics were warning us of the Loss of the Real in the late twentieth century, the manufacture and marketing of fake news on social media today has taken it to the nth degree. The press briefing is the reality show, with avid fans following the conversation on Twitter after the show. In this post-truth era, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the powerful are telling the truth, as long as what they say confirms the pre-existing beliefs of their target audience (confirmation bias).

In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is so terrible that it is certainly understandable why one might want to deny or soften it, but unfortunately things will get a lot worse if it is not faced-head-on. Nowadays references to originals and adaptations are returning to earlier outbreaks and pandemics, such as the yellow fever outbreaks in Louisiana that kept recurring in the mid-19th Century; or the global flu pandemic in 1918, that followed hard upon the (First) World War and killed at least 50 million people worldwide; or, much closer to the present, how some countries have responded more effectively than others. Returning to these old stories is valuable if it teaches us how to avoid the mistakes of the past. Whether or not COVID-19 is like other coronaviruses or entirely different from them is for the scientists to determine. It doesn’t matter much whether it’s an original or an adaptation; what matters is how we respond to the crisis, how we learn from the experience, and how we protect the most vulnerable among us.

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465. New England and New Mexico

In blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, places, Stories, United States on April 18, 2020 at 6:42 am

This is the fourteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

New England and New Mexico.

In the fifty years since my family moved to the United States, I have lived in only two regions of the country, New England in the Northeast (mostly in Massachusetts, but also, for a time, in New Hampshire and Vermont) and, for a little short of a year, New Mexico in the Southwest. In 1620 a British royal charter established the Plymouth Council for New England allowing British settlers “to colonize and govern the region” for Britain. New Mexico–Nuévo Mexico–was similarly claimed by and for Spain in 1610. It became part of Mexico in 1821 after Mexico won its independence from Spain, but most of it was acquired by the U.S. in 1848, as a result of the Mexican War, and the rest in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase.

My stay in New Mexico, however, made it very clear to me that this whole continent is Indian Country. It was colonized and ravaged by European settlers, but not without a fight. Although schoolchildren are taught that Native American culture is dead, just look around, it is everywhere, even in the Northeast, where the population of indigenous people is small. Native American tribes in Massachusetts were the Mahicans, Massachusett, Nauset, Nipmuc, Pannacook, Pocomtuc, and Wampanoag. The Census of 2010 records 37,000 Native Americans still living in the state. The people are still here and they will always be here.

Just look at the place names. In Massachusetts alone, for every Boston or Plymouth there is a Mattapan or Mashpee; Natick, Nahant, Nantasket Beach; Scituate, Seekonk, and Swampscott.  So many mountains, rivers, lakes, islands: Mounts Greylock, Wachusett, and Watatic; the Assabet, Connecticut, and Merrimack Rivers; Lakes Cochituate, Quinsigamond, and Monomonac; Chappaquiddick and Nantucket Islands.

 United American Indians of New England (UAINE)

It’s not only geography that carries the memory and the spirit of Native American persistence, but history, the history of resistance, also persists. On my first Thanksgiving in the United States I attended what turned out to be the first Native American Day of Mourning, held in 1970 in Plymouth, Massachusetts (see TMA #84, Feasting or Fasting?). It has been held every year since, with November 28, 2019 marking the 50th anniversary. The biggest rock in Winchendon, where we lived for seven years, was King Philip’s Rock, said to be a place where Metacomet, the Wampanoag Chief (also known as King Philip), once held a meeting during King Philip’s war, or the First Indian War (1675-1678). The struggle continues, as the Trump Administration, in its latest land grab, has just announced the revocation of reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.

New Mexico was saturated with Mexican and Native American cultures. Much of the Mexican American–Chicano/Chicana–culture is itself indigenous. In New Mexico, 48% of the population is Hispanic and nearly 10% Native American, from twenty-three tribes of the Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo. Anglos, as English-speaking people of European origin were called (a descriptive term for non-Hispanics, not an insult), were in the minority; what a difference that made! As an immigrant I felt so much more at ease in New Mexico. The state constitution proclaims New Mexico as a bilingual state, with one out of three families speaking Spanish at home. I found that multilingual atmosphere congenial as well, as people spoke in either language or both, without any sense of inadequacy or the shame bilingual children are made to feel in an English-only climate.

Speaking of shame, the Massachusetts state flag bears the image of a Native man with a star above his right hand and an arm wielding a sword over his head—symbols of dominance, both. The name of the tribe is retained, but the relationship is quite clear. There have been initiatives to change the image, so far unsuccessful. The New Mexico state flag bears the symbol of the Zia, a sacred sun symbol, and was designed to highlight both the state’s Native American and Hispanic roots.

Although I lived in New Mexico a little short of a year, it has exerted a lasting influence on me, and on my view of America. It is aptly named Land of Enchantment.

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464. Middle Age

In 1990s, Aging, Family, Immigration, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender on April 16, 2020 at 10:26 pm

This is the thirteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Middle Age.

