Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

506. The Loudest Voice

In Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, people, reflections, singing, Stories, women & gender on December 14, 2021 at 3:19 am

After all these years, only now am I listening to this luminous story by the late Grace Paley. In 1998 she read it out aloud on Vermont Public Radio for the holidays, and there it still lives, her voice issuing forth at the press of a button and conjuring up a time, a place, and a child’s innate self-confidence. She was 76 when she read the story, one she had written 40 years before, and her voice was still clear and well-modulated. Oh the sly humor! Chosen for her clear, strong voice, the very voice that parents, teachers, and neighbors are always admonishing her for, the Jewish girl in a Jewish immigrant community attending a Christian school delights in narrating the school’s Christmas pageant. She has no feeling of being an outsider. She simply filters the entire story through her own consciousness, whence it issues utterly–and wonderfully–transformed. And her voice, the loudest voice, comes through with flying colors.

I met Grace Paley several times during the 1990s. She certainly didn’t need to raise her voice to command respect and perhaps she never had. At our first meeting I had no idea who she was. I had gone to a reception for the campus visit of the late Edward Said, and didn’t know anyone there. An elderly couple were in the room and so I struck up a conversation with the husband, who was standing a little apart from the others and wearing faded denim jeans like any old Vermonter straight out of the back woods. His wife wore a bandanna around her messy hair like a Russian grandmother. When I told him I was in the English department he said mildly, “my wife does creative writing, too.” I was curious about this wife. I introduced myself to her as well and listened to her for a while, as she talked about this and that. It must have been when I heard her casually refer to her conversations with women during a trip to Vietnam that I suddenly had a prickling feeling at the back of my neck and asked her whom I was addressing. “Grace Paley,” she replied matter-of-factly, and I wondered why I hadn’t realized this from the start. Her voice was not loud at all, but it was by no means self-effacing either.

The Lamb, Songs of Innocence and Experience

I had a loud voice as a girl, like my father before me. My parents, bless them, never asked me to tone it down or hush it up. My classmates teased me for it but didn’t ask me to change. My teachers did, though, as evidenced by my earliest report cards. By age 8 I already had a reputation to live up to; it never occurred to me that it was something I might have to live down someday. Passing through England on the way back to India at age 9, I was chosen to recite a poem by William Blake—The Lamb, I think it was—in school assembly. It never crossed my mind for one moment that I might have been chosen as a token “Other”; in fact, I was told the reason was that I was the only child in my class “without an accent.” Ironically, this girl who had grown up outside of England spoke unselfconscious Standard English, or R.P. (Received Pronunciation), as it is called nowadays: the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England. A year or two later, my father’s students organized a show in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to raise money for people affected by the drought in Bihar and asked me to be the emcee. What fun it was! I was the only child up on the stage, introducing all the university students’ performances. I was fearless at that age.

Two things happened to my voice as time went on. As a university undergraduate, where I felt like a fish out of water, I lost it for a time. One bad experience of being verbally attacked after having made what I thought was a perfectly innocent remark in class silenced me for years; not at home or among friends, but in the rarefied atmosphere of the classroom. Throughout my twenties I still felt perfectly at ease with public speaking in the outside world, though. And returning for graduate study in my thirties, my girlhood confidence returned and stood me in good stead. I knew who I was and what I wanted to say, and had no hesitation in saying it.

Then came the life of a junior professor, when one is made to learn one’s place. Those years didn’t do any favors to my voice. A decades-long habit of speaking unnecessarily loudly without breathing or hydrating properly made me develop a throat nodule. I had to learn to moderate and modulate my voice in ways that were utterly new to me. It was interesting that the voice class I attended was full of professors, many of them senior faculty, all seeking to recover their authentic voices after years of suppressing, silencing, second-guessing themselves. They–we–had to reach deep inside and learn to trust ourselves again. With these classes and vocal therapy at the UMass Center for Language, Speech, and Hearing, my throat nodule receded, enabling me to lecture and to sing again, but not to speak extemporaneously with the same innocent self-confidence as young Shirley Abramowitz, narrator of the Christmas pageant.

