How Trump Taught Me to Love Exile
One year ago, I was forced to leave the United States. I wrote about my predicament at the time in Vox.
I had immigrated from New Zealand. I had lived in America for fifteen years, did college and law school there, paid my taxes, worked at prestigious New York law firms, and took care never to get into any trouble for fear of deportation.
I got kicked out anyway.
And now that I’ve watched Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, I think exile is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
The Opposite of Everything Trump
I had an idea that I’d write a book. Because I had to go anyway, I left to travel and to do research. In retrospect, every impulse that led me to where I went, every theme that I had in mind for the book, was the opposite of what Trump represents.
I wanted to tell a story from a non-Western point of view
Twelve centuries before there was Marco Polo, a Chinese explorer went looking for Europe. From his perspective, Europe was strange and exotic — here be dragons. I wanted to tell his story and to travel in his footsteps as my (however small) way of saying that the world does not revolve around Western Christendom. That an alternative perspective is possible. That the history of the world is not exclusively that of white men from the West venturing into the East and the South. Indeed, at many points in history, just the opposite has been true.
Quite obvious, no? But then a congressman went on TV during the RNC and demanded to know what people of color had ever accomplished, ever. Well, I don’t know, Congressman King. Maybe paper? The compass? Gunpowder? The printing press? Algebra? Christianity? The alphabet?
But of course to admit that non-Western and non-white points of view may be equally valid and valuable would be anathema to Trumpism.
I wanted to see these “dangerous” countries and meet these “Islamic radicals” for myself
There he was on stage, before the phalanx of American flags, barking that Muslims (sorry, “Islamic radicals”) want to kill us all. There he was on stage, bellowing about Iranians forcing Americans to their knees.
I have been to Iran. I have been to Afghanistan. I have met these people whom the Donald so loves to demonize as the Other.
And I remember them all now. The handsome Afghan border officer who reached out for a firm handshake and a warm “Welcome to Afghanistan.” The laughing boys of Mazar-i Sharif taking a selfie with me. The Iranian father on the bus who insisted on treating me to lunch in his home. The young man in aviator glasses in Esfahan who volunteered to show me around the city and said that he wouldn’t pass judgment on Americans before he had a chance to get to know them.
I remember them all now: the strength in that handshake, the peal of the laughter, the taste of the hummus, the reflection on those lenses.
These people, these people I broke bread with, these people who invited me into their homes, these people who showed me the utmost hospitality, these are the people that Trump would have us hate and fear.
I wanted to see how much we really all have in common
In China I gazed upon figures of Greek gods in painted caves. In Kyrgyzstan I found the ruins of an ancient Chinese garrison town whose population consisted of Christians and Buddhists and Turks and Persians. In Iran I visited Armenian churches draped in tapestries replicating Italian paintings of Mary and the Christ Child. The story in Matthew of Three Kings visiting Jesus in the manger has its source in Persian Zoroastrianism. Indeed the word “magic” comes from “magi” or Zoroastrian priests. When Christians first met Muslims, many considered Islam a form of Christianity.
There is only one history of the world. Different cultures and peoples and nations may form different chapters in it, but they are inextricably bound to each other as pages of the same book are bound together.
Again, Trumpism can’t admit to common humanity with darker hued peoples, or the common heritage with cultures that seem different. It’s so much harder to hate others when you realize they’re your cousins.
Except There’s One Thing I Share with Trump Supporters
When I first set out, a number of friends asked me variations of the following: “Don’t you think going alone to Afghanistan is a bit self-destructive?”
It was. I didn’t intend to get killed or hurt, but I was flirting with danger. For fifteen years I had built a life in America, and America suddenly showed me the door. I was angry. I felt wronged. I no longer knew my place in the world. So yeah, I was being self-destructive. There was a touch of what Freud called thanatos, the death drive.
So my dear Trumpsters, I know how you feel better than you’d think.
You’re angry. You feel wronged. You’re no longer sure of your place in the world, what with a black president and all the “political correctness” around. You’re feeling self-destructive. You even have a bit of a death wish. So you cheer on the Dark Prophet with all his talks of killing.
I get it.
But look, the trick to flirting with death is to make sure that you don’t die. Get away in one piece. Swerve before the cliff. Stop yourself before the fall.
The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me
I am not an American citizen. When I still lived in the U.S., I used to say that I was an honorary American.
I am an immigrant. An immigrant like Alexander Hamilton. An immigrant like Felix Frankfurter. An immigrant like (LOL) Melania Trump.
If love of country is like faith, then I was not born into your faith but converted to it. Like Saul of Tarsus converted to his faith. You may know him as St. Paul.
So don’t mind me. It’s your country, and you didn’t want me to be a part of it. So you can deal with the consequences of your own actions.
I’ve seen many Americans say that they’ll move to Canada if Trump wins. I’ve seen a Supreme Court Justice say it’ll be time to move to New Zealand if Trump wins.
Well, I’m way ahead of you. I don’t even need to go through the immigration process (how the table turns) to move to New Zealand. It’s my country. But you’re all welcome to get in line and wait and get thoroughly vetted and wait some more and get vetted some more. And while you’re waiting you may be interested to know that one of the political parties in New Zealand is called “New Zealand First.”
Exile? It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and at the best possible time. But only because the worst thing is happening to the country I came to love.