A Psychological State of Our Union: We Are All Migrants

Immigration, identity, and the Asian American psyche

Posted Feb 05, 2019

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

To be human and aware is to sit in an uncomfortable space, a space of longings, hopes and struggle, a space between origin and aspiration, between victory and loss, between contentment and disaffection, between power and powerlessness, between nurturance, love and acceptance—and abandonment and isolation. To be human and aware is to sit in a borderland, a transitional zone of between-ness. Identity itself is a between-ness space, always changing, influenced and influencing. Yet some of us live even more tenuously, precariously and uncomfortably than others. Our own vulnerability and experience in the world, our discomfort in the borderland, can lead to insight, and open us to great compassion and commonality. Or, our wounds and fears can harden us, shut us down. This world can be seen as an invitation to immigrate to transcendence, to promotion of our highest ideals and the most enlightened form of survival, or if we refuse the call, to stay stranded in a fortressed and benighted land, surrounded by walls, watchtowers and guns to keep out and exterminate all that we don’t understand or like. Our most essential dialogue is between open hand and closed fist, open heart or hatred.

If we make our heart’s choice, we are all immigrants, no matter where we live, with an immigrant’s questions and travails. Being immigrants, our lives and identities are always in transition, in formation, in flux. Do we feel like we belong? Are we accepted? Are we safe? What should we do? Can we attain what we want in life? Can we achieve our goals? Given who we are, what should we strive for in the first place? Can we climb out of our personal wounds and the wounds of time and history, to come to some kind of healing, of ourselves and others? Without the wound, there is no reason for our journey. At the very least, we deal with the gift and wound of being human in an imperfect world. There our migrant journey begins.

Perhaps I generalize these questions to the whole of humanity because I don’t want to feel alone in my quest, and I can’t feel too separate from those struggling with border crossings worldwide, and most painfully, most recently at the U.S.-Mexico border. But if we are to look back at our human voyage, we see migration not only as metaphor but as the concrete human story. Our common human ancestors were in Eastern Africa close to 200,000 years ago. About 70,000 years ago, my ancestors had migrated to Northeastern Africa. 50,000 years ago, they had migrated to the Arabian peninsula, following a changing climate, and by 25,000 years ago, they had populated the subcontinent. Most of humans alive between 45,000 and 20,000 years ago lived in South Asia. Now it’s about 25%. Sometime over the last 5,000 years or so populations from Central and South Asia mixed with each other and other migrant populations, creating the current mix of ancestries throughout what is now India. I have a small amount of East or Southeast Asian DNA, which might trace to a single ancestor some 200-300 years ago. Perhaps a Turkic soldier from the Mughal era? Perhaps a Southeast Asian wife who accompanied a merchant back to South Asia? Or a whole group of ancestors hundreds of years before that? About 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution began, we settled into farming communities, we began to divide labor between men and women and create other theretofore presumably unknown divisions within and between our tribes, and our egos began to revolve around possessions and homes instead of relationships to each other, the experience of life, and to the earth and other living creatures. Over time, we evolved creeds and religions to deal with the existential problems produced by this change in our way of life. Now we are migrating into virtual worlds, the average American adult spending 14 hours a week on social media, and some spending 40 hours a week or more playing video games. 

This is our human mythology, a mythos of movement and migration across continents and environments, a mythos that relates me to every human being on Planet Earth. This is a long journey, and when we look back to our common origin, it can seem a journey of disconnection, even extreme disconnection and antagonism, as some members of our human family have chosen to use their gifts and advantages against other members of the family. Even as the world has become smaller, it seems harder to remember our commonality as we tense against each other, and recoil as skin touches skin, here, at the borderland, at all our borderlands. Will we be able to see our human touch as a bid for affection—for love, for life, for survival?

I try to keep grounded in our common humanity, to avoid becoming despondent over all our tribal errors and the divisions so prominent in our Trump-barraged 2019. There have been universalists in South Asian spiritual traditions for our entire history, but today, we have the benefit of genetics and the awe-inspiring image of the Earth from space to remind us of our unity and our joined migration across time and cosmos. We are a moving blue isle of souls in endless space, a happenstance family warmed by a lonely sun, and warmed by one another, when we will it.

