As I sit here in front of my computer late at night, on the verge of the 2016 US presidential election, I’m struck by the choice I had to make. Two different versions of a future US society: one that invites multidiversity and multiethnicity in all their chaotic, unpredictable combinations, and one that shuts the door and preserves a traditional us vs them, insider vs outsider mentality.
By all rights, I should support the latter. I’m from a small town of less than 3,000 inhabitants, close to 99.99% white, deep in the heart of Upstate New York. I grew up surrounded by people who basically looked like me, enjoyed camping and hiking, canoeing and fishing, playing baseball and football and video games. Driving. A lot. I did yard work when I was old enough to get my working papers (back then, you didn’t get your social security number until you applied for it after age 14). In the spring, I helped my father in the garden. In the summer I mowed lawns. In the fall I raked leaves. In the winter I shoveled driveways. In high school, I had a part-time at a local pizza place, then at McDonald’s, then washed dishes in a nearby town. All our customers were white. All of them spoke English. It was all just fine, everybody looking the same and acting the same. Everybody just like me.
It could have been so easy to turn the anger to hate…
But, of course, reality is more complicated, and memory is 20-20. My family moved into the area from another rural area down south, closer to Albany. So I was the “city boy” (despite having lived in an even smaller hamlet of 300 during elementary school). I was the outsider (despite my grandfather having been born in the new town). I was made fun of for being Irish Catholic and having lots of siblings. I was mocked for taking advanced subjects in school, for playing in band and singing in chorus, for wearing glasses. And of course there was always my name. Johnny Appleseed. Apple Sauce. Apple Juice. Apple Pie. Apple Computer (these were the days before Apple took over the world…)
So I tried to fit in. I tried to be a jock. I tried to hide my love of math, chemistry, history, literature. Tried going to parties. Tried the ethnic jokes. And all seemed OK. But the anger remained.
It could have been so easy to turn the anger to hate. Understandable. I couldn’t make more than minimum wage ($3.35 an hour at the time). I couldn’t get more than 20 to 25 hours a week. I couldn’t afford a decent car (mine kept breaking down all the time and sometimes wouldn’t start). Some of my friends and relatives got into “Japan-bashing” and signed pledges not to buy Hondas and Nissans (never mind that we were nowhere near any car manufacturing plants). Locals criticized “King Cuomo” for not allowing land development in areas near state parkland. Taxes were too high, they said. Rich downstaters and city people trying to tell us what to do with our own land. Lazy blacks and corrupt Jews taking handouts from our taxes. It wasn’t fair. The system was rigged.
Probably sounds familiar. This was the ‘80s, though.
I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to college, but I still had to borrow a lot. But I was lucky. Not just to get into college. Lucky to meet people that didn’t look like me. The first person I ever met at college, on my first day entering the dormitory, was a student from India who had grown up in England. I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. I soon met my roommate: Asian-American, from New York City. Then Malaysian students. Korean. Chinese. Japanese. Kenyan. Nigerian. South African. Serbian. Hungarian. French. Dutch. People from all over the US: San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Austin, Seattle, Nome, Boston, Cheyenne, Santa Fe, St. Louis, Louisville, Memphis. I was the outsider again. I was the local. The unsophisticated rural hick, feeling far out of my depth.
It would have been so easy to hate.
After a while, I started writing for the college newspaper, and in time became Assistant Editor, and then Editor-in-Chief. I was perceived as conservative. Anti-liberal. Anti-choice. Anti-PC. An opponent of interdisciplinary trends such as African-American studies and women’s studies; a supporter of the old-fashioned Eurocentric educational ideals.
It would have been so easy. Really.
But I voted for Bill Clinton in my first presidential election, in 1992, because I opposed the Persian Gulf Distraction. I voted for him again in 1996, despite feeling that there was no real difference between him and Bob Dole. By 2000 I was overseas, living in Japan and teaching English in high school, feeling distant and disconnected and thoroughly disillusioned.
I didn’t bother voting in 2000 or 2004.
Regrets. I’ve had a few.
But by 2008 I was voting. For Barack Obama. What had changed?
I missed 9/11. I witnessed the Second Gulf Distraction, from the outside looking in. The ill-prepared and ill-thought out invasion of two sovereign nations for the purpose of filling rich men’s pockets. The waste of human life. The increasing bipolarity of a country that shouted “Love it or leave it” at relatives who questioned supporting war.
I left America. Did that mean I didn’t love it?
