Reality check: This week, in America

This week I was assigned a reference request for a naturalization that took place in Miami in the 1980s. This is a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill request, where a person writes or calls the National Archives at Atlanta to request the Petition for Naturalization of a person, for whatever reason they need it. I've had people call looking for records for genealogy purposes, so they are seeking the papers of their parents or grandparents. I've had people request these records from courts or other government agencies during the hiring or legal processes in which citizenship must be proven. Other times the individual has lost their own documentation and are left with two options: they can request a new copy of their final certificate of naturalization from USCIS for a cool $350, or they can have us try to track down their Petition, which is the document completed that leads to the final certificate, that oftentimes proves citizenship and holds up in court of law just as well as the certificate--but we charge $22.50 for a certified copy. You can imagine people are pretty anxious to come to us first, to see if we might have this petition.

The request I had this week was a Miami case, which is one of our most-requested cities, and it has an excellent index to aid our search. I located Mrs. Rodriguez's petition and called her to get the form of payment.

Her story makes my heart hurt. She immigrated to this country, from Cuba, as a child, and has been here more than fifty years now. She was involved as a citizen on the ground here in the U.S. in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, she told me. She has three younger sisters, and even though they are all in their fifties now, she has always felt like the example, that it is her duty to be a good person, and a good citizen. She naturalized and became an American in the mid 1980s.

She recently got her first ticket, which has precipitated the situation she is in now. Apparently, months or years ago (that detail was unclear), someone broke into her home in Miami and stole her entire filing cabinet, that contained all her documents--birth and marriage records, as well as immigration and naturalization papers. Now she cannot renew her license and the state is prepared to deport her back to Cuba.

Can I repeat, she has been living in the U.S. for fifty years, and has been a citizen for the last twenty-five. The problem is, since her papers are now missing, she has to request a new certificate, which is no problem, except that USCIS averages three to four months to process certificate requests. They are prepared to deport her in just a few weeks. So she called us for help, to see if the petition would serve as sufficient proof. It lists her final certificate number and everything on it. She has also been in contact with her congressman (who she said was not help at all), and her senator (who is now working to help her, on her side).

I am on her side. It makes me so sad that this person, who told me vehemently that she believes this country to be the greatest one on earth, despite its behavior to her at present, that she is now facing the risk of being sent to a "home" that is not really her home, based on stringent laws that stemmed from this ticket--for not paying a toll on a toll road once--something that is easy to do by mistake. The consequences for me versus her, who cannot prove her citizenship quickly enough, are starkly different. And she chose to come here, wants to be here, appreciates the land where you can "do anything" you can dream of.

We have high hopes to live up to. Great expectations. But she believes in them.

This is a real person, a victim of strict immigration laws that I often doubt the benefit of. The best I could do was represent my own government agency well, and to wish her the best in this process. I said I hope she succeeds, that this document helps to prove her right to be here. Without getting too political, I just cannot understand not allowing people who want to take part in a life in the United States the opportunity to try. I hope I played a small but crucial role in finding her citizenship record, certifying it, and offering my well-wishes.

It was a reality check, that there are real people, good citizens, suffering the brunt of laws that it's easy to forget about, me sitting over here on the "safe" side, a natural-born citizen. And the reality, her reality, made me very sad.

Place: "writing from a place, from a community, from a location in the world"

Part of the profession of writing and studying history demands an indifference to place. One reason for this is the slim chance of finding an academic position in the exact city where you might want it, so we want to be assured that any location is surely a great place to do our jobs. But the other, more significant, aspect of our profession is that we almost always start with something that happened and then look around at the place where it occurred. The location, the city, the larger community, is the secondary thing that we consider, after the initial social or political bit caught our interest.

Local and public history is almost exactly the opposite. For the people living in their home, in their city or town, in their region, they begin with a place they care about and ask what happened there, in that spot that they claim, maybe even identify with.

It might be the disassociation, the impersonal way that we take history and dissect it, interpret it, and polish it up into a book filled with delicious complication and some big words, that sometimes causes our own alienation from everyday people, who consume a wholly different kind of history. While the doctoral works sit in the university library for other noble scholars to ponder and converse over, citizens of my city are consuming history through television documentaries and films, theme parks, mass market historical fiction, facts and tidbits on Snapple caps, and maybe (hopefully!) a museum every now and then. Part of why I find public history so important a field is that we see how both of these types of history are important, and, as Michael Frisch said in his book with the same title, we have a "shared authority." The conversation about history is not only taking place in the university, nor should it. We are not allowed to shake our heads, smiling sadly, at the interpretations of Hollywood movies or History Channel specials if we are not willing to take the discussion to the table, equally set, to have a talk about the complexities and contentions in our past.