As noted earlier, I have my dear father to thank for my loud voice, my father whose normal speaking voice was a gentle bellow. Saying, “no need to shout” would infuriate him. He’d shout louder: “I’m not shouting; this is my normal voice!” There were only two options when faced with the full-throated power of Dad’s voice: either to lower one’s own, or to raise him one. For better or worse, I must have done the latter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now I am the one whom people ask to moderate my foghorn. Add to that my increasing deafness, which makes me unaware of the volume at which I’m speaking, and the need to teach wearing a mask, which requires me to project, enunciate, and bellow. After that successful voice therapy 20 years ago, my throat nodule appears to have returned with a vengeance.

Bill Barnacle bellowing in frustration at Henderson Hedgehog, Horticulturer (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding)

What prompted this reflection was listening to Boston Public Radio last week on my way home from work. Margery Eagan and Jim Braude’s daily news program is an enjoyable mix of serious news and analysis, with comic banter and a call-in component that invites the public to join the fun. On this particular day the subject was men’s loud voices. Apparently men are greater COVID-19 spreaders than women because their loud voices spray more virus farther and wider. Then followed some light-hearted banter with a sharp edge to it, with Margery accusing Jim and men in general of using their loud voices to bully others into submission and Jim, quite uncharacteristically, acknowledging this tendency in himself with some shame. They were inviting public comment when, driving into the reception-free flood-zone of the North Quabbin region, I lost the signal. But I continued to think on the subject, and wondered about how much I had silenced the people around me with my loud voice. How much was the negative perception of loudness gendered? If I were a man, would my unnecessarily loud voice be considered appropriately assertive? But why did I feel the need to assert my opinions, already strong, so forcefully? (In graduate school, much to my eternal shame I had a verbal run-in with a famous writer whom I revered and who shall remain unnamed. He used great restraint in the end-of-semester comment he put on my grade: “Inclined to hold strong opinions.”) These were questions to which the answers only generated more questions.

I have always loved singing and taken pride in bursting into song on the slightest pretext. But I have damaged my voice by singing too loud. A singing voice ought not to be harsh and raspy like a portable loudspeaker; it can be soft and sweet. It is much harder to sing high notes softly than to belt them out. I had always prided myself on my ability to hit the high notes–even singing the descant when there was one. Now my voice was cracking less than an octave above middle C. I would have to learn to harmonize and sing the alto part rather than the tune which I had always sung. My whole identity was going down the tubes. What was I to do?

Instead of answering that question, I listened to the 76-year-old Grace Paley reading “The Loudest Voice.” With a broad tolerance and affectionate humor she affirmed that young girl’s confidence. And she didn’t have to shout to blow me away.

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503. Five Years Out

In Aging, Family, Immigration, India, parenting, Stories on September 17, 2021 at 3:57 pm

It has been five years since my father died. There is so much that I have yet to understand and to process about this remarkable and complex man, and I have to accept that there is so much that I will never and can never know about him. In the immediate aftermath I wasn’t able to sit with my thoughts and feelings, mostly because my mother was still with us and with Dad gone she needed my attention all the more. We had the memorial only 10 days later, and that time is a blur. The teaching year had just begun and for some reason I took no bereavement leave, simply carried on. In fact, I conducted my evening class on modern Indian literature the very next day, and only told the students at the end of the session, dedicating the rest of the seminar to him. Six months later my father-in-law passed away and eighteen months later my mother breathed her last. A year after that my sister and I sold our parents’ house. After Mum’s death, Andrew and I moved to a new house, his siblings sold their parents’ house and, just last week, we finally sold our old one. All that time is another blur. Now, five years on, there are still a few loose ends to tie up with our parents’ estate taxes, which I dearly hope will be finally done with this year. But as the late Agha Shahid Ali put it, Rooms are Never Finished. Somewhere, somewhere, from in amongst the detritus of life, from under the endless burden of paperwork, one has to make a start.

Dad would start working on his taxes in January, dedicating a chunk of time to the task every day that Mum was out at her day program. He didn’t enjoy the process and wasn’t particularly good with numbers and figures, but knew it had to be done and had a horror of lateness. He would painstakingly copy out long columns of figures in his distinctive architect’s hand, adding them up and checking them twice on a pocket calculator before passing everything on to the tax accountant. The accountant told me after his death that even in his 90s Dad was by far the best prepared of any of her clients, that the material he sent her was complete and meticulously documented.

