To Julia, a missive because I love you and you asked
While I think most of the things that can be said about the outcome of the 2016 US election have been said well by others, my best friend said she would like to hear my thoughts and I was feeling a little bit prosey this morning and so here you are.
I was gutted yesterday when I sort of casually said that now the US was just a normal crappy country with a normal crappy government and you replied that this was particularly hard for you to accept because, as an immigrant, you had to believe that this was a special place, a place worth fleeing to. You had embraced that idea of the US being a bit of a magical experiment because your family had left behind their country and its oppression to come here. I have a recurring sadness for you and everyone else who comes from a more recent immigrant family.
Over the past week I have been sad. Very very sad. But the sadness I feel is for the people I love because I see you grieving for an America you thought they lived in, a process I have been going through for many years now, and at an accelerated pace in the past 2 years of law school.
I’ve shared these moments with you before, but I will share them again to give a sort of fullness to the picture of my own grief over the past 10 years. You know I would never advocate any of my own thoughts as indicative of great truths, because I have so much to learn, but these are my thoughts and observations. And, of course, underlying all of this is my Christianity and upbringing. Our ultimate virtue is to love others as God has loved us, and we believe that God literally sacrificed his son for us, so you know…we believe we should go so far as to actually die for one another. No pressure.
You know that when I went to India on that medical mission trip we were walking through the streets of Guwahati and there were women selling their naked children on the street, offering them to me as the local pastor said to just ignore them. I don’t blame him—he had clearly grieved human horror before I had—and we were on a schedule. And you know that experience was basically like a bomb going off in my head. Because, this was in public. These women were living out of the pickings of local trash piles. But this was…in a city of a million people. People were driving by, people were buying things from street vendors. And in my head, I was like, shouldn’t everything just stop? How can people drive cars and live in houses and throw dinner parties when other people are selling their children—for whatever horror-- because otherwise they would die? And there was no CPS coming. No police. No protectors. It was just kind of how that city had shaken out. And I do think that a strong central system is the only way we can collectively take care of each other in an egalitarian way. (perhaps I lack imagination.)
So I think you know I point to that as the time when I became disillusioned about human selfishness and the failure of the world. How does everything not stop in the face of this? How do we not sacrifice an additional room on our house and newer model of car or expensive cheese (I want my La Tur!) to make this a decision no one ever has to make? (This, by the way is why I am so dismissive when people say that they want to hang on to their tax dollars because they can’t stand government waste. When did our dollars become so precious that we couldn’t bear to handle some inefficiency if it meant ensuring that, say, people aren’t selling their children? Die for each other? We won’t even let the government inefficiently spend a percentage of our money on each other.)
I could have blamed India. But I also blamed the whole world. Ever since then, whenever I’m anywhere—walking in the financial district of Manhattan, driving in a suburb where houses have HOAs that limit what kind of colors you can paint the houses, wending my way on a beautifully maintained road, what I see is failure. Where other people see prosperity, I see total failure. Because, while those particular women are probably dead, there are still women in the streets of Guwahati selling their children.
And you know a year later I moved from Taiwan back to the US to figure out what I was going to do with my life. And I had debt, I paid off my bills with a good job in software, then went and took a pay cut to work in low-income housing. And that was when I had to acknowledge that the global failure I was so grieved about was also a failure in my own country. You know, I think about my experience looking around at the homeless people in predominantly white Indianapolis and shuddering because everyone in the room was black. And it was so obvious that we weren’t just failing people, we were racistly failing people. And you know growing up my best friends were all sorts of skin colors and no one ever made it a big deal and how it’s so much harder to accept injustice when you can imagine beloved faces in the place of the oppressed (and then actually realize your beloved people have been discriminated against in ways you never really knew). And of course so many people in the US can’t actually imagine beloved faces in the place of the oppressed because our racist housing, education, and finance policies have segregated us so that we don’t have to look at each other and can categorize each other into easily dismissable abstraction.
And then I decided to go to law school. I wanted to be able to try to have an influence on the system rather than working within the low-income housing system. And this is when my illusions about America absolutely and finally shattered. If you do your pro-bono assignments right, you get a glimpse into how the whole system is made. You get to hear the deliberations at the city counsel meetings, read the legislative discussion, read the judges’ decisions…and everything was much worse, greedier, more racist, more sexist, more freakishly afraid of immigrants, and colder than I had imagined. And I had imagined pretty vividly.