And we can talk about community histories together. This is an exciting idea to me, because I am a bit of a product of that American placelessness problem (although I don't see it as a "problem"); I did not have deep connections with particular cities, communities, or regions on a historical level until the last few years, when, either adulthood or my upper division history courses or both dropped me into a strange reality: I cared about where I lived. I don't mean that I never cared about a place, what I mean is deeper, on a historical level: I care about what happened in that place before I got there. That is a significant difference, and it changes your approach.

A majority of the courses I took to earn my bachelor's degree were on world history. I know a lot about Chinese history and politics, India and South Asia and their politics, West Africa, Central Asia, even a bit (though only a bit) about Europe. But not being from any of those places, there is only so much I can ever hope to know about them, and I may never understand them fully. That leaves me knowing not very much about the larger world, but even less about my own history. I learned a lesson, I grounded myself and thought headily about how much I need to learn about my own complicated past (and how it relates to all the other ones I've studied, which fold back into each other in beautiful important ways.) Wouldn't you know, the American history and public history courses I did take had some of the most profound impact on me, and my career path.

The deeper I get into history though, I need to have my areas of expertise, of core interest, the parts of history whose facts I know, like the professors who sometimes amaze me with thee breadth of their knowledge. (I rest more easily when I remind myself that they've had a lot longer to learn all these things.) I don't officially have my list yet. I don't know what I want to study, maybe because there are so many things I would like to study.

Usually I'll ramble off something about the immigrant experience in America, as that is an area I am extremely interested in. Regular readers will know I have an ongoing fascination with the notion of nationality and identity, and what happens when you are too many of those things, and what point in the spectrum garners you a hyphenated identity. It has been interesting recently, for example, to read of the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, the strict Chinese mother (living in the U.S.) who has raised her children markedly unlike the American counterparts around her. But in China nowadays, Chua's is an old guard of parents, a generation past. To Chinese people, the controversy is surrounding an American mom; she is an American mom to them. So who is she? What is she? That is just juicy, good stuff. So, that is one area I really do hope I get to work in. There are so many stories from so many countries that become part of our American history as soon as they enter our country. Some have been here a long time, others, not so long. They're all important stories.

Anyway, this week I read historian David Glassberg's Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life and it was brimming with quotable and thought-provoking observations and experiences in the minds and matters of the public and their past, and what it means. His concluding remarks were both a revelation in combining emotion and a study of the past, and in reveling in connectivity and separation at once, a challenge and aspiration for historians to tackle today. But he also spoke right to newcomers to the field, and reassured me that I have talents and ideas to bring to the world yet, and I'll figure out what they are before long.

The distancing from life, the quest for perspective that historians learn in graduate school as the core of the historical enterprise must be balanced by a recognition of our personal needs for the past. Our own experiences, our own families, our own communities, can be the source of historical insights, not because we assume that everyone is like us, but because we can establish who we are only by writing from a place, from a community, from a location in the world.

So what will I tell my students wanting to become historians? Certainly to learn the history of the profession, and the skills necessary to earn a living doing history, whether through teaching or any number of other pursuits. But also to find a place from which to write, and to cultivate a humanity within yourself that allows you to connect with others in that place. To help the residents of your community to see the value of the ordinary places where they live. To help your neighbors to expand their time perspective beyond a generation or two. And perhaps most difficult, given the tendency Americans have to make histories that exclude others from their life-stories and neighborhoods, to help your fellow citizens to expand their social perspectives beyond their immediate families, so that they discover in their quest for a history and place that they can call their own, that they are part of a larger society and environment.

I have been sitting on an idea for my own historical and creative endeavor that I can hopefully turn into my larger capstone project for my master's degree (that class will be next spring). And I can tell you that reading this passage makes me want to jump out of my seat and go start it right now. So many good discussions to have out there... so much amazing history, wrapped up in people's lives and surrounding them every day. Since the day I decided I wanted to be a journalist, in high school, I've had the urge and the need to share stories that illustrate the grandness of human drama, and to show people the larger perspectives and how they fit in. That urge is at the center of everything I've been doing since then, although it has taken many positive twists and turns from that title "journalism." It's really writing. Telling stories. That's what I do, have done, will do.

America and nationality, a troubled love story

For a long time, leaders (and many citizens) saw the United States as a country of, and for, white people. This is clear in our treatment of Native Americans and our trampling of many of the contracts we drew with them, and obviously, in our treatment of African slaves who then developed an African-American identity long before they were seen as legal citizens. With the powerful, nearly mythological construct of their "Manifest Destiny" backing expansion, Americans blazed across the continent, reaching the West coast and declaring nearly all that land, save for a small portion for Natives, as theirs.