In the late 1990s I officially entered middle age, if the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary and the United States Census are to be accepted. Since they both designate middle age as the years from about age 45 to 65, I am just moving out of that middle period now, and entering a whole new stage of life. But can I cast my mind back to those years in which I was still approaching it? To be honest, it is all a bit of a blur.

During the decade of the 1990s our son moved from starting kindergarten to finishing his first year of high school, with the dizzying array of activities that fill those years. How busy we keep our children! In parallel, I completed my doctoral work and started my first fulltime faculty position, a 215-mile roundtrip commute north of us. Rather than relocate our nuclear family, which was settled happily in a congenial community with our parents on both sides having recently retired nearby, I opted to drive up on Tuesday mornings, rent a room in a house for two nights a week, and return home on Thursday evenings. I suppose it worked, more or less, but it was exhausting, and the almost-continuous shuttling made it hard to simply rest in any one place for long. Sometimes I wonder what it was all for. Perhaps that’s the nature of the striving that defines so much of our working lives. At the time it seems essential; but in retrospect, not so much.

Despite how officialdom defines age groups, they also vary depending on place, education, and social class. In the mid-1970s, when I was looking into midwifery, one of the paths I considered for a time after college, the British midwifery manual labeled a thirty-year-old first-time mother an “elderly primipara.” (Now, by the way, that age has been scaled up to thirty-five.). In  the 1980s when we moved to a farm in a rural community I was an ancient first-time mother at thirty. There were plenty of grandmothers not much older than I was. But when in 1990 we moved to the university town where we still live, I was enviably young with a kindergartner at 35, since so many women had postponed having children until they were established in their professional careers.

The 1978 portrait of the Brown sisters (© 2014   Nicholas Nixon)

There’s another interesting thing about the relativity of age: one’s perception of one’s own age in relation to the rest of the population. In my twenties and early thirties, I felt that I was younger than most other people round me. Whether or not that was indeed the case, I was caught up in my youthful concerns and nobody else really mattered. In my later thirties and forties, I still felt on the young side, but noticed that there were about as many people younger than me as there were older than me. But increasingly, entering my fifties and on up into my sixties, I’ve become acutely aware that I am either the oldest person in the room or alternatively, one among many grey-haired or bald people in my age group, with nary a young face to be seen.

  The 1988 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

How did my perceptions square with actual population demographics? In 1980, when I was 25, the median age of the U.S. population was 30, so I was younger than many others, but comparatively speaking not as young as I had thought. Ten years later, in 1990, when I was 35, the median age was 32.9, so I was just about in the middle; and by 2000, when,at 45, I was entering middle age, the median age of the U.S. population was 35.3, making me fully ten years older than the average American. I still didn’t feel my age.

The 1999 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

All through the 1990s I had the metabolism of my youth. I was pretty much the same weight as I had been in high school, and I still could and did eat anything, and as much of it as I liked without the scales moving in the slightest. My hair was getting greyer, but I was dyeing it at home with an peroxide-free German product that looked very natural, so nobody noticed but me. I seemed to have boundless energy, too, although the long commutes were silently taking  their toll on my system.

It turns out that I was a kind of Dorian Gray through most of my middle age, in that while until age 55 I was regularly considered the person in our group of friends who had aged the least, I was living as if there was no tomorrow in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. The hidden painting was the one that was aging, not me. But sometime in my early 60s it all caught up with me at once, the middle-aged spread, wrinkles, thinning hair, “senior moments,” the inability to concentrate after a certain hour in the evening. Suddenly, it seemed, far from looking young for my age, I looked considerably older than my agemates who had been steadily taking care of themselves. But perhaps that too is all a matter of self-perception.

Something else happened to me as I approached middle age that was less about self-perception than about how one is perceived by others. Not just anyone, though; I’m talking about women in particular. At a certain age, women just disappear; once they are no longer perceived as sexual beings, they are no longer noticed at all. I had read of this phenomenon of middle-aged women’s invisibility and my mother had been telling me about it for years. She would storm in, furious at having been passed over while waiting for service in a store in favor of a much younger woman. “It was as if I wasn’t even there,” she would fume. “I complained, but then they looked as me as if I was crazy and answered in patronizing tones as if I were a child.” I would sympathize with her but had no idea of what it was really like until it started happening to me. With regularity.

Still, despite the messages from society, I persisted in feeling younger than I was. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, found that the older people get, they younger they feel; until they’re about 30 they feel their actual age, but by age 45 they feel ten years younger.

What has advancing middle age meant to me as an immigrant? Having come to the United States when there were very few immigrants here from anywhere except Europe, I feel like a living historical archive, that I have a lot to share with those who have arrived more recently. I also feel less lonely. As a 1.5-generation immigrant (known as such because they bring with them or maintain characteristics from their home country, meanwhile engaging in assimilation and socialization with their new country), I feel that I can understand both first-generation immigrants and their American-born children. And as I move into and beyond middle age, I delight in the fact that the demographics of the American population are starting to skew in favor of immigrants and people of color. While I was in a tiny minority when I first arrived in this country in 1970, when immigrants made up only 5 percent of the population, in 2020 it has risen to nearly 15 percent; if you additionally count the American-born children of immigrant parents, we are looking at fully 28 percent of the population.