Despite the truth of our common heritage and journey, when I was 18 years old, I was told to “go back to where you came from” in Boston, Massachusetts, on the Fourth of July: Independence Day in that quintessentially American city in the country of my immigration, the United States. My mother and I immigrated to the U.S. when I was a baby and she a young woman, to a country that was built by immigrants—and by the genocide of indigenous peoples and on the backs of slaves—and yet which found ways to tell me I didn’t quite belong. She came to the U.S. out of determination to make it in a land others told her was beyond her reach. My journey and attainments, whatever they might be and mean, would not be possible without her audacious resolve.

It’s the nature of the mind to fasten, gravitationally, on the moments, experiences and sensations of ostracism, racism, danger, and devaluation—but they don’t tell the whole tale. My mother and I were welcomed in the U.S. in countless ways. Black doctors and hospital administrators sponsored my mother’s visa. As she worked in inner city hospitals in the South and Midwest, I was warmly welcomed by white and black children and teachers in early grades, and taken care of when she was on call by the families of my black and white classmates. When I left my all-black inner-city elementary school in St. Louis, Missouri, to attend a school in the suburbs, my former classmates cried and told me how much they missed me, and I did the same. I don’t think I ever really got over that in-country migration from a place of natural belonging to uncertainty, though that uncertainty was the price of entry into a world of better public education.

But despite all the positives, the gravitational memories stay ponderous and weighty. A white child in kindergarten told me my skin was dirty. It was the first time I felt different from other children. I went home and scrubbed myself with Ajax, thinking this would make me white. My mom simply said, “no—that won’t go.” She didn’t understand racism, and we never spoke of it. In the sixth grade, an anthropology teacher told me that I didn’t belong to the same species as the other children—I was not homo sapiens sapiens, he said, but “something else. I don’t know what.” This was incorrect, but left me puzzled and silenced. Inchoate feelings of alienation and disconnection permeated my youth. A couple of classmates regularly called me the N-word. I was followed by a white security guard in a store, accused of shoplifting a yo-yo. Another white classmate berated my black classmate’s achievements by saying “he has white blood in him.” I never felt like I really belonged, and I was never sure why. Was it because my father had abandoned my mother and me? Was it because there was something inherently wrong with me? Words didn’t form in this wound; I tried to bury it instead.

I was moved by TV series about Black history, Alex Haley’s Roots and the documentary Eyes on the Prize, about the Civil Rights movement, but I didn’t understand how brown fit into the country’s story of Black and White. I didn’t feel comfortable in those years to claim racism as my experience as well. I didn’t have it as bad as Black people—so I thought I had no reason to complain on my own behalf. But I was in the culture’s blind spot—the culture couldn’t see me, and I couldn’t really see myself. 

Richard Attenborough’s Gandhilifted me and gave me a sense of my Indian heritage and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Amar Chitra Katha Indian comics and occasional visits to Hindu temples gave me a view of South Asian spirituality, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I found my voice as an Asian American, and community with other Asian Americans, immigrants and children of immigrants themselves. But when I did get into college, I had to hear a classmate berate my Ivy-league acceptance by telling me I was an affirmative action admission. 

Issues of racism were powerful for me throughout college, and Brown University instilled in me a passion and voice for social justice which I carried into battles against racism, sexual harassment and homophobia, in college, medical school and beyond. My truest self, as a doctor and as a citizen, has been to stand up against injustice and for the vulnerable, sometimes at cost to my own well-being, and without a doubt, imperfectly. I’m grateful to my profession of psychiatry and my avocation of writing for allowing me the opportunity to understand and help people with their suffering, be they immigrant, refugee, white, Asian, Black, Native American or Latino.

