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.
8 thoughts on “The Visitor”
I saw this movie back in the winter and just loved it. What beautiful touching storytelling and what a great cast. Best of all? It takes place in the greatest city in the world — New Yawk.
i’d been hearing great things about for months. it just got released here a couple weeks ago.
a sure sign of a good movie: as soon as it finished i wanted to watch it again. another sign: after the movie, everyone in the audience sat for the entire credits, even though the credits were in english and the audience was japanese.
I absolutely loved this movie too. Its subtlety and the musical element made it more wonderful.
My dad immigrated to Canada by himself as a young man. I’ve learned over the years that people who immigrate (to any new place) are more persistent, hardworking and proactive than the rest of the human race. Many of my friends are immigrants and I’m always so taken aback by how many hoops they’ve had to jump through in order to get into Canada. We may be more accepting here of the different faces of Canadians, but the government still makes it very hard for people to immigrate here.
it’s definitely hard to immigrate to the US or Canada for many people, but it’s surprising how much harder it is in other countries.
i agree with you about how hard immigrants work. i guess the ones that come from poorer or more oppressive countries don’t take it for granted. it’s good to be reminded of how lucky we are.
I also loved this film. It was thought provoking, funny, and most of all, touching. Wind, you are an excellent movie reviewer – you should go pro.
thanks kev. i’d certainly entertain the idea of being paid to watch movies and write about them.
My dad brought the DVD from Paris and I just watched it. What a wonderful movie.
A friend of mine in Paris is crazy about rhythm and Djembes. He owns a dozen. After all these years I think I truly understand why he enjoys it so much thanks to this movie. It actually made me want to get into that myself.
All the actors are marvelous. It’s great to watch Richard Jenkins play a Gym manager in “Burn After Reading” and then play in “The Visitor”.
the djembe is a great instrument. it’s got a great range of sounds. but go practice more on your guitar first!