Going back to that 2009 Pew Research Center survey about growing old in America, it found that people aged 75 and older had a count-my-blessings attitude when asked to look back over the full arc of their lives and measure it against their expectations. Younger people, by contrast, were much less forgiving of themselves. I am learning to replace judgement with acceptance. My invisibility—a magic cloak for older women. My steel-grey hair—I embrace it. As for my middle-aged spread, I’ve always been scarecrow-thin. Now I’m what Indians of an earlier generation would have called “healthy”, before Euro-American norms reshaped their standards of beauty.

Looking back, I feel protective toward the forty-year-old me, approaching middle age. I want to give her a gold star for effort, but also give her permission to slow down, breathe, and enjoy life a little more.

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463. Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment

In Books, Britain, Family, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, reading, reflections, Stories, United States, writing on April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

This is the twelfth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment.


Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond (Wikimedia Commons)

For migrants, longing comes with the territory. Many migrants—especially women—did not choose to leave a place they loved, where they themselves were known and loved, and where many of their nearest and dearest still live; it is only natural, then, that they would yearn for home and for those they left behind. At the same time, they must love and protect those who migrated with them and who may be particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Finally, they have a duty to themselves, to allow themselves to live in the present, to open themselves to the possibility of love flowering anew.

In the 1990s, after not having traveled much in the 1980s, I took three or four short trips to England, one for an NEH summer seminar that allowed me to stay in London for the better part of a summer with Andrew and Nikhil joining me for a month, and one long trip to India, where Andrew, Nikhil (then 8 years old) and I stayed with family for nearly six months while I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation. These visits allowed me to renew my connections with the beloved people and places of my own childhood and of my family, which, in an important sense, helped me maintain my equilibrium back in the United States. By the mid-1990s I had lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Was it still not home for me, and if not, was I living too much in the past?

                             Early-morning view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

So many expressions of love are outpourings of longing. Langian, the old English word for ‘long’, means to grow long, prolong, and also to ‘dwell in thought’. It is also related to the German langen, ‘reach, extend.’ Immigrants in particular, unless they choose to burn their bridges completely, to cut themselves off surgically from their past lives, are particularly susceptible to this complex and persistent emotion. But if you think about it, many if not most of the most moving poems and songs of love are in fact songs of longing or loss. Kālidās’s Meghadūta, or Cloud-Messenger, comes to mind, a lyric poem written in the 4th-5th century CE in which a yaksha (nature-spirit) in exile for a year asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his wife. In song, think of The Water is Wide, Loch Lomond or Danny Boy. In fact, songs that celebrate love fulfilled are few and far between. The Beatles’ And I Love Her is a beautiful expression of love realized in the present. John Prine’s The Glory of True Love springs to mind, too, mostly because it is so uncharacteristic of the rest of his love songs.

Hampstead Heath, North London

My mother never stopped longing for her family and home, even though she lived away from them for nearly 65 years. In her late seventies, just as, unbeknownst to us, Alzheimer’s Disease was beginning to attack her mind, Mum joined a group called The Power of Now, after the book by Eckhart Tolle. In it she struggled with the idea of living in the Now and ceasing to dwell in and on the past. She argued with the group and with herself, asking how she could and why she should let go of what was, in her view, the very best of herself. Sadly, the fog of Alzheimer’s descended soon afterwards, progressively robbing her of her precious memories. However, even when she could hardly talk, evidence of her continued love for her family in England would still surface from time to time, and her remaining sister and brother in turn continued to express their love for her, calling to talk to her on the phone every week, even when she could no longer reply.

I have just started participating  remotely, via Zoom, in a daily mindfulness meditation session with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). As he says, we only are alive in this one moment, now”, and mindfulness practice trains us to make our default refuge our awareness in and of the now. Like most people’s, my mind has the habit of dwelling everywhere but here, and I am reaching gratefully for this gift of being fully present in the moment as one of the unexpected silver linings of this terrible pandemic. (This does not mean, though, that we censor or condemn our mind when it we find it reaching across time and space; just that we observe it, and bring it back here, to this breath.)

I want to close this reflection with a quote from the late, great Toni Morrison’s perfect novel, Beloved, which I have just finished teaching. In the penultimate chapter, Paul D, who came back into the protagonist Sethe’s life after an absence of two decades, left again, and now re-returns to find her in mourning for the lost ghost of her dead daughter. He attempts to comfort her, but Sethe is disconsolate, saying, “She was my best thing.” Gently, tenderly, and without any judgement, Paul D responds.

     “Sethe,” he says. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

     He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.

     “Me? Me?”

As immigrants, as human beings, we owe it to those we love who are here with us now, to give ourselves to them in the present. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves to live fully in the here and now. We are, each of us, our own best thing.

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