But when it came time to seek other pieces of the Americas, there was a marked reluctance and not nearly the same sense of a God-given right to any land. We like to think that this was our sensible side taking charge, smartly avoiding the mishaps of other more established imperial powers, like England and Spain, whose empires were waning, and we saw the utter hassle of maintaining that much territory. There is a bit of truth in that.

More compelling, however, is this uninterrupted notion of America as a republic for white citizens. The colonization of African Americans back to Africa lay on the table long enough in American policy history to stand as a solid example of just how incompatible some saw a United States that contained large minority groups; need we even mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants for twenty years upon its signing in 1882? (Asian immigrants weren't even allowed to earn citizenship until the 1940s.) We've had a treacherous, scarred, love-hate relationship with our immigrants, even while we became known as "the Melting Pot," but this relationship was especially acute when it came to annexing territories not contiguous to the North American continent.

Historian Eric Love argues that racism in the era of American imperialism was not used to support imperial annexation, harking on the "white man's burden," but was actually what anti-imperialists used against that cause. In the cases of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) and the Philippines, large populations of non-white natives was a large deterrent in making these islands part of the United States. Alaska had no such trouble, as Americans could more easily see it as assimilating with the nation as it was. In the case of Hawaii, that far-flung acquisition, the islands were annexed after enough convincing was done in showing that a large number of whites already lived there, the natives were docile, and populations like the Portuguese were, for all intents and purposes, white already. Plus, they argued, we need to protect those whites already living there.

So whether the Unites States has sought the land that happens to be occupied by non-whites, or whether non-whites have showed up at our doorstep and requested residency here, determining the fine line between citizenship and race has never been easy.

I would like to take this further and consider this fickle, slippery past in terms of the notion of nationality and self-identity. As the twentieth century developed around what started a bit earlier, with the world's structure as all land drawn up and broken into nation-states, we added another layer of personal identification: nationality. Before that the world operated on a more local level, and people's lives were far more contingent on what township you were from than anything else. Also significant was the language you spoke.

Fast forward a hundred years past Americans' fixation with non-whites standing as majorities in any hypothetical new states, and we are still discussing the issue of assimilation and "American" identity, though with far less racist undertones and with more modern logic. (Check into Love's book for some juicy stuff on our imperial era and his argument, which breaks the conventional historical narrative. He backs up his gutsy point with solid research.)

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the hypothetical admittance of Puerto Rico as a state, which, with its current school system and organization, would be a Spanish-speaking state. Seem like we have the same qualms with this concept that we did a hundred years ago--not along the lines of race, but along the lines of cultural assimilation and American nationality; really, we're still very much talking about what it means to be American and what things you must inherently give up from your old country when you chose to reside in another.

Tim Schultz, a lobbyist with the group U.S. English, spoke to PRI corespondent Patrick Cox recently on this subject, in Cox's World in Words podcast (which shows up regularly here). He made some interesting points throughout the interview, but on the subject of Puerto Rico, all I kept thinking about was how much his statements harked back to the rationale of more than a century ago, when we could not fathom the idea of having non-whites and non-English speakers as a majority in any state in the United States. It would mean a completely new voice added to our national congress, which was abominable back then. But in 2010, Congress looks a bit different; so the issue today is not ethnicity as it is language--that hugely significant linguistic identity, and the problem of citizens whose primary language is Spanish as somehow bad for our country, and certainly bad for our national unity. Both of those notions are fraught with cracks, as the country's past can attest to: it's not had an easy relationship with its immigrants, but it need not be said that the immigrants who've fought their way in over the centuries have benefited our larger "identity."

To Schultz, it in unconscionable to have any American kids going through school never learning English, which he feels would be the case in Puerto Rico if it became a state. Under the current federal education laws, children have to take standardized tests in English within three years of entering into a public school in this country; this is an incentive for students from non-English family backgrounds to learn the language quickly. As a territory, Puerto Rico is exempt from that law, he points out, and he argues that this sets an unhealthy precedent were it to become a state. I have to pause here to wonder, if it did become a state, wouldn't that exemption be called into question? If Puerto Rico became a state, there would be many things about their now-standing status that would change--tax exemptions for one--and it is a bit premature to suggest that we would just overlook this language issue upon seriously admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

He cites their economic troubles as an incentive for Puerto Ricans to learn English if admitted. "They're going to fall completely behind economically," if they do become a Spanish-speaking state, he says. He argues this based on the fact that if incorporated now, it would be the poorest state by far. Again, these are far-reaching hypothetical issues, and I think many Puerto Ricans could argue against him on this, while still others would agree, and would certainly expand their English language skills. After all, as Schultz also says, there are immigrants and Hispanics who agree wholeheartedly in English as the language of the U.S.