I think my time in law school might best be characterized by a persistent nausea. I was excited to go to law school. You all were excited for me. Well, or sort of skeptical and amazed that an old person would just abandon her career and go to school, but still all very encouraging and hopeful. But as I was learning and volunteering I was seeing this horror. Like, we trafficked and enslaved a group of people, built a vast economy off of their exploited labor, and then “freed” them into a world we controlled by denying them rights and overpenalizing them. And then we made them fight tooth and nail to try to get human rights. *We made our human trafficking victims fight for their human rights.* When we should have been weeping in repentance. and we still make them fight for their rights. So gross.
And you know it like all went downhill from there because I had to work with homeless people and poor families who were being penalized for homelessness and being financially fined because they had to live on the street. Fining. Homeless people. For sleeping in their cars. For sleeping in public. This is…disgusting. And these laws are becoming MORE common! So I was just seeing America get worse and worse and more creative in our hoarding.
And then I did a worker’s rights clinic and learned about sexist laws. And just...uncompassionate laws that allow businesses to profit at the expense of workers. Because money is more important than life.
And then the bottom of the pit of despair was when I got into my immigration clinic and found out that immigration is where all the worst impulses of America live. Protectionism, greed, racism—America at its worst is America in its immigration system. And even people who are kind and decent in other realms become freakishly protectionist in the face of immigrants whom they constantly see as a threat who will take everything. I can’t spend the thousands of pages it would take to enumerate the awfulness of the racist deportations...like Operation Wetback. Where is the vomit emoji, for the love of God?
What I see is that we are constantly afraid of things being taken and so we take and don’t give. We are holding and not letting go. We make elaborate laws to protect our hoarding. We deem some people unworthy of the dollars of our effort. Collectively, we never have enough.
My traveling has ruined me because for many years now I’ve known that other countries are better. There are countries that are smarter and kinder and where life is better for everyone because everyone contributes to take care of each other. I mean, America is not the worst country, it just isn't the best and it has no moral advantage or superiority. And so, when this country voted for a greedy, racist businessman who openly assaults women, I was not surprised like you were. This is the country I've gotten to know. I was disappointed because I kind of hoped our better angels would prevail, but I was not surprised. I have been grieving for years and settled into acceptance. Not acceptance of the status quo, but acceptance that we have always needed to fight for equality and that is still true. There are people who are facing real, dire consequences because of this election, but there have been people facing those things the whole time.
A few years ago I discovered this theologian, NT Wright who explained that Christians (who have set the dominant culture in the US and my own) had fallen into a trap of believing in Enlightenment and progress, both of which are actually contrary to what our Bible says. At any given time we are born with the same capacity for good and evil as everyone who ever lived. We may have more technology and more tools and more history of experimenting with how to reign in our dark side, but we are what we have ever been. That really resonated with me and made me feel less panicked about the great underbelly I had discovered. Like, "oh, we aren’t exceptional, we’re just..alive." Alive like every other person has ever been.
Selfishly, because you add so much to my life, I’m glad you immigrated here (not that this is "my" country, either--mine as much as yours). I’m so glad because I love sharing life with you. But I cannot say that coming here was better for you than having gone elsewhere. And I’m so sorry. I think the idea we bought into was that America was special because, unlike any other place, anyone could come and be treated the same as everyone else under the same laws and create a life they think is worthwhile. That has never actually been true. Perhaps it has been more true in the US than in other places, but never really true. But it is still a really excellent ideal to aspire to.
In the end of all things I don’t really care generally what other people think of me. But I care what you think of me, and when you think I do good work it makes me happy and when you think I’ve done something well or been worthwhile, that makes me happy. And I think you are so wonderful, I can’t even say how much. And I think this micro-level love is what means anything at the end of the day on our deathbeds. And together we can keep striving and fighting to get our society closer to the larger ideal while still remembering that people all over have lived and loved and died in perfectly unremarkable countries. And in perfectly awful countries. And their lives were as valuable and flawed and worthwhile as ours in the great scheme, whatever that is.