In 2005, I married a Japanese woman. Or, rather, I should say that a woman from Japan chose to marry me. Me! Of all people. We now have two children, two “biracial,” bicultural (and hopefully bilingual) daughters, who have both Japanese and American citizenship.
My family doesn’t look like me. But they kind of do. I don’t look like them. But I kind of do, in a way.
You see, it’s taken me 44 years and living in four states and two countries to realize that what I was taught as an elementary school kid in a rural hamlet in Upstate New York was not exactly accurate.
American culture and society aren’t a “melting pot,” in which people from various backgrounds dissolve their differences and turn into “Americans.” People in the US may think they look alike, but they don’t. Americans are obsessed…obsessed!…with genealogy. They are completely absorbed in finding out where their families came from, who their ancestors were, what cities and towns, what countries and cultures they came from. White people are especially interested in finding where in the world their great- and great-great grandparents hailed. From all different parts of England, Scotland, and Wales. From different areas of Ireland. From the Netherlands, France, Belgium (Flanders, Wallonia…) From “Scandanavia” (which hasn’t been a combined kingdom in a millennium). From what is now “Georgia” (Kartvelebi). From Armenia. From what used to be the Kingdom of Poland, but what at the time was parts of other countries and now is Poland again. From Greece and Macedonia (or are they the same…not judging here….) From the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. From what used to be Czechoslovakia but is now the separate countries of Czech and Slovakia. and Yugoslavia but are now several smaller independent countries. From what is now called Germany but until 1870 consisted of dozens of smaller states. Same for Italy. From Austria and Switzerland.
And now these are all “white.”
My own ancestry is mostly Irish, but also German, Dutch, French Canadian, and English, with possibly some Kazakh and/or Native American (unconfirmed). In school I was already “multiethnic” and didn’t even know it.
In America’s past, the Scotch-Irish were called “squatters” and loudly complained about. The Germans were sent to the worst farmland, followed by the Polish, the Russians, the Ukranians and Scandanavians. The Irish were given the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, before the Chinese and Japanese appeared and were discriminated against in turn. “No Irish.” “No Chinese.” And of course “No Colored.” Catholics, Jews, Huguenots, Mormons. Each of us in turn. Once we get settled in after a generation or two, another new group arrives to take its turn.
Latinos. Mexicans. But of course, they were already here. (Florida, “New” Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas…)
Build a wall? Sign another Alien Exclusion Act?
Americans are not part of a melting pot. We are part of a mixed salad, forever adding and subtracting and multiplying. Some want their salad with white ranch dressing. I prefer a thousand islands. Another mix that tastes better together than separate.
Today, I picked up my older daughter from her after-school program, on my way home from work. I walked home with her, talked about her school day and her homework. As we talked, we constantly switched back and forth between English and Japanese. Different languages and cultural identities. There was no confusion. After we arrived and started preparing dinner, my wife came back a few minutes later from work with my younger daughter, who launched into a lengthy, detailed description of how she had been walking along the hallway in her nursery school when a boy in her class, running quickly, bumped into her and hurt the side of her face. They both cried, and he apologized to her. Should she have become angry and violent? Should my wife? Should I? Does living together with people who don’t act the way we do somehow mean we are weak?
We live in a dangerous world, one candidate says. We can’t let any more of these people in. Who knows what they’ll do. We need to protect our borders. We can’t tolerate difference. Different ways of thinking, believing, acting. Different people. They don’t look like us.
Half a century ago, my marriage would have been illegal in many parts of the US. My children reviled, openly discriminated against, made to feel inferior because they were not “pure.”
Is this the America you want to revert to?
I’m a “white” man. Not Asian, black, Pacific Islander, Latino. Not a woman. I will never truly know what it feels like to be discriminated against in the US. But I’ve been mocked. Made to feel separate and isolated. Worked low paying jobs and felt ignored by a larger society. I have every reason to hate the system.
But to what avail. Will hate help my daughters? Will it help my wife, my family…myself?
I see my children…multiethnic, multicultural…and my students…multi-selved, flawed but filled with potential and looking for opportunity…and I reject hate. Categorically.
I made my choice. Flawed, yes. Imperfect and occasionally too stubborn to listen to the counsel of others, perhaps.
I choose hope over hate, facts over innuendo, honesty (even half-honesty) over openly bald-faced lies.
Determination over desperation. Inclusion over exclusion.
Not us vs them. Us and them. There is no them. Only us.
Stronger together. My conscience is clear.
It’s your choice.