Dad was stoic about pain and loss. He didn’t make a habit of talking about his health problems, even when he was struggling to draw every next breath. Only Mum knew when he had a toothache or something heavy on his mind, because flashes of bad temper betrayed it. To me he only remarked, just once, “growing old is not for sissies.” He didn’t dwell on the loved ones he had lost or left behind, either, but that didn’t mean he loved them any less. Every year he sat down to write Christmas and New Year’s greetings cards to every single member of his family in India and the United States, checking with me to make sure of the addresses for those who had moved and for the names of all the grandchildren whom he had never met. Only the occasional comments betrayed his true feelings, as when he would ask from time to time, in some exasperation, why he never heard back from them, why only his elder sister Kumud faithfully kept him abreast of family news.

One November, the arrival of a large package via courier from Mumbai, sent from his niece Meena and grand-niece Sucheta, was nothing short of miraculous for him. We opened it to find it full of traditional Diwali sweetmeats and savory snacks, all perfectly fresh and utterly delicious. For days Dad fully savored every single one, between sips of tea and reminiscences. That one delivery brought him so much joy that it revealed the depth of his unexpressed feelings.

                                   Diwali treats

He hated phone calls. This was understandable for someone coming from an era in which long-distance phone calls were rare, wildly expensive, hard to hear through the static, and likely to bring bad news (See TMA #181, The Silver Hairpin). But once most of our relatives had excellent phone service in their homes and could direct-dial their international calls, once I had a calling code that allowed me to make calls to India for pennies a minute, I felt that Dad had no excuse not to phone his family from time to time. One day, while trying to talk him into calling his beloved younger sister, I asked him in some frustration whether he missed them all. That was hurtful and unnecessary, I realize now. But he stopped everything and tried to find the words to explain. “Of course I miss them,” he said. “But I have made my life outside India. If I allowed myself to miss them too much I would be miserable all the time.”

Dad was not by nature a man to wallow in misery. He believed in getting on with life and in the joy of living, taking great pleasure in the natural beauty around him, in his art, in reading, and in the visits of friends and family. He was an optimist by nature, and this habit of optimism persisted, even when he was very ill. In his last decade, visits to the emergency room by ambulance were almost an annual affair, until the very last year, when he had four hospitalizations. But each time, upon admittance, when the ER doctor came in and asked him how he was, the answer was, “Fine.” It fell to me to contradict him and explain the seriousness of his condition and the nature of the emergency. During the last visit, though, when he was breathing with great difficulty, one of the myriad healthcare workers asked him, in that infuriatingly cheerful way, how he was feeling. In the exasperated tone that those who love him know so well he snapped back at her, “How do you think I’m feeling?”

I miss you, Dad. I pray that I continue to learn from you. I promise to screw up my courage to call your dear sister, my dear Mandatya—for I, too, fear phone calls. I promise to send New Year’s greeting cards to our family in India this year, all the more important while it is still not possible to simply hop on a plane. And I promise to do my best not only to take care of the business of life (to finish those damned taxes) but also to engage more fully in the joy of living.

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492. Notting Hill Bedsitter, 1950s

In Britain, Family, history, Immigration, Music, Stories, Words & phrases on February 13, 2021 at 10:30 pm

Notting Hill Gate, 1956 (Dave Walker, The Library Time Machine)

One day in the last year or so of his life, Dad told me about digs he’d shared in Notting Hill while he was living in London. I was surprised, because although Notting Hill, a district of West London, was known for its bedsitters, I hadn’t realized until then that Dad had ever lived there. This would have been before the Notting Hill riots of 1958 and well before the start of the Notting Hill Carnivalsound stages, masquerades, revelry—held on the streets defiantly, joyfully, triumphantly, every year since 1966, on August bank holiday weekend.

Notting Hill Carnival: Our History (nhcarnival.org/nhcs)

I knew that the district had been home to many West Indian immigrants after the War, but was not aware that Irish, Asian Indians, and Africans new to England had also found lodgings there. As for my father, I had thought that when he was in England as a young man he had always lived in North London, in and around Belsize Park, near Hampstead, the favorite haunt of my mother and her siblings, and Kentish Town, where Mum was born and lived until she and Dad got married.   

Anyway, Dad’s Notting Hill flatmate was a nice enough fellow, but not someone Dad knew well, not a personal friend and neither a fellow-architect nor a fellow-Indian. He was, however, a heavy drinker. Apparently, no sooner had he finished off one bottle of booze than he would open another, and the empties were all stacked along the walls of the bachelor pad.

