Tuesday, July 6, 2010

counterfeit paradise

“Cahroleen, you don’t understand. I won’t receive a work visa, and I do not have the money to pay to study in the US. I would have to work for it to be possible.”

“You mean, you would find a job to work where you would be undocumented?”


For a second I had nothing to say. I immediately thought about the US, and the stigma of an illegal immigrant. If he were to do as he had just explained, he would join that group. That stigma would be applied to him.

He told me this while we were walking around a remote town in the mountains. He was switching between perfect English and Spanish, leading me and four other foreigners through the dirt roads. His enthusiasm toward explaining the scenery around us was unwavering.

I thought about the situation in Arizona, and the current public attitude toward illegal immigrants. I thought about the widespread conception of the motivations and attitudes that Americans have of them. And I thought of my friend. He works as an engineer and is one of the most outgoing and helpful people I’ve ever met. I thought of the environment he would be entering and the way he would be received. I tried to explain to him, but I hesitated when I realized what I was saying. I couldn’t stop wondering about the stories of other immigrants, and the fact that he is surely not unique in his situation. He is the antithesis of the negative stereotypes associated with undocumented immigrants, yet that was what his desire to work in the US would make him.

I again was stunned by the complexity of penning legislation in the interest of the state when confronted with an individual’s reality. The seeming impossibility of reconciling a collective interest and group mentality with a person's life and desires. When things hit me like that, and I realize that parts of my own thinking are the result of a societal attitude that I did not adequately question and examine from every perspective, I feel terrible. I like to think that I am able to see things from perspectives other than my own. It is something I strive for all the time. It is the main reason that I feel compelled to leave my immediate environment to experience other ways of life. Still, some things do not seem real to me until I encounter it myself. The idea of my friend, wanting to come to America to receive an education that he could not afford, and becoming part of the statistic of illegal workers, I cringed.

I thought of how at home he was here, how he was effortlessly navigating unmarked streets and immediately translating everything that was said around us. I thought of him living alone in the United States, unaware of the environment surrounding the kind of work he was going to enter. An environment that I don’t understand myself, but have read enough about to realize the trying conditions and potential repercussions. I thought about how I would perceive him differently if I met him at home, in that context, instead of here. I tried to attribute my feeling to my general inclination toward being overly-sensitive, but I could not. I am more affected by the situations of others than I would like to be. While he was speaking I remembered a passage of the book I’m reading about exploration in the Amazon.

Betty Meggers of the Smithosonian Institution is perhaps the most influential modern archaeologist of the Amazon. In 1971 she famously summed up the region as a ‘counterfeit paradise,’ a place that, for all its fauna and flora, is inimical to human life. Rains and floods, as well as the pounding sun, leach vital nutrients from the soil and make large-scale agriculture impossible.

David Grann

Ironically, this description of the soil in the Amazon being inhospitable reminded me of the situation that many encounter upon entering a foreign land. It reminded me of the environment that many people are faced with when coming to America. It reminded me of the stories I’ve heard from my grandmother, about her life as a German immigrant putting two children through medical school. It reminded me of the English class I was teaching earlier, when one of my students explained that her brother moved to Nebraska with the intent of living the “American Dream” but ended up in an unyielding battle with unemployment and discrimination. It reminded me of the shining appeal of a democratic, capitalist country, and the reality that then sets in for foreigners within its shores. I thought about my life, and the town that I grew up in.

Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives that I'm not living.

Jonathan Safran

Sometimes I am hesitant to write about issues that occupy my mind like this, but I feel like it is impossible not to. I realize that the issue is complex, and that there are people who know more about it than I do. I realize that a personal encounter with a situation does not constitute a comprehensive understanding of the problem in a larger context. I think it's important to consider realities other than your own, though, and to try to understand what is going on around you. Whenever I express an opinion, my mind immediately reels to the other side and I realize doubts in my conviction and how I might not be right. I feel like I can’t think about anything else until I do say them, though.

don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to sleep
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.

Sometimes I don’t like sleeping, because then I don’t have control of the thoughts filling up my brain. I can’t ignore all the noise in my head when everything else is quiet.

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