So the other thing I hadn’t been able to identify fully is that this is an immigration issue.
I am a citizen of the US by birth but, of course, no one else was. No one else had documents, and I grew up near the border, where immigration officers are part of the landscape, and I grew up with Soviet-era Eastern Europeans for whom every official was a potential informant. For everyone, immigration was this terrifying, omnipresent threat. I don’t think anyone had they idea they could be rescued, or that they might be able to able to apply for amnesty or that any consideration might be given to their situation or their youth. It was just like immigration will catch you and do terrible things to you.
Immigration is the enemy. Immigration is terrifying. And I am sure I had visions of showing up to the hotel and finding everyone rounded up in a raid and deported back to the USSR. I have very deep fears even now of immigration. There are a couple of checkpoints between here and the Capital City where they check our documents. The bus stops, the driver gets out, asks for my papers, I give them to him, and the immigration officer records my information on some kind of ledger. Then the driver comes trotting back and off we go. I never actually see this person and he never sees me. No one gets on the bus to look at me personally or see that they really are my documents. I am the only one checked, because I am the only white face on the bus, but there are Neighbouring Country citizens on the same bus and they are more likely to be here illegally and they are never checked. It is actually quite funny, and you get this little glimpse of what it is like to be the only brown face in the room in the US.
Actually, I periodically get that. I get a lot of privilege here because I am white at some times and at other times, I get no privilege at all. I am left out of everything, because there is this unconscious sense that someone who is not your race or ethnicity is not really a person. In the West, everyone sees this unconscious kind of racism as being a sign of moral turpitude, but I think it’s completely universal. If you never leave your country and you have no real idea of how anyone else on the planet lives, you see people who do not look like you as non-people to some extent.
To get back to the point, on Thursday, the new Department Head was telling the other math and science teacher that he would assess their method of assessing on Monday. I, of course, had no idea he was doing that, because I don’t understand the language. The other teachers all gathered around him and he was explaining this. After a few minutes, I put it together—all of the maths and science teachers are gathered in a group, something is happening. I went over there. They were looking at a paper, so I tried to read it although I am now far-sighted (as well as near-sighted, but my glasses correct that). While I was looking at it, one of the teachers began to take the paper and put it into his National Dress, without any recognition that I was trying to read it. The Department Head finally noticed this and said something. But it is like that sometimes—not that often, but sometimes, and this teacher is new at our school. He doesn’t know me at all. I am still Foreign Teacher to him and to some extent a non-person.
Anyway, I am always really scared at the checkpoints. I always have this irrational fear that my documents will somehow not be in order, although there is really no way they can’t be. I am always scared of customs officers when I am traveling. It is just something I think you develop when you have spent your life with undocumented immigrants, just this fear that you don’t really have a right to be anywhere, and every time you have to assert your right to be in a particular place, you feel that you won’t be granted that right, that you don’t really have it. I am not undocumented, but those are the fears undocumented people have. Other people probably have similar fears. Anyone who comes from a lower-status group and finds themselves in a position of relative privilege probably has it.
I attended a very small college with mostly white, upper-middle class students, and I always felt that way, that I didn’t have the right to be there. I always had that underlying fear that someone would find out I didn’t belong there, and off I would have to go. I didn’t feel it in class because I had confidence in myself as a student, but I felt it on social occasions. I felt it in the dining hall, I felt it spending time with friends in the dorms.
At the time, I attributed it to a sense of inferiority about social class, because I grew up much more working class, but I think it’s more closely that feeling of being undocumented, that I don’t have the right to be anywhere—like anywhere at all. I really love maps and I think that’s part of it. I think it reflects a wish to belong to a particular place, to have some physical location be familiar and for me to have a right to it. Country X is the first place I have been to where I really didn’t feel a strong need to learn the geography. I didn’t feel any desire to understand where anything was until some time last year.
There is this sense of attachments being impermanent, but that sense has so many manifestations. You can lose people, and you can also lose a place, you can lose that place and everyone in it, everything in it, and not be allowed to return to it. And that was the fear I grew up with. That was a fear the girls felt all the time, and I felt it because I was with them, because they were my emotional world.
No wonder going to the Capital City every winter to renew my visa is an enormous, terrifying trauma to me. No wonder. I never thought about that because the actual trip to the immigration office is not scary. I think it doesn’t seem like an immigration office to me. No one is in uniform, no one is armed, I am always with someone who has friends he runs into while we are there and he has a nice catch-up with whoever it is, and he knows the people who work there or at least some of them because he has to apply for all kinds of visas and road permits and guest permits for the foreign teachers. It feels quite a lot more like going to the school’s district office. It’s somewhat of a formal occasion, but fairly friendly, you might run into someone you haven’t seen for a while. But the idea is in my mind when I am going there.
But when I am packing my things to leave for the 2-day bus trip to go there, I know that is the sole reason I am going. I am going to get new papers. And I get really, really scared. Just like I am scared now.
Sometimes, I think I just need to integrate these feelings and experiences. Okay, this is what fear is like. This is how terror feels in your body. When I have been avoiding feeling fear in my body my whole life, it’s not going to be an integrated part of my memory of my knowledge of the world or myself. This is the thing I am afraid of. This is the other times I have been afraid for similar reasons. It sounds so simple, but it is so hard.