© 2016 David Dvorkin
In “America,” Neil Diamond sang of immigrants coming to America and never looking back. That’s true of some immigrants, but it’s not a common feeling. Those who immigrate as adults, or even as teenagers, rarely feel entirely at home in their new country.
Most of the millions of Jews who fled the pogroms of the Russian Empire came to America. Overwhelmed by homesickness, many of them went back again. They preferred the dangers and restrictions of life in Russia to the everpresent feeling of being strangers in a strange land. That feeling has always been a central part of the immigrant experience.
Those who stay in the adopted country usually don’t become truly part of it. My paternal grandparents fled Russia for England when they were a young couple. She died in her 30s. My grandfather never did learn English, even though he lived in London to an old age—in a Jewish neighborhood, surrounded by Yiddish. The creation of such ethnic neighborhoods, shelters from the alien world outside, a recreation of the old homeland to the greatest degree possible, is also a central part of the immigrant experience.
By contrast, outwardly, my adjustment to America was easy when I came here as a teenager. English is my native language, and I had grown up in a Western environment in South Africa. I’m white, and I wore the same clothes as American teenagers. Moreover, I didn’t move into an ethnic ghetto.
But I missed South Africa fiercely. I always felt like an outsider. My accent, my attitudes, my viewpoints all marked me as one. When I became a citizen, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was doing the right thing. I admired the principles espoused by the Founding Fathers, but mine was a detached, intellectual admiration, not an emotional response to the idea of the American Revolution itself. I’m an American, but I’m not stirred by patriotic songs or waving flags.
The hypocrisy of America angered me back then and still does. I’ve heard expressions of racism every bit as vile as anything I heard in Apartheid−era South Africa. America, the country that touts itself as a moral exemplar to the world, was built on genocide and slavery. Throughout its history, waves of nativism and xenophobia have engulfed it. I listened, read, and judged. This detached feeling of judgment is yet another common part of the immigrant experience.
Some will say that I should return to South Africa. But the immigrant, no matter how ill at ease he may feel in his new country, is also no longer a part of the old one. Apartheid was in force when I left South Africa; it’s a very different country now. Even if it were still under white rule, the country would have changed enormously in the almost 60 years since I left. More to the point, inevitably, those 60 years have changed me fundamentally. I have absorbed far more of America than I probably realize.
(Mind you, I didn’t spend those 60 years not participating in America. After high school, college, and graduate school, I went to work for NASA. I was one of the people who sent Americans to the moon. Later, I was part of the team that sent unmanned American landers to Mars. I like to think that I have contributed significantly to, well, I have to say it, making America great.)
In the last few years, I began to feel a welcome sense that the internal struggle about my true national identity was resolving itself. With great relief, I found myself feeling American at last—just American, nothing else, truly part of this country. Sixty years! It had taken an absurdly long time, but finally here it was, a feeling of belonging, of being at home.
Much of this change was probably due simply to the passage of time. I think that to a considerable degree, though, it was because of the direction the country seemed finally to be moving in. The racists who came slithering out from under their rocks when Barack Obama was elected seemed to be a minority. Despite the occasional retrogression, the country was becoming more accepting—most noticeably of gays and gay marriage, but also of other formerly spurned groups. The political power of religion was diminishing. Progressive legislation was moving forward. Some barrier holding us back had been broken. My optimism soared.
I was deluding myself. The 2016 election was my rude awakening. Yes, Trump, the bloviating carnival barker, lost the popular vote by a huge margin and only won the election because of massive voter suppression combined with that antidemocratic monstrosity, the Electoral College. But what his victory exposed—what had already been exposed during the campaign—was just how much primitive hatred there is in this country, how many of my fellow Americans hate anyone who’s different from them, and how much they hate the very progress that had filled me with optimism.
Perhaps the racists who exposed themselves in 2008 are a minority, but if so, they’re a far larger minority than I realized. Their racism extends to a xenophobia that seems to know no bounds. The extent and intensity of American Islamophobia is stunning. Homophobia and anti−semitism are not far behind. For years, the haters hesitated to be entirely open with their hatred. No longer. Trump has legitimized them. 2008 was not a last gasp, as I thought at the time; it was the tip of the iceberg.
Maybe I was being naïve. Maybe nothing had changed, and I was only seeing what I wanted or needed to see. What I am sure of is that the country I finally felt part of has suddenly revealed itself as another country entirely, a place filled with hatred and rage. Madness is in control. What is this land? Am I truly a part of it?
I am adrift again.