The main resolution his organization seeks is ensuring that the incentives exist for immigrants to learn English. As he said to Cox: "English is more important for American now than it ever has been, because we live in a globalized, information-age economy. And we're all connected more than we ever [have been]," Schultz says. I would agree, and add that the incentives are quite similar no matter what country you're educated in.

If Spanish rises to a sort of co-official status with English, Schultz says later on, "It's not that everybody would suddenly become bilingual; it's that Spanish speakers would less and less need to learn English to survive in the United States, and that creates a sort of second mainstream, if you will, a sort of second linguistic mainstream, in which Spanish speakers would become, you know, doing worse economically, and frankly, probably a lot less likely to self identify as Americans."

There it is again, this pernicious, pervasive tendency to define things in terms of nationality, and national identity; the reality is, without veering too far into postmodernism here, that there are millions of Americans who identify themselves as such while also holding Chinese heritage, Mexican heritage, Indian heritage-- and for many, their appearances and family languages will ensure that those identities remain with them as well. The hyphenated nationality (Chinese-American, Italian-American, even African-American) is synonymous with being American, even when we're born and raised in the U.S. So it is a funny thing, nationality, and our preoccupation with it.

A hybrid port city on the coast of China: Shanghai, good and bad

Rev. Young John Allen, the man I spent last semester studying, was a foreigner living in Shanghai in the second half of the nineteenth century. In his day, the city was the only port open to the outside, although more would open as time went on. It was through Shanghai, then, that the world's collection of people came to see and trade with China, creating the "hybrid that confounds the very idea of East and West," as Brook Larmer writes in "Shanghai Dreams," in this month's National Geographic.

I felt that hybridity when I stayed there. I had been in other far more Chinese cities for nearly two months, and by the time I arrived in Shanghai at the end of my journey, it almost felt like I had already landed back in the West: Raisin Bran was for sale in the grocer's, stores accepted credit cards, and there was an H&M. My hotel charged inordinate daily prices on wifi, which I found insulting given the amount I had been paying in other dormitories and hotels across the country.

As the meeting place between East and West though, Shanghai is not the sell-out I considered it when I arrived three years ago coming off a wave of what I then saw as "real China"--the interior cities and Beijing. For the other places were certainly modern, and had their western influences, and contained millions of people, years of history, and Chinese culture in each of them. But they seemed to me to contain something less obstructed by the outside than Shanghai. But that is not the right way to approach it.

In this city, when immigrants were coming, like Young J. Allen, from abroad, they were bringing to the city their own background, creating something altogether unlike the rest of China, and which would forever alter its make-up. It is an oft-seen geographical trend, a city growing into something quite unlike its surroundings, as New York City is entirely separate in culture from its New York state, and is a place quite its own compared to the United States. The "exotic stew of British bankers and Russian dancing girls, American missionaries and French socialites, Jewish refugees and turbaned Sikh security guards" that Larmer describes all contributed quite disparate pieces of a larger patchwork that would become its own Babylon. But atop these imports was the huge amount of Chinese migrants joining the mixture in the city; everyone contributed to what has since been dubbed haipai (Shanghai style).

Initially I dismissed Shanghai for some of those very reasons, that intermingling of a century of foreign visitors with Shanghai natives and migrant workers, combined with the struggle the city faced during the crack-down on culture and foreign influences during the communist era-- I found it translated into pseudo-Chinese buildings that had obviously been constructed within the last ten years and street markets that catered almost entirely to tourists and visitors seeking Chinese intrigue. But looking at this in a positive light, the city really does stand alone against the country in which it lies, even given its tourist facade and foreign cereals.

Young J. Allen spent his entire adult life working towards educating Chinese citizens in and around Shanghai about western ideas and religion. He used the schools he built, the sermons he preached, and the journals he published as outlets for this goal, and earned respect and criticisms throughout his life for these methods. He was a missionary, after all, and most Chinese were not receptive to his Christian message at the time. Today, however, Jinlin Church in Shanghai stands in his honor. When rethinking the city, Allen's mission contributed to the Shanghai of today. There is valuable culture in each layer that has been added to the port city's personality.

Shanghai resident Shen Hongfei, interviewed in Larmer's story, may have hit the nail on the head: "We're always accused of worshiping foreigners. But taking foreign ideas and making them our own has made us the most advanced place in China." Allen may have felt frustrated trying to spread his message in his Shanghai, but the citizens living there were equally frustrated by the pushy foreigners. And coming from that exchange is a city culture all its own, blending some of those imported ideas with Confucian ones, every side compromising a little to create the place we know today.