Sunday, July 5, 2015

I, Immigrant and a tale from the past

As an immigrant-child growing up here in Michigan, I was always struck by the more nativist teachers I was taught by and I especially remember one who would only allow me access to the local college library if I would listen to her anti-immigrant tirades. I was a well-behaved (if a little sensitive) student then and I thought nothing more than to listen and be with my books and not make much trouble (which is a chant of all well-behaved immigrants). In some ways I felt sorry for her—was there a touch of loneliness in that diatribe?—and this empathy of mine allowed me to take the verbal assaults and finger wagging she dished out.

Of all the speeches she gave, none struck me so beautiful as the last one where she explained that any nation was like a troupe of traveling circus acts, and there’s one important act of juggling several flaming balls, and what it requires is for everyone to read hidden body language and to understand when a flaming ball is going to be thrown and to also completely buy the fact that throwing about flaming balls of fire is a necessity in each of their lives. This belief is what drives the act forward, gets onlookers to pay, and they would all starve without it. 

When an outsider comes into the troupe, they are new to the entire enterprise, and it’s a necessity that they learn by imitating the people already there in every way possible and they should also keep quiet and not even come close to doubting why all this should be done. In fact, even if they mimic the old timers they won’t be able to understand the body language and so they should stay completely out of the way. 

Then she peered at me, her wrinkled eyes smiling. She asked if this was it, if I wasn’t going to argue with her, ever. I kept silent, waiting to be with my books. Then she scolded with me with what appeared to be a loving tone and said that if I were to become a true American I would have to speak up for myself and that, on top of that, I would have to learn to complain, because that was the way forward. I blurted out that she should shut it and let me get to the books.

The silence that followed was quite sharp but she smiled after getting over her shock. “Atta boy,” she said and let me go. She rarely talked to me after that. Yet, when I look back I still don’t understand what she’s trying to get at. Was it a poisoned pill she gave me? Was she trying to get around something I was doing to her that I didn’t fully understand? What say you, dear readers?

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