By Jeremiah Kim
SCENE: A pho restaurant. Amidst the streams of sweat, spit, and speech spilling out between steaming bowls of hot brown broth, a table for two sits silent and spotless.
LOVER: So uh…it says in your bio that you speak two languages…
(Leans forward conspiratorially.)
Does that you mean you’re like…not from here?
BELOVED: Well, I moved to New York six months ago. Before that, I lived in Boston. What about you?
LOVER: No, no, that’s not what I meant. I meant like, where did you come from? Originally?
BELOVED: Oh, my family is from S-
(LOVER noisily sucks in a spurt of air.)
LOVER: An immigrant! I knew it! Let me tell you—I love immigrants. Immigrants are like—America is a nation of immigrants! Did you know that? We’re a nation of immigrants—I saw that somewhere and it’s so beautiful, and so true. Don’t you think so? If we didn’t have you people, God knows who would farm our crops! I mean, look at me. Farming? Please. But don’t get me wrong; I know that immigrants are scientists too! And doctors! I bet—you seem like a doctor. Were your parents scientists? Did they have to flee a dictatorship? That must have been so traumatic for you. So many countries have horrible regimes like that. Some countries…you never know. But you’re here now; you’re safe. Doesn’t that make you so happy? And grateful? I would be—if I were an immigrant, I would be so grateful. You know, sometimes, I feel like I am an immigrant. I know I said we’re all immigrants, but I mean—I feel like I really am one. Sometimes I imagine myself flying into JFK, going through immigration services, and walking out into the sunlight clutching that piece of paper that says: you’re an American citizen! I bet that felt so good. I always say that immigrants really understand how lucky we are to be in this country—because they had to earn it. I wish more people understood that. Anyway, I just think it’s so great you decided to come here. Not that there’s anywhere else you could go. Except like, Canada or something.
(Record scratch, freeze frame.)
It’s time for an intervention. America, it’s time to talk about your immigrant fetish. Let’s parse through this fabricated first encounter as an allegory for your ugly tendency to objectify, commoditize, pigeonhole, ignore, displace, and abuse the people who end up inside your borders.
So you hold up signs in the streets that proclaim, “We are all immigrants,” yet you forget that it’s a far cry between a displaced refugee and a colonizer who, uninvited, forsakes the very “right to property” he holds in sacred regard and settles on land that already belonged to an indigenous population. Even if most of us are, to varying degrees, complicit in the project of settler colonialism, we must also recognize that not all “immigrants” are the same. To lump the invasions of America’s “pioneers” together with the trafficking of black slaves or the coerced migrations of brown and yellow peoples as cheap labor is a disingenuous and dangerous false equivalency. So get this through your thick, sick head: the experiences of every single migrant do not line up perfect and pretty into some sweet mosaic that magically absolves you of your systemic mistreatment towards “undesirable,” “illegal,” “inferior,” and “dangerous” immigrants. Believe it or not, categorizing any individual or group as “illegal” is a fundamentally, intractably fucked-up thing to do. Believe it or not, arguing that those individuals and groups deserve entrance in our society because they fulfill some quota of economic profitability is an equally fucked-up thing to do. Measuring a human life on the basis of what kind of labor or wealth it can offer is no better than—and is in fact historically implicated in—the measuring of human lives by their skin tone, gender, language proficiency, religion, or geographic origin.
Karl Marx once identified a peculiar transformation to social relations in which human-to-human relationships were replaced by market-driven relationships between money and commodities under the developing political economy. He called it commodity fetishism. Example: if you look at a Big Mac—or better yet, an advertisement for a Big Mac—you don’t see the actual wheat, lettuce, cucumber, beef, etc., that someone had to grow, harvest, process, package, transport, and assemble to produce it. You don’t see the working conditions for the farmers, the butchers, the chemists, the factory workers, the truck drivers. The restaurant employees that you do see are uniformly collapsible into the fold of the almighty Golden Arches. All you see is the Big Mac: no less divine and inscrutable than Prometheus’ gift of fire to mankind. I argue that commodity fetishism can be expanded to include the discourse that surrounds immigrants in this country. As a self-perpetuating, hegemonic system of symbols and stories, immigrant fetishism assumes immediate priority over any diverging and intersecting experiences lived out by actual immigrants. The immigrant journey itself accrues mythological implications that deny the human existence of the people it supposedly describes.