One day, Dad invited a friend from work over. As soon as his workmate stepped into the flat, his eyes fell on the enormous pile of empty liquor bottles. He couldn’t help but burst out, in utter astonishment,

“Cor blimey, stone the crows!”

Since Mum was a Londoner, of course I knew the origin of cor blimey, but I had to look up stone the crows. I’m sorry for the eponymous crows, but I think he was just terribly surprised. Sixty years later, and Dad had never forgotten his words. 

I should have asked Dad more about his life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. He was making history, a history which I now study with a more than scholarly passion.

                                     Stone the Crows (phrases.org.uk)

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486. Fingerprinted and Found Wanting

In 2000s, Aging, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States, Work on November 2, 2020 at 2:04 am

immigration fingerprinting (Chris Schneider)

After decades of living in the United States as a Permanent Resident Alien, I began the process of applying for citizenship. I suppose I had waited a long time to take the plunge, so perhaps it was only what I deserved to be kept waiting in turn–interminably, it seemed. I filled out and submitted my application for naturalization back in July 2007, in plenty of time to be able to vote in the 2008 presidential election, or so I thought. But nothing happened for a very long time, and all in all the process took nearly two years. My citizenship test and interview were not scheduled until August, 2008, and it was not until March 2009, when the election had come and long gone and the new president had already been inaugurated, that I finally attended my own inauguration into U.S. citizenship, the mass swearing-in ceremony. But the first sign that the wheels of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) were starting to creak into action had come in mid-December 2007, when I received a letter informing me of my appointment to be fingerprinted.

Both the citizenship interview and the swearing-in took place in Boston, but the fingerprinting operation was in Hartford, Connecticut—a little bit closer to home but, as it turned out, much more alienating. It took place in a crowded, dingy office where I was given the distinct feeling that we were already considered guilty until we could somehow prove otherwise. The waiting area was the most unwelcoming place, rather like an old Greyhound Bus station in the sleaziest part of town. All the applicants—whether pregnant, elderly, or infirm it made no difference—were treated with casual disregard if not outright hostility. Although I knew I was a privileged immigrant and had had an easy time in comparison to many others, in that office I got just a taste of what it felt like to be just one of many miserable supplicants abjectly seeking entry into the most powerful country on earth.

At last my name was called. The man rolling and squishing my inked fingers made no effort to be personable, to soften the humiliating ordeal, and as he worked his irritation seemed to increase. Finally he remarked that my fingerprints were very worn, and managed to make it sound like an act of defiance on my part, or if not, then some kind of character defect. I had been tried and found wanting. Was he suggesting that I had deliberately worn down my prints so as to pervert the course of justice? Or simply saying that I was an inferior specimen? I did my best to disregard him, but again, was given the distinct impression that I was a dirty foreigner who didn’t deserve the honor I had had the presumption to seek.

Apparently bricklayers, who handle rough materials, and secretaries, who handle lots of paper, are the most susceptible to the wearing-down of their fingerprints. In my early 50s by then, I had done both–heavy manual work at the greenhouse and the farm and plenty of paper-handling at the press, not to mention mountains of washing besides. But I was not ashamed of my washerwoman’s hands, evidence of hard work (and of forgetting to wear rubber gloves when I did the dishes). So yes, my fingers were work-worn; what did they want to make of it?

My prints may now be part of a massive digital fingerprint file going right back to the 1990s. In 2018 the USCIS announced a plan to digitize their entire archive of fingerprints taken from applicants for naturalization, in a move to be able to deport people retroactively, even after they have already become U.S. citizens. Just knowing this keeps you on edge which is, no doubt, the intention. Don’t get too settled! You’re still an outsider.

Here are a couple of songs for all the hard-working immigrants out there—Hoyt Axton’s Boney Fingers and the Rolling Stones’ Salt of the Earth. Hold your heads high. Make no mistake, no matter what Homeland Security and the Border Patrol might say, America needs you; it is not just you who should have to prove yourself worthy, but this country that should have to earn your respect.

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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)

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

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

Cooperation
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.

Farming
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?

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

Immigrants
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.

Post-9/11”
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.

Quagmire
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.

Return
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.

T_*_*_*_*
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.

Violence
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.

Zoom
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 violent over 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; 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 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.

“Post-9/11”

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.

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.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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