A Yonsei Transplanted: New Day, Old Fears

September 11, 2015 • Columnists, Youth

Ormseth, Matthew greyBy Matthew Ormseth

The streets of the great European capitals — cities like Berlin and Vienna, Budapest and Prague — are steeped in beauty, a beauty that has been captured in innumerable paintings, poems and postcards, a beauty that draws millions of tourists every year like moths to a flame. This summer, I was one of those millions.

I visited those four cities, and I, too, was in awe of their beauty. But for me, those cities were haunted, haunted by what people had done to each other in those beautiful streets. I am talking, of course, about the acts of genocide committed by the Nazis and their collaborators across Europe during World War II.

And what was most unsettling about my recent trip to these cities was that their awful past did not seem to be ancient history. In fact, it did not seem to be history at all. I could sense the old prejudices lingering, out of sight, perhaps, but undeniably there, refusing to be left behind as some tragic, but thankfully outdated relic, like instruments used for bloodletting, the kind of thing we look at and wonder how anyone could have ever believed so absurd an idea.

Completed in 1791, the Brandenburg Gate was closed during the city’s partition into Communist east and Capitalist west until the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989. It was visited by Ronald Reagan in 1987, when he famously implored Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. Photo: Matthew Ormseth

Completed in 1791, the Brandenburg Gate was closed during the city’s partition into Communist east and Capitalist west until the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989. It was visited by Ronald Reagan in 1987, when he famously implored Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. Photo: Matthew Ormseth

I saw the same climate of fear and suspicion in those cities; I saw the abbreviation of immigrant groups into the single, faceless representation of the thieving, diseased and alien “other.”

Splashed across TV screens were images of beaches teeming with refugees and decrepit boats laden with human cargo; news tickers screamed the danger of Islamic extremists returning from the training camps of Syria and Iraq.

When I was in Budapest, there was talk of building an enormous wall around the entirety of Hungary, lest the country be overrun by immigrants slipping across the country’s shared border with Serbia.

Indeed, the Hungarian government has now begun construction on said wall, which will be 13 feet high and 110 miles long, spanning the length of the country’s southern border, which, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó claimed, is “most exposed to the immigration pressure.”

Europe has experienced a massive influx of refugees seeking asylum in the past year, the majority of whom hail from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and are fleeing persecution from extremist groups like the Islamic State and the Taliban. The sheer number of those seeking asylum has placed a strain on these European nations’ social services, as well as their citizens’ commitment to tolerance.

Such xenophobia is not unique to Europe. Upon my return to the U.S., I saw it here, too, in the speeches of presidential hopefuls, the very men and women vying for our confidence in their ability to lead the country.

I’ve heard Donald Trump insist that immigrants from Mexico commit rape at higher rates than native citizens, and that they are carrying infectious diseases across the border along with bags of heroin and cocaine strapped to their bellies.

I’ve heard Jeb Bush rail against “anchor babies” and his subsequent, blundering attempt at self-defense, in which he claimed that the derogatory term applied more to Asians rather than Hispanics, as if that somehow made his original statement less offensive.

But what has truly unnerved me, more so than any expression of ignorance or xenophobia, is that these presidential hopefuls actually believe that voicing these statements of hatred and fear will appeal to a sizable percent of Americans.

Racists and bigots have always existed; the opinions professed by Trump and Bush are not new. What is new, however, is their injection into the mainstream discourse. These candidates are making carefully calculated decisions. They express these xenophobic opinions both because they personally believe them, but more importantly because they suspect that many other people believe them, too.

In New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary state, Trump is by far the most popular Republican nominee, and he is slated to win 35 percent of the vote in the state, according to a survey published by Public Policy Polling on Aug. 25. Bush is in fourth place, with 7 percent of the vote.

These two are no lunatic sidewalk preachers, shaking their fists at empty air. They have an audience now, and people are listening. Trump and Bush are trying to win hearts and minds right now, and as many as possible. And the fact that they think vehement xenophobia will win them over is more telling of the state of the American public than it is of the two men doing the talking.

Both Europeans and Americans are terrified of what immigrants might bring with them. In America, undocumented immigrants are frequently associated with crime, drugs and disease; in Europe, it is much of the same, plus the added threat of extremists repatriating after stints in the legions of ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Everyone is afraid of what immigrants will bring into their own countries. But is anyone afraid of what they would bring out, if we kicked out all of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and in Hungary and Germany and the rest of Europe?

Our lifestyles hinge on the continued existence of a certain class of people desperate enough for work to do literally anything — cleaning toilets, washing dishes, picking crops, weeding gardens. Without them, the most unsavory, most unenviable tasks will go undone. It is curious to think that we have constructed so elaborate a society on so unstable a foundation, a foundation without recognized rights, a foundation that is often dehumanized and abused by those whose stable footing in life rests on the very backs of those they vilify.

Without undocumented immigrants, the kitchens of our finest, most glamorous restaurants would be overflowing with unwashed dishes and cutlery; without undocumented immigrants, those same kitchens would have precious little food to cook with in the first place.

Just a few weeks ago, in my hometown of Arcadia, Calif., I saw a Help Wanted sign hanging in the window of a restaurant. It read, in English, “Servers and Hosts Needed.” Below were the words “Necesito Lavaplatos.” Dishwashers Needed.

We depend upon undocumented immigrants now, for better or for worse. Everyone’s so worried about what immigrants could bring into this country. Imagine what they could bring out of it.

Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation. 

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