When We See People as “Other”

Photo by Max Ostrozhinskiy on Unsplash

Last week, I was telling a co-worker about my family’s recent trip to New York. I was describing the area of Brooklyn where we were staying, a predominantly Russian neighborhood, and also visiting Chinatown. These two areas were filled with languages I couldn’t understand, street signs I couldn’t read, and foods I did not recognize. I saw it as exposure for my kids (ages 8 and 6) to experiences other than what we see in the suburbs of Chicago.

Referring to the preservation of culture within these pockets of the country, my co-worker responded “You know I’m pro-America, so that type of thing really bothers me.”

Through the phone, he couldn’t see my eyes narrow. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“These immigrants who come here and don’t adapt to America…” he started to say, but I cut him off.

“My husband is an immigrant,” I informed him forcefully.

“Well he got on the right path,” was the response.

I was so taken aback that I abruptly ended the conversation, rather than go down a path that I’m sure would only enrage me more. “Right” path? Because he went to college? Some of his siblings did not and they are doing just fine. Because he no longer speaks the language and the cultural traditions? Most of his family openly celebrate their heritage. I could think of many other bigoted interpretations of “right path” best left unsaid.

This conversation was on the heels of increasing reports in the news about the what is happening to families at the border. The stream of information about the new policy separating parents from their children has cascaded into a waterfall with the force of Niagara. I avoided it for days, because as a parent it hurt my heart too much, but now I cannot look away. Even after executive order today appears to have reversed the worst of this inhumane policy, I still cannot breathe thinking of the separated children and how long it may take to reunite them with my parents.

If I were separated from my children, I would break in half.

Any parent who tries to imagine the moment when their child is ripped from their arms would likely feel the same.

The problem that I read in comments from people is “they are breaking the law” which is a wolf in sheep’s clothing way of saying “they deserved it.”

The minister at my church says that there is one rule, one thing that rises above, in all religions, commandments, and creeds — the commonality of faith, and what binds us together:

Thou. Shalt. Not. Other.

“Other” people’s children.

“Other” causes us to forget, justify, misplace, or misidentify our perceptions. Our behavior follows.

Today is World Refugee Day. My husband is a refugee. He is Hmong and Hmong people faced genocide in Laos following the Vietnam War. They fled to Thailand and stayed in a refugee camp with thousands of other people. My husband was born in the refugee camp. He lived there until he was 6 years old and doesn’t talk about it much.

His family brought eight children to the United States in the late 80s, as refugees. They didn’t speak any English. My husband’s first few years in school were rough, due to the lack of ESL programs back then. When asked now to describe the biggest challenges in his life, he says one of them is the racism he has faced.

When I think of the children being separated from their parents at the border to this country, I think of my husband. If he had been separated from his parents at the moment that they reached the border, and the trauma that would have caused — six years old, terrified, and in a foreign country. People leave their homes — leave everything behind — because they feel that they are out of options. That facing the difficult unknown is better than facing abject poverty, crime, or death in their own country.

I am not naive. I know that most people who read this likely already agree with me. It’s why I have mostly given up sharing articles or sentiments in social media: I doubt I will change any minds. I write this because I needed to give voice to my own emotions over the past few weeks. I want to cover my eyes, but instead I am looking and I am writing.

“The test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” -Pearl Buck

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