So when AirBnB plasters a palette of honest, smiling faces glowing with the absolute truth of their ethnic diversity and unfailing gratitude on our Twitter feeds, that grand, swelling feeling in our chests is not so much a tangible realization about the havoc wreaked on the lives of marginalized migrant groups as the result of racist and/or Islamophobic immigration policy as it is a meticulously engineered emotional reaction to a series of coded images functionally divorced from any realities they are supposed to reflect. The fact that AirBnB profits from the gentrification and displacement of low-income, immigrant-rich communities of color gets subsumed under an amorphous celebration of “difference.” Similarly, when a Budweiser Superbowl commercial tracking the hard-scrabble journey of its German-born founder to America concludes with a cathartic revelation of the grimy blueprints for—gasp—the original Budweiser beer bottle, we are more enamored with the aesthetic presentation of a supposedly universal immigrant experience than we are with the historical particularities of working-class European immigrants in the 19th century. That the discrimination young Adolphus Busch faces (“Go back home!” spews one man on period-perfect New England streets) is cloyingly reminiscent of our modern malice is not enough to compel us towards, say, calling our local Congressperson or joining a physical protest against ICE. In fact, the advertisement’s title—“Born the Hard Way”—suggests that xenophobic bigotry and violence might actually be positive in a roundabout sort of way; after all, Busch did end up creating a globally-recognizable brand and multibillion dollar corporation. Imagine if he didn’t have to brave raging seas, belligerent pedestrians, menacing glares, and harrowing river-passages—who knows if we’d still have that most quixotically American of 12-calorie light beers today?
And now, when news analysts and policy experts discuss the effects of Trump’s Muslim ban, they’re merely pushing buttons on a flight pad meant to launch you, America, into a fit of rage or a flight of pity. Lost in the conversation are a number of important recognitions: first, that darker-skinned immigrants are capable of complex emotions beyond fear and relief; second, that ensuring the physical and legal security of an MIT student is just as crucial as ensuring the physical and legal security of an undocumented farm worker; third, that the legal process of immigration was fraught with systemic biases and injustices long before our resident orange toad ascended to power; fourth, that immigrants do not uniformly flock from their respective countries in a collective beeline to your shores; fifth, that you are not as uniquely (or even remotely) adept at providing refuge to those “tired, huddled masses” as you proclaim to be.
Let me indulge your deluded, voyeuristic predilections with a bit of personal history: my mom is an immigrant. My grandparents too. My grandfather fled conscription to the North Korean Army during the Korean War, and my mom and her siblings were born in South Korea. Working for the South Korean military during the 1960s, my grandfather came into contact with a burgeoning transnational import/export supply chain. At the same time, the South Korean government began to facilitate the emigration of many North Korean defectors and their families in an attempt to quell overpopulation. Consequently, my mom arrived in America—South America, mind you—as a young child in the midst of larger, geopolitical migratory channels. The subsequent formative years of her life—childhood, adolescence, high school, college—were spent in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My mom’s decision to come to the United States as an international grad student didn’t arise from a yearning to obtain that cotton-candy-colored American Dream; in fact, my mom never intended to stay in the States at all. But life happened and circumstances evolved, and in 1996, I was born. I remember asking my mom once what language she dreamt in—Korean, Spanish, or English? She told me it changes from night to night.
Immigration is a massive, messy, drawn-out process with no clear trajectory or endpoint; any act of migration is not a one-time event but is lived out repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. In many cases, America, you are as arbitrary and temporary a destination as any other geopolitical entity. In all cases, the full spectrum of psychological and cultural burdens placed on the individuals who cross your borders escapes the crude fiction you have fashioned in your own image. The implacable creed of Manifest Destiny that has smashed through Native land rights is the same one that plays heavy duty in the calculated destabilization and displacement of Muslim lives on “alien” continents; the neurotic logic that enlisted the entire U.S. South against the Emancipation of black slaves in the name of “protecting economic interests” and a “way of life” is the same logic that wins a presidential campaign on the promise of border walls, immigration bans, and trade isolationism; the hand that pieces together a romanticized plasticine composite of the indomitable, enterprising immigrant is the same hand that picks and pulls apart immigrant bodies, minds, and communities in growing numbers with each passing day.
Yes, migration can be beautiful, terrifying, and ordinary. No, it does not come wrapped in red, white, and blue.