What began as a movie review has become a meditation on being an immigrant. The actual movie review is at the end.
The Serial Immigrant
Yesterday I spent the afternoon getting my visa extended, shuttling back and forth between the ward office to get the right documents, and the immigration office. Quite unexpectedly, four years have passed since I’d moved to Japan, twice as long as I’d planned. I still feel like I just got here. I still feel like I’m just passing through. But maybe that’s just a feeling out of habit since I’ve moved around so much. 27 times to be exact.
I guess I’ve been an immigrant almost all of my life. The first time was when I was a baby and my family immigrated to the US. I have complex feelings about all that.
It’s a lot more complicated than being an immigrant in Japan, or being an immigrant in the UK. It’s very straightforward outside the US. In Japan, I’m an American here on a spousal visa. In the UK, I was an American on a student visa. Being American provides more privileges. It’s easier to get visas, for instance. My Latin American, Chinese and African friends had to go through more hoops. And I was never questioned about being American.
It’s not as straightforward to be American in the US if you’re a person of color. In subtle ways, I’m actually considered more American outside the US than in the US. The best example of this is being asked, “where are you from” by fellow Americans. In and of itself, it’s a harmless question, friendly even. But if you’re asked this question at least once a week your entire life, as happened to me, it becomes very irritating, and even takes on a menacing dimension.
And here’s the exchange every time. Keep in mind, this is a conversation with a stranger, someone I’d just met.
Stranger: “So where are you from?”
Me: “I’m from Los Angeles. How about you?”
“I’m from (some city). What I meant was, where are you REALLY from.”
“Oh, a small college town in L.A. County.”
“Yeah, I’m really from L.A.”
“Well, what’s your nationality?”
Then I’d be hit with more persistent questions, with questions about my “ethnic heritage”, where my parents were born, etc. And I had one of these exchanges at least once a week. With a stranger! Americans are chatty and we strike up conversations with strangers all the time. So that this would happen so often is not so odd.
Curiously, my white friends who were recent immigrants from Russia or Germany, for instance, were rarely, if ever, asked these questions. And they often spoke with heavy accents.
The Embedded Anthropologist
The message that I got from those hundreds of the same conversation was that a lot of white folks really didn’t see me as a true American, and they were going to reinforce their views on me, casually in the checkout line.
Of course, I felt a lot of anger and frustration. But after a while, I decided to look upon the experience in a more detached way, as an anthropologist observing 20th century American attitudes.
I started recording each encounter, noting the place, time, who I had the exchange with, and the conversation itself. Later, I expanded it to include logs of more overt racist incidents directed at me. I even created a form that I filled out. This made it a lot more interesting and helped me to process the experiences in a constructive way.
The day before getting my visa extended, I watched a wonderful movie that dealt with issues of immigration. This quiet movie is the best film I’ve seen in the last few years.
The film centers around four characters. Walter Vale, played in an unnervingly honest way by the restrained Richard Jenkins, is a widowed professor who is just going through the motions of living. He meets Tarek and Zainab, illegal immigrants who are squatting in his New York apartment. Both Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jakesai, who play the couple, provide nuanced performances. Haaz, in particular, is literally the beating heart of the movie.
Tarek, a djembe player, and Walter, who is drawn to the drums, form an unlikely friendship, as Tarek teaches Walter how to play. When Tarek is arrested and detained by immigration authorities, Tarek’s mother, Mouna, played with gravitas by Hiam Abbass, comes to New York looking for him. Suddenly, Walter finds himself the intermediary between the government (or in this case, a private contractor detention center), and his new friends.
It’s a film rich with irony. Walter is a professor who studies developing countries but probably never had contact with people from those countries. Even though he’s suddenly surrounded by immigrants, he is the visitor that is out of place and without direction.
Thomas McCarthy, the writer and director, has created that rare movie that resonates on both the personal and the political without caricature or demagoguery. Not only is it a story of a lonely man who finds a way to connect with other people and finds ways to be responsible to them, it’s also an allegory of post-9/11 politics. Not only is it narratives of immigrants who are seeking promise in America, it’s the tale of how American-ness is being reconstructed into narrower definitions.
Even though the themes seem heavy, the movie has many light moments. And despite the less than happy ending, it’s strangely uplifting. Most important of all, T and I are still talking about it. It’s still resonating, so much so that it broke my month long writer’s block.