Don’t expect me to be ‘grateful’
I am the kind of immigrant the haters think is ‘uppity,’ said Suketu Mehta in The Washington Post. I’ve been told to ‘go back’ more times than I can count. I won’t. We’re stuck with each other—and we’ll be richer for it.
In June, I published a book—This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto—arguing that immigration is a form of reparations. It drew forth a fusillade of hatred—on Twitter, in my inbox, under the rocks of 4chan and Reddit—suggesting that I return to India. One reviewer on Amazon called for me to be “skinned alive” and to go back to my “turd-world country.” Someone else tweeted, “This cockroach needs sent back to whatever s---hole he crawled out of.”
Meanwhile, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, in a speech at the National Conservatism Conference, said I had argued that “immigrants should not join the mainstream or try to preserve and protect what makes America great, but should just take over from the ‘white power structure.’”
I’ve said no such thing, of course. Wax accused immigrants like me of being culturally inferior: “Most inhabitants of the Third World don’t necessarily share our ideas and beliefs…. Our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.”
I’ve been told to “go back” ever since 1977, when I enrolled in an extravagantly racist all-boys Catholic school in Queens, N.Y.—birthplace of President Trump, who recently became the biggest, loudest mouthpiece for this line of rhetoric when he tweeted that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” The idea is, white Americans get to decide who is allowed to come in and what rules we are to follow. If you come here, don’t complain. Be grateful we took you in. “Go back” is a line that’s intended to put immigrants in our place—or rather, to remind us that our place in this country is contingent, that we are beholden to those who came here earlier.
To this I say: No, we are not. I take my place in America—an imperfect place—and I make it my own; there’s a Constitution that protects my right to do so. I will not genuflect at the white American altar. I will not bow and scrape before my supposed benefactors. I understand the soul of this nation just as well, if not better, than they do: a country that stole the futures of the people who are now arriving at its borders, a cacophonous country, an exceptional country, but one that seems determined to continually sabotage its journey toward a more perfect union. Nobody powerful ever gave the powerless anything just because they asked politely, and immigrants don’t come hat in hand. I am an uppity immigrant. I am entitled to be here. Deal with it.
Should today’s migrants be “grateful” to the countries that caused them to move in the first place, the ones that despoiled their homelands and made them unsafe and unlivable? For example, in Somalia—birthplace of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—the United States sent $1 billion to the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, and the ensuing civil war quite literally blew up Omar’s childhood. She should be grateful that her family had to escape their land and their people, and live in a tent in a refugee colony for four years?
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) should be grateful that her parents had to leave the West Bank and seek shelter in the country principally responsible for backing (and sending billions annually to) the government that occupies their hometown? Central American immigrants, too, should be grateful to the United States? An American banana company, for instance, owned 42 percent of all the land in Guatemala, and for decades Washington replaced democratically elected Latin leaders with dictators more malleable to its will. Now, at our southern border, we turn away people seeking asylum from the consequences of those policies.
The West has despoiled country after country through colonialism, illegal wars, rapacious corporations, and unchecked carbon emissions. And now their desperate migrants are supposed to be grateful to be let in by the back door at the mansions of the despoilers, mansions built with the stolen treasure of the migrants’ homelands?
It’s not exactly all wine and roses for the immigrants who get to America, either. Never in my 42 years here has anti-immigrant sentiment run so strong. For many immigrants, particularly the skilled ones, America is just one of many countries vying for their attention. But once people get here, they find a broken health-care system, some of the worst infrastructure in the developed world, mediocre urban public schools, and a judicial system of mass incarceration that disproportionately targets its poorest and weakest.
They find a culture where people don’t respect their elders and where a successful life is prescribed by people like Amy Chua as “the gaining of money and position.” Most of all, they experience a profound, pervasive sense of alienation and loneliness, in a culture where people live behind closed doors and don’t know their neighbors.
Immigrants can address these problems. (We do not come empty-handed, mine host!) We are businessmen, infantrymen, doctors, lawyers, elected officials, artists. My tribe—Indian-Americans—has the highest average income and educational achievement of any group in the country. My family moved here in the 1970s, and America is the better for it, so I claim the right to reside here by manifest destiny, for myself, my cousins and uncles and children. For this, I am told that I don’t know my place.
Having come here, I’ve stayed, because I fell in love with America. It was a passion that started the summer after the fourth grade in Mumbai, when I first read Huckleberry Finn. Five years later, I lit out for the Territory, as Huck says—I moved to America. I am in love with the profound emptiness of the high desert on the California-Nevada border, a sense of space I have felt nowhere else. With what Hemingway did to language—prose that freed mine from English circumlocution and ornamentation. With the humor of Seinfeld and the exquisite sadness of Miles Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches.”
With the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens, where I grew up in a building in which people who had been killing one another just before they got on the plane were now sharing foods, their kids dating each other. With the families of the victims of a 1991 massacre by a Chinese foreign student at my alma mater, the University of Iowa; these families, a month later, invited all the other Chinese foreign students over for Thanksgiving dinner, because they wanted to show the demagogues: If they didn’t hold a grudge, no one else should.
With the people of Raleigh, N.C., who elected my brother-in-law, Jay Chaudhuri, to the state Senate—a brown-skinned man running against a white opponent in a district that’s 82 percent white. With the scrum and tumble of robust political debate: this messy mix, this redneck rondeau, this barbaric yawp. For these and a thousand other American excellences, I am not so much grateful as I am—deeply, head-over-heels—in love.
As I am in love with many things about the country of my birth, India, or other places where I have lived: the green hills of England, the lights along the Seine in Paris, the samba bars of Brazil. I am grateful to those countries and their people for showing me their wonders. The Earth, it is a marvelous place. To the 64 percent of Americans who’ve never left the country: You should try it sometime. This beautiful blue-green oasis in the universe belongs to all of us.
But in all my travels, I never thought I could be English, French, or Brazilian, the way I can be American. I don’t know if an American who moves to India can truly feel Indian. I love America most of all because it is a country made up of all the other countries. This is the American exceptionalism. This is what I will fight with all my power as a writer to defend.
I will never let anyone—least of all a racist failed businessman and television-huckster son of a slumlord from Queens and an immigrant from Scotland—define my Americanness. I am an American, Kolkata-born. I will call my adopted country loudly, with all my strength, to account, as in my last book I called India to account for its shabby neglect of its cities and rampant political violence.
This is part of the obligations of citizenship, as well as the covenant of my guild. As the Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert noted, for anybody else, staying silent can be a tactical maneuver. But a writer who stays silent is lying.
We are all Americans now, for better or worse. My critics may not like my being here, but they’re stuck with me, as I’m stuck with them. Trump is stuck with Omar as she is with Trump, and they’re both getting paid to move the country forward. How do we work together? Those who came before will have to make space for those who are coming now. Both will become richer, in all senses of the word.
There is hope for this more perfect union, if you know where to look. The Jackson Heights Jewish Center, a conservative synagogue, has hosted Passover celebrations and bar mitzvahs since immigrant Jews moved to the neighborhood in the 1920s. These days, there aren’t as many Jews in the area; they prospered and moved to the suburbs. So the center now offers services for many religions, including Islam, and the space echoes with verses from the Koran—honoring the God that all the children of Abraham worship—and resonates with Pentecostal and Hindu chanting.
The clash of civilizations is heard all the time in Jackson Heights, and it makes a joyous sound. We should all be dancing to its beat.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post. Used with permission. ■