Yearning to Breathe Free

So I had an interesting experience today that I felt was pertinent to share, though I may get some flak for it. I ask for your forgiveness, friends, if this story makes you upset, but I feel strongly compelled to share this nonetheless.

I had lunch with my wife today and we went to Red Robin. While there, we were talking about, well, I mean, what else is there to talk about right now? We talked about politics. We weren’t saying anything fiery or even controversial. We discussed the possible impact of the Women’s March last week, demographics, griping about Democrat strategy (we think it’s bad). We talked about NPR stories and also trying to plan for what might come next. You see, my wife works as an accountant for an immigration law firm; as you can imagine considering the news lately, her workplace is beside itself with anxiety about how it will proceed with many of its current open cases. I will admit, we were critical of the ban. But again, we weren’t yelling or even really angry. We were more… tired. Exhausted, even. We were tired, confused, and a little exasperated as to why our government decided that specific, targeted groups of people needed to be banned from immigration or travel just because of their former nationality. We also were mildly flabbergasted that people would support this decision. We had been raised to believe that America was a nation of immigrants, that the Great Experiment was bringing anybody and everbody in the world together who simply wanted a new chance at life, new opportunities, and freedom from past oppressions, regardless of where they came from.

As we talked, other people began coming into the restaurant for lunch, and I noticed that while at first we had a decently animated conversation, we got progressively quieter as the room grew more full. Eventually, we talked in low murmurs and conspiratorial whispers, and then finally we cut the conversation short and abruptly changed subjects to something more mundane. Why did this happen?

To tell you the truth, it’s because the people in the room didn’t look like us. Well, to be more exact, the room didn’t look like me. Or maybe I didn’t look like the rest of the room, being Korean American and all. Nobody approached us. Nobody talked to us or grew angry at us or threatened us. In fact, they probably didn’t notice us (maybe because we were trying not to be noticed). Really, that quasi-invisibility was what we wanted, and we took advantage of it. We stopped talking, ate quickly, and then slipped out as unobtrusively as possible. Nobody likes a fuss.

I tell this story because I’ve just heard that our country has instituted a rudimentary (and I would argue crude) Muslim Ban. I read up on the details, and I’m perturbed to say the least. It makes me arch an eyebrow especially because I’m not scared of Muslims. Every Muslim I’ve met has been one of the nicest people I’ve had the privilege to encounter. I love them. My Church loves them, too (at least, the local Church back in my hometown does, since they opened their doors to the local Muslim community whose worship center tragically burned down recently). I honestly can’t understand why some people are scared of them. I assume it’s because they just haven’t met one yet. Which is a shame, really. I bet if they did meet a Muslim American, they’d grow to like them. They’d see that as a group Muslim Americans seem to especially appreciate American ideals like freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, democracy, apple pie, all that good stuff. For most of them, it’s why they came here in the first place unlike people who were just born here (people like me). They chose to be American; I just lucked into it.

There are lots of scared people in our country right now, which is, well, not great. Scared people tend to do really hurtful things that they normally wouldn’t do if they weren’t scared. And this experience today taught me that I’m also one of those scared people. But it’s not a room full of Muslims I’m scared of. It’s not a room full of Muslims that caused me and my wife to grow silent, to self-censor ourselves, to try and be as bland as possible so as not to offend someone who just happens to be particularly tightly wound and high strung about their own fears. After all, as far as I know, it’s not the Muslim Americans who are trying to build literal walls to keep “undesirables” out or writing up sweeping bans on entire groups of people based on nationality or religion.

To tell the truth, not a lot of things make sense to me these days. Often it feels like maybe I’ve been wrong about everything this whole time, that what my parents taught me about what it means to be an American and why they came here were perhaps an anomaly or a fluke. Maybe I or my parents are just weird or strange, or maybe I didn’t get the memo. I had always believed in the poem, “The New Colossus,” the one whose final lines people quote from time to time. I love that sonnet, I really do. “Mother of Exiles” is what Emma Lazarus called the Statue of Liberty, “Not like a brazen giant” but “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning.” What a poetic and fitting title to America’s ideals, for “her beacon-hand” that “Glows world-wide welcome.”

Or, well, at least I thought those were our ideals. But, again, I find myself questioning my memory these days. Was I really taught that in my civics and history classes? Or did I just imagine it? Maybe I just read too much into things like the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, two documents my father treated as scripture. Maybe I took things too literally when I read Common Sense and the Federalist Papers or the Gettysburg Address. Was everyone else laughing at me behind my back when I believed in things like freedom and democracy and civil rights and working tirelessly so that everyone could feel free, no matter — or perhaps to atone for — how imperfect our past was? To be honest, I feel like a dupe. I was so full of civic fervor when I was young. I believed in government; I believed that serving your country and your community and your neighbors without any self-interest with whatever talents you had was the highest calling you could achieve. I looked towards America’s past at civic and community leaders for moral inspiration and guidance, great men and women, often from humble backgrounds, who fought fearlessly to curb the excess of power, tear down oppression, shatter the shackles of their people, and expand the rights of liberty to as many as they could.

But was it all just a joke? Was America an elaborate, ironic, quite hilarious affair that you just had to be there to find funny and that nobody clued me into, or perhaps some kind of prank that everybody else didn’t think would have lasted this long and now no longer have the heart to come clean about it? I really believed in all this. And despite my cynicism and, more lately, my doubts, I still really do believe in this. It’s hard to let go of the faith of my fathers.

That all feels so long ago. What do we stand for now? If my memory was wrong, if my patriotism was misplaced, if I had somehow misunderstood the messages I received, misinterpreted and mistranslated them into a misinformed set of ideals that my fellow Americans actually don’t believe, then what do they believe? What do we believe? What does America stand for? Or does it stand for anything at all anymore? Did it ever? Or did I just imagine it?

If I had the spare money and time (neither, sadly, of which I have right now), I’d book a flight this very night to New York City. I’d travel to Ellis Island and walk up to the base of the Statue of Liberty and hunt for that poem, to see if “The New Colossus” is really there. And if it is there I would run my hands over the those metal letters again and again until the skin was raw; I would impress them not just into my soul but into my body. I would read the words out loud to myself with each new trace and passing so that I would never forget that it’s not all just a dream. I would ask each passerby if they could also see the poem to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. And if they were a citizen, I’d ask them, “What was the America you were taught? Please. Tell me. Were you taught this poem, too?” Because these last few years, there have been too many days where I wonder if maybe I just made it all up in my head and convinced myself it was real; I find myself wondering if any of this America stuff I so passionately believed in ever existed at all.

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