Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blurring boundaries

I've had several experiences that have been rolling around in my head for the last couple of weeks and they just came together this morning. The first experience was on August 17, 2007 - Miami's new student convocation day. We had David Eggers, author of What is the What on campus to speak to all our new students about Sudan and the child-refugees who fled due to the violence that has gripped their country. The second experience was ordering a piece of music that I've wanted for quite some time - Ellis Island by Peter Boyer. The final experience has been the process I'm undergoing to obtain my visa to work abroad in Qatar for the next three years. I'll explain how they connect...

What is the What was a fascinating book - at least from my perspective. Although written by Eggers, the story is that of Valentino who walked through the deserts of Sudan and Ethiopia to pursue a life free of fear, intimidation, and deprivation. Alex, one of Valentino's childhood friends, was also present at Convocation and told of walking across the desert without food, poorly clothed, and in fear of being captured. Both Valentino's (as told in the book) and Alex's stories were more than any of us in the audience could ever imagine in terms of hardship. After listening to these heart-rending stories, faculty and staff led discussion groups with new students. I had a group of about twenty-five men and women. I opened by having them introduce themselves as we got started but, instead of just saying who they were, I asked them to comment by alternating between a. What excited you today, and b. What troubled you today? The responses that troubled students were most telling - didn't like getting up so early, too hot, couldn't find the discussion group meeting room...

I've heard excerpts from Ellis Island by Peter Boyer numerous times on the radio. I've always been moved by it but never got around to purchasing it until last week. It arrived from Amazon and I ripped into it, taking it to my basement where I have a 70s-vintage sound system to die for (it really is extraordinary). Hearing this music for the first time was almost more than I could bear. It is a combination of symphonic interludes punctuated by brief statements of the real-life experiences of immigrants who came to the U.S.A. through Ellis Island. In case you are American and didn't realize it, 40% of Americans today had relatives who came through Ellis Island in the early 20th century. The music and stories tell of the hope of coming to America and the strife of crossing in boats, enduring illness and poor living conditions, and arriving in America to begin their new lives. The stories aren't always positive but they are all triumphant.

I've discovered that applying for my visa to work in Qatar is an exercise in empathy. Although I've been working on it for over two weeks and spending most of my spare time trying to understand the nuance of how to do this, I realize that, in many ways, my process is so easy and well lubricated by privilege. I can hardly imagine trying to obtain a visa if I really needed it for economic or political reasons and I had no system of coaching and the means (privilege) to get it done. I will get my visa and I don't really have to worry about being denied so my experience with applying for the visa is little more than an inconvenience - rather than a matter of life and death (Sudan) or economic desperation (20th century immigrants to the U.S.A.).

These three experiences spurred me to question what isn't working about our world. Why is it that America can be a nation almost entirely composed of immigrants with 40% knowing the stories of hardship of their immigrant parents or grand-parents, yet be so eager to close the borders in order to control the population and its corner on privilege? How can citizens of the U.S.A. be so unaware of the struggles of many people around the globe - Colombia, Darfur, Sudan, Iraq... And, how can we complain about getting up too early or being uncomfortably hot or not understanding the visa application process when we want to travel, study, or work abroad?

It's all about perspective - where we came from, understanding and empathizing with others, opening ourselves to know the world in which we live. The coming months will no doubt stimulate much more reflection about perspective and I look forward to sharing that with you and hearing your thoughts as well.


Anonymous said...

I don't know that it's so hard to understand why we want to close our borders and we keep denying the plausibility of a global community. Though xenophobia has contributed to immigration issues for decades, I think it has more to do with economy and the size of any given American's slice of the pie. Even those who are here illegally have intense dreams of being wealthy someday, or at least having reasonable means. But the mentality is that the more who come in, the more burdened we are and the fewer opportunities there will be to make money.

I have done no research on this, but every conversation I've had with someone who is "against" lax immigration laws seems to be guarding some nebulous economic interest in being so.

But you know what? I'm also privileged. I'm luxuriating in academe, rolling toward a PhD. If I was stuck in trade work and hoping for a union membership knowing that "illegal" immigrants were also vying for that prize, how would I feel then?

Translation between the theories we weave and the realities driving these attitudes is always the main question in the end, isn't it?

Denny Roberts said...

You are on point that it's not hard to understand how people get trapped in a paradigm of the world as a limited resource and all of us vying for the scraps. The reflection I was toying with was if the cycle might be broken by exposing unexamined privilege as a way to challenge the sense of entitlement.

The first-year students with whom I spoke on 9-13-07 were so into their sense of "we deserve to be here" that they couldn't even hear the story of "What is the What?." I could also complain about the hassles of getting a visa up until the point that I heard the stories of those who came to America via Ellis Island.

I guess that's why people write books or compose great music (among other things) - to attempt to weave a compelling story that connects our espoused theory with the reality of our actions.