Just last night a new student started in my heretofore cancelled Thursday classes… now uneasily restored for the time being… and she is unusual in my school: she is Chinese. Since she was the only student in the class we were able to open up a bit about our respective experiences of living in Japan and how we feel about it.
My student told me about the difficulties she encountered in trying to find a university outside China where she could study English. Her first choice had been Canada, but she was summarily rejected. The only reason why Japan accepted her was because she had a cousin living here who could sponsor her.
Once here immigration has hassled and hounded her the entire time, making life uncomfortable at best; at times she just feels like returning home. She’s been here altogether 6 years now, has gotten, in two years, to the point where she can hold a decent conversation and read Japanese well enough to start working for a Japanese company. It seems quite a few people go out of their way to make her feel uncomfortable with probing questions about her purpose being here, often linking the questions to anger about the anti-Japanese sentiments running high in China right now. She laughed about it, but I could see the bitterness in her eyes for the few moments when they couldn’t meet mine.
Really, why would a Chinese subject herself to living in an completely unfamiliar place, educating herself, and trying to make a living here if she hated the people so much? What is it with people and borders, with purity and difference?
When I was a boy, until I was eighteen, I was stateless… I had no country, no citizenship, no passport. Even though my father is American, the American government wouldn’t issue me a passport (in spite of the right of all Americans to claim American citizenship for their children), because of some obscure law that states that American citizens who were living outside the country when they were seventeen cannot endow their children with American citizenship. My parents spent years in a panic trying to find a solution through the American embassy, but no luck. I suspect it had something to do with my father being black and his marrying a German (too soon after the war, you see). Germany refused to give me citizenship, too, even though my mother is German and I was born in Germany, because German law states that a child cannot receive citizenship through blood ties with the mother, only with the father (could there be some kind of Aryan misogyny going on here?). I suspect there is something in there about my father being black, marrying a German, too.
Whatever the causes, being stateless is simply no fun. You get no rights, period. I could be standing in front of you, talking to you, shaking your hand, and yet the government would consider me a nonentity. An invisible problem. You can’t travel, you can’t own land, you can’t work legally, you can’t get an I.D., you can’t get a license, you can’t get health insurance, you can’t even get approval for burial if the government (of whatever place) legally decides to exercise its right to kill you if it deems you a nuisance. Imagine that: being physically present, visible to all, and yet erased from existence.
Now, I’m not complaining. Germany relented and through the help of a sympathetic consul I was granted (love the nuance of the word… granted… as in “deign to notice me”) German citizenship, and now I have one of the most flexible and useful passports in the world. In the wink of an eye my standing in the world switched from “null” to “one”. Suddenly I coulda, canna, will have canna been someone. Just like that.
There was a time when passports didn’t exist. People wandered across the face of this world like migrating geese, borderless and, in the true sense of the word, free. When Bush or Blair spout inanities about “freedom”, I wonder what they are talking about? If a person, any person, cannot just up and leave for parts unknown and then arrive at the gates and let themselves in without so much as a by your leave, what kind of freedom is that? What do you call it when other people shoot you for either trying to leave or get into any other place on Earth? Who decided that we had to have these Machiavellian walls and gates and restrictions any way? It’s like living in a prettified version of “Escape from New York”. Yes, the Sun shines even in here, but it is our Sun, not yours.
Meanwhile I glance out my window and there sits one of my favorite characters in my neighborhood, a young Brown-eared Bulbul, who thinks nothing of sweeping into my little garden, screeching at everyone for about ten minutes, and then flitting off to some other hapless victim’s private space, to berate them for these fences and walls and shuttered windows. The fat, expressionless tomcat, who doesn’t bother to even twitch his ear in my direction when my footstep lands near him, routinely comes high-stepping into my garden, scratches out yet more of the soil, and daily proceeds to empty his victuals into the various sand pits he has created. He cares little for fences and restrictions, too.
What have we traded off? The horizon for four walls. The joy of welcoming a neighbor into our home to offer them tea or coffee. The desire to follow the winds, and make good the yearning to join those geese as they head out beyond our imagination. A lighter pack and strong legs. The human spirit?
Perhaps there’s no longer any turning back, but you have to wonder what this planet and the gift of living on it are all for. I tend to imagine that we are here for life itself and for sharing blessings for being an integral part of something so beautiful, and for that to be freely given and freely taken.