Along the way, I’ve learned how America, despite her stated ideals, has fallen short of welcoming immigrants and non-whites. There were the original sins of Native American genocide (with 90% of the Native population killed by disease or war within a few generations of European first contact), and slavery. Chinese came for economic opportunity and also for freedom, yet faced horrendous racism, violence and legislated Exclusion and Alien Acts to limit their population and rights. Japanese Americans were placed in prison camps in World War II. Even non-landowning whites were not given the franchise until the country was several decades old. There is the ongoing impact of American militarism around the world. Many of my friends are refugees and children of refugees from the American war in Vietnam and associated actions in Southeast Asia. My Asian American community, while heralded at times as a “model minority,” and used as a cudgel against other minorities, has been deeply impacted by war, poverty and racism over many generations. Our experiences bond many of us to the causes of Black, Latino and Native peoples.

Hate crimes have escalated since Donald Trump’s rise—this has been dubbed “The Trump Effect” by the Southern Poverty Law Center—but have been prominent for years, especially since 9-11. Balbir Singh Sodhi was one of the first victims of post-9-11 hate crimes, shot by a man crazed by racial hatred in Mesa, Arizona. Sunando Sen was pushed in front of a subway in New York City in 2012 by a mentally ill woman who hated Muslims. Six Sikhs were killed and four wounded in the 2012 Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh temple massacre. Sureshbhai Patel was assaulted while walking by an Alabama police officer in 2015. Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed in Kansas in February 2017 by a white man yelling racial slurs. And now, brown skinned and black people are scapegoated and blamed by many whites, including the president, all in pursuit of political power based on fear

We may all be immigrants, in metaphor and spiritual striving, but our humanity is under siege by racist and tribalistic nationalism. The nation born from immigrants is now at the forefront of an ugly backlash against immigrants. Emma Lazarus wrote, in The New Colossus: 

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We now deal with a colossally abusive president and executive branch, willing to fire tear gas at toddlers, to traumatically separate children from parents (even breastfeeding infants from their mothers), to send an ugly message: American greatness depends on walling out the brown, the tired, the violence-tossed. 

I have hope that the transcendent, inclusive ideal of America can prevail. I’m quite sure that a humane, thoughtful immigration policy can emerge. It will need to, to deal with the climate and other refugees to come, if we are to remain true to our highest ideals and identity. But we will have to overcome this narrow, feral tribalism, a tribalism which puts people like me at risk: not only of our feeling of society, of belonging and our ideals, but also at risk of life and limb. I believe that cultural experiences of Asians and Asian Americans are critical to this transformation. Asian cultural understandings such as interdependence, nonviolence, common humanity, and collective, shared suffering must come into our American consciousness. 

But even as I write this, I know that my own identity as an Asian American is a fragile one. My identity is a new one—neither Asian nor American per se but a third entity entirely. But as the Asian population has grown, many have understandably affiliated primarily with their ethnic group, rather than with the pan-Asian American identity. Asians are sometimes assimilationist, marrying into the white population and also distancing themselves from Asian and Asian American culture. There is always tension between assimilation and emergence. At the same time, there is continued and perhaps growing awareness of Asian American commonality. Asian Americans are making strides in mainstream media, politics, business, law and medicine.  If we can maintain and expand this space, we will bring together a broadly diverse people. My hope is that we can not only maintain our obligations to each other, but also to the bigger picture of all people of color and all vulnerable peoples in the United States and the world. This would be a firm foundation for a transcendent, inclusive identity, a Pacific identity embedded in the global identity. If we can look beyond personal, professional and financial success to the bigger vision of creating a more fair, inclusive society for all, we will be living a very large American dream indeed.

This is a great and tenuous hope—one that requires constant vigilance, cultivation, reflection and assertion. But I sense there are people around the world who are living these identities already. We are, all of us, immigrating to a new country, one of our own creation and ambition. A country defined not by those it keeps out, but a country defined by those it raises up. 

A country of heart.

My country.

(c) 2019 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

Image (c) Ravi Chandra (Hiroshima, 6 August 2007), words from Dacher Keltner's "The Power Paradox".
Source: Image (c) Ravi Chandra (Hiroshima, 6 August 2007), words from Dacher Keltner's "The Power Paradox".