On nations and walls and children

In March, my eight-year-old daughter, Kavya, told me that if Trump won the election, one of her classmates would have to leave the country. I was startled; we live in Oak Park, one of the most liberal suburbs of Chicago, which is already pretty blue. We moved here in part because we’d be raising mixed-race children (my husband is white; I was born in Sri Lanka), and we wanted them to live in a place where the color of their skin wasn’t likely to cause them difficulties. But maybe there isn’t such a place, not here, not yet.

I gently questioned, but couldn’t get any more useful details out of her – was the child scared that she’d have to leave? Was someone threatening her – another child, an adult? Kavya didn’t seem to know, but the fact that eight-year-olds in America were having those conversations made me furious. I told her that she shouldn’t worry, that none of her classmates would have to leave – although of course, I didn’t actually know that for sure. The truth seemed too heavy a burden for a third-grader to bear.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago; they’d come into the room where Kevin and I were watching the final debate. Kavya and her seven-year-old brother, Anand, started freaking out that Trump might win. We hadn’t actually talked to them about the candidates much, which was, in retrospect a mistake; it seemed like they were getting plenty of information on the playground. I showed them fivethirtyeight.com, and explained the graph; I showed them how the blue snake was swallowing the red snake, and that calmed them down.

My son asked, quite aggrievedly, “Doesn’t Donald understand that lots of people don’t *want* a wall?” I didn’t know what to tell him. Donald knows, but he doesn’t care? How to make sense of that to a child who still thinks everyone around him is basically good? Villains only appear in stories, to give the superheroes something to do.

A few days ago, Kavya asked me, out of the blue, whether I’d have to leave the country if Trump won. My heart dropped. How long had she been worrying about this? How many nights had she had trouble sleeping? Kavya’s the sort of child who keeps her troubles to herself, who doesn’t want to bother you, who tries so hard to be good. But this worry was too big, and it had bubbled to the surface.

I reassured her that I wouldn’t have to go anywhere; I had come to this country as a legal immigrant because despite the Asian Exclusion Act, my father had been a doctor, and in the early 1970s, America had wanted his skills. I had been a permanent resident for many years, and then eventually become a citizen, after the Patriot Act threatened every permanent resident with the risk of being immediately deported if convicted of any crime. That was too big a risk to take when raising children in this country, so I dug up the several hundred dollars for the citizenship application, and filled out the forms.

I was teary, taking the oath, and tremendously glad to finally become a citizen. But I was sad too. My connection to Sri Lanka, always attenuated by time and distance, had now been frayed even further. America requires that you relinquish any other claims to citizenship, and as an English professor who teaches Asian American literature, I’m very aware of the price that others have paid for refusing to turn their backs on their countries of birth. John Okada’s No-No Boy is a vivid depiction of how Japanese American citizens were required to sign papers giving up all other allegiances during World War II. America doesn’t tolerate disloyalty, or even the ghost of the appearance of it.

And of course, as a teacher at a state university in a major American city, I do have more than a few undocumented students in my classes. Some have been brave enough to speak about their status during our discussions; many, I’m sure, have been more cautious. They generally came to this country as small children, have lived here all their lives, and now they live in a strange limbo, finishing college, wanting to work and pay taxes in the only country they know, unsure if they’ll be allowed to.

Shall I tell my children that if Trump has his way, if he builds his wall, my students might be forced to leave? And if not that, then they, along with American-born dark-skinned people, will likely face the increased hostility and racism of so many of his followers. The campaign alone has given cover to so many no-longer-closet racists and sexists. Shall I tell them that already, black people are being killed in the streets of America, simply for the crime of being born black? These truths would frighten them, and no mother wants to scare her children like that. But at some point, they have to learn. Maybe that point is now.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the idea of a nation, or a lot of interest in defending its borders. Benedict Anderson, in his book, Imagined Communities, argues that nations are not concrete in the way ancient kingdoms were. Nations are defined not by physical boundaries (such as oceans or mountains), nor by shared language or religion or kinship, but by an imagined equality. Nations are too large for those traits that traditionally bound a village; instead, they’re accidents of history, tied together by ephemeral agreements in our hearts and minds. A resident of Vermont may have more in common with their Canadian neighbor than with a local from Arizona – yet both Vermonter and Arizonan will claim that they are American, and that commitment to their nation binds them together with a shared history, present, and future.

The nation is a fiction, but perhaps a useful one, that lets us take collective action for the good of our community. Can we envision a community as large as America? Maybe that’s a necessary step in learning to finally encompass all of humanity in our visions of a bright future.

I teach an early American Literature survey class, that sweeps its way from the Native American creation myths through to the Puritans and the Founding Fathers. I play my students Hamilton songs, in the hopes that a little bit of the passion of the Founding Fathers will come through to them. I walk students through the Transcendentalists, the Romantics, the Industrial Revolution. We read slave narratives and abolitionist arguments; we read poems by women who apologize for writing at all, and stories by women who were desperate to lift our country’s children out of poverty.

This is the literature that shaped a nation, full of arguments for the soul of America. Two steps forward, one step back, over and over. Yet somehow, we progress. As King said, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

Now we argue in online op eds, on Facebook, or in just one hundred and forty characters. But most of all, we argue with our votes. I wasn’t yet a citizen in 2008, and so I wasn’t able to vote for Obama; I was so frustrated and anxious for the future of my country, I took up knitting, and knit over two dozen scarves, hats, and stuffed toys in the weeks leading up to the election. In 2012, I was finally able to vote, and I cast my vote for Obama with joy, knowing that I lived in a blue state, and it didn’t really matter – but it did.

Politicians pay attention to what the electorate wants; it matters whether a candidate wins by a slim margin, or in a landslide. That’s one reason I encourage my students to vote, even if they think their guy is likely to win. I was delighted to receive an e-mail from one of my students yesterday, one of the ones who does get to vote: “Professor Mohanraj, I will be absent from class tomorrow due to the election and attempting to save America.”

Today, we face yet another argument for America’s soul, as we do every four years. I’ll take my children to the polls with me, and they will watch me vote for the woman who will, I hope, carry us into a future where instead of building walls, we are reaching out our arms to gather our neighbors to us, to lift them up. Stronger together, as she says. Isn’t that what makes a community, a neighborhood, a nation?

Let’s vote for a nation, and by extension, a world, that truly values every human being. Let’s choose an America where our children can sleep easier.


One thought on “On nations and walls and children”

  1. I’m sorry to say that it is Sri Lankan law, not U.S. law, that prevents you from being a citizen of both countries. U.S. law no longer has any such provisions: despite the wording of the citizenship oath (which dates back to the American Revolution, when the important allegiance to disclaim was King George’s), naturalized U.S. citizens can and do retain their native citizenship if their native country allows it. But the Ceylon Citizenship Act, 1948 as amended reads “A person who is a citizen of Sri Lanka by descent shall cease to be a citizen of Sri Lanka if he voluntarily becomes a citizen of any other country. ” I think this is a sad thing.

    There are even persons who, like me, are citizens of two countries by birth. I was born in the U.S. and am a U.S. citizen by U.S. law, but my grandfather was a British subject born in Ireland, which makes me an Irish citizen by Irish law. (My father was born in the U.S., so my daughter is not an Irish citizen.) My brother, who lives both in Ireland and the U.S., travels with two passports, one green and one blue.

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