The right sort of immigrant

I’ve watched with increasing horror as Trump’s first week as president has lived up to our worst fears for his presidency. Just days into his term and his administration have legitimised the feelings of those who harbour racism and xenophobia in their hearts. They have attacked the value of truth itself, trying to give it a shifting, subjective status.

I’ve felt sick, reading all this news, feeling so powerless.

These problems, they seem in some ways, so far away. Distant wars in distant lands. A distant president I had no right to vote against. In other ways they feel right in my heart. Families torn apart, grieving. Families just like mine. People who just like me live in a foreign country, speaking a language that is not their own, wondering who of their neighbours want them gone.

I live in safety. What have I to complain about? My whiteness protects me. My passport is for a country I could choose to return to at any time. No border control tried to strip me of my assets when I stepped off the plane and onto Danish soil. Nonetheless, sometimes I struggle, trapped between the local populace and the sort of the immigrant they fear.

If I add the years up, I have spent 14 years of my life living in countries that are not my own. Denmark is the fourth of these. It has also been the most difficult to live in. Perhaps that is because of the language. Perhaps that is because of the rhetoric stoked up by politicians who pander to the nationalists that live among us.

Worldwide the papers write about immigration, about immigrants. Words they want the West to fear. Meanwhile bombs fall on hospitals. Where will the sick people go we ask? We wring our hands. Meanwhile bodies wash up on the European coast. Tsk tsk, we say, those traffickers – shameless. A Dansk Folkeparti MP goes on TV, says we should shoot at the boats. His party put out statements – it’s not official party policy.

Sometimes the polite mask falls, and we see what they are really thinking.

If you are lucky, they will let you in. And they will tell you to integrate. You chose to come here, they say. Now you must leave your foreign ways behind too. Don’t they know, you have left enough of yourself already? Everything familiar, and everything you knew, and every place you can associate with memory. Reshape yourself and how dare you try to hold on to what you can. Be more like us or we will never accept you. Some will never accept you anyway. No matter how much like them you become, you will never be like them.

I see and hear criticisms of immigrants who live and socialise in enclaves. But how do we break out of these enclaves when we can’t speak to you? How many times has a stranger on the street dismissed me as rude? How often do they think I just want to keep to myself when the opposite is true. I’d love to have easy chats with them. Yes, the sun is lovely isn’t it? He’s four. The chemist? Just around that corner. Instead I nod quietly, mind racing, and the moment passes, they have gone, and the words have not reached my tongue yet. Every interaction I can’t avoid weighs heavily. I repeat myself over and over, hvad siger du?

I go to playgroups with other immigrants. We speak English to each other. It is the lingua franca. Our partners all have jobs. Some of the mothers do too. We talk – where can I buy…what are the best shoes for winter…did you know… Our children play. Many are pre-verbal, or only just beginning to speak. It hardly matters to them which language we use yet. They rely on the other cues we give, the tone of voice, our clapping of hands, the universal instinct to catch them as they fall.

My children are lucky. They are young enough to learn. If we stay they will at least have the privilege of looking like they belong. The only barriers to integration they will face come from those with hate in their hearts. I do not believe we have anything to fear from the next generation of immigrants. Unless we turn our back. Unless we mark them as other. As the Danes do of course; some believe you cannot truly be a Dane without Danish parents. My daughter was born here, but in their eyes she will always be efterkommer. How easy would it be, I wonder, for the tolerance we enjoy here to collapse? Could fascism rise to power in Europe again, and strip people like her of a vote?

Now, lists of countries are deemed a security risk by America. Countries where bombs are falling, and famine is imminent and rapes are commonplace. And a sad, pathetic white man sits behind a desk, huddled with a nuclear code, and deems the children ‘dangerous’. Deems them ‘other’. Deems them ‘collateral damage’. Deems them anything other than simply people who will die because he is frightened, hateful man bullying his way through the world supported by other bullies.

Sometimes as a New Zealander it is hard to understand the nationalism they rely on. The white politicians who talk about keeping New Zealand for New Zealanders have always struck me as ridiculous. Embarrassments. They are all descendants from immigrants. How can they lay claim to a sense of exclusive identity when they are not the tangata whenua of our land?

Living in Denmark has opened my eyes somewhat as to why the far-right hold such sway in Europe. It is a view I vehemently disagree with, but we can learn from listening to those on the other side. For centuries Denmark was a poor, homogenous country, and existence here was tough. Agriculture was about scraping out a living, people ate cabbage and apples and potatoes, they worshipped at church, they spoke one language, and they all knew from birth the unspoken rules of what it means to be a Dane. When opportunities came to leave, Danes took them, emigrating to countries like America, and New Zealand.

Then, like places the world over, people began to move into cities, and agriculture became centred on exports. Denmark became prosperous. In the post-world-war period, the principles of egalitarian, educated Denmark we are all familiar with began to form, coupled with a rise in low-skilled manufacturing type jobs. Labour began to be imported, “guest workers” predominantly from Turkey. Naively Denmark did not anticipate that these guest workers would want to stay, but stay they did. And it changed the face of Denmark. The homogenous society of old was disrupted. So as much as it pains me to say it, when people here complain about immigrants bringing in their foreign ways and changing what it means to be Danish, they are not incorrect. Yet, Denmark would not be the prosperous country it is today without that continuing supply of labour. Denmark has a long history of civil tolerance and freedom, and it is hard to argue that the ugly rise in xenophobia is not in itself a change in Danish values.

Putting that aside, I cannot understand these men in America, so blind and removed from their country’s colonial history that they believe the land, and the power invested in it, is rightfully theirs. This anger they have, directed at people without their privilege or their power. Directed at people like me. People who are just like me. As long as people like Trump believe power and privilege is theirs by right, nothing will change.

Trump and the US administration are not the root cause of our current problems. Kenneth Kristensen Berth and the Dansk Folkeparti are not the root cause of intolerance here. Politicians like Phil Twyford and his ‘tsunami of Chinese investment’ comments are not the root cause of the racism in NZ. They are only the problem manifest. The root cause is all the people who sit at home and quietly nod. Those who label me ‘the right sort’ of immigrant. Those who allow these divisions to creep in and quietly, quietly dehumanise those on the wrong side. The problem is those who want all the advantages of trade and travel in a globalised world, but do not recognise that a globalised community will come with that.

Just like the useful labour brought to Denmark in the ‘60’s from Turkey, immigrants the world over contribute to local economies. Only yesterday a NZ public policy think tank released a report saying just that. Fears of immigrants taking jobs and driving up house prices are proven time and time again to be just that, fears, not facts. Being an immigrant is hard. By welcoming those who want to join our communities we can only gain. Keeping immigrants and their children on the outside is how we create problems for our future. That is where the real terror risk lies.

The current Syrian refugee crisis is a much bigger issue, though, than a question over whether they will contribute economically. What is at stake is our own humanity.

I read the news, and this is what I hear: build a wall and keep them out. Watch the boats sink, and watch them drown. Politics has become the gladiatorial sport of our age. Give Trump a chance we were told. It’s just rhetoric, he doesn’t mean it. The hate crimes count climbs. We discover he did mean it, all along.

And I look at myself, standing on shifting sand in a country that is not my own, and I feel so lucky, and I feel so sick, and I feel so sad.

I am sure of one thing though – I would rather be as I am, on the outside of a society looking in, then at the core of something as rotten as Trump’s vision for the world.

2 thoughts on “The right sort of immigrant”

  1. I felt similar too, and when Trump was elected, I felt as though I wanted to escape, but I didn’t know where I could go. So, I ended up putting my two kids in their car seats and driving round the ring road circling our city. I just felt so sad.

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