What does it mean to be an immigrant? It’s not just going to another place. It’s taking on new challenges and a new way of life. It might be to join family. It might be to find new opportunities for work. Some immigrate for love. Some come here for an education. Some are fleeing persecution. Some live in anxiety for much of their lives. Some (like me) came as infants, not out of their own volition but as passengers in the willpower of parental boats.
I went from one boat to another and back again, from mother to father back to mother. I travel with her to this day. I managed to make my own boat as well, constructed from the cares of teachers, safe streets, friends who remain in my heart, and experiences that “rearranged my molecules,” (as I heard one poet put it) each experience eventually deepening me, and possibly strengthening the arc of my life’s narrative, exploring the vast ocean of the world, and still, even with 49+ years under my belt in America, still discovering new things about her. She is this wonderful yet mysterious neighbor, who helped me build my boat, and provided a continental sea with many delights… and yet also with whirlpools and sirens, and more than a few dragons roaming her sea. I’ve ridden a few of them. Up and down we go through emotions and paranoias, fears and ruminations, terrors and assaults, hostilities and judgments. But as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
If behind every dragon is a princess, it seems that the dragon of America has a Queen – because her dragon has been the ride of a lifetime, of my almost 51 year lifetime, but it all goes back much, much longer than that. What kind of beauty and courage is she looking for, from us? What love is she waiting for? What parts of her are “helpless”?
So many questions, so many questions.
What we do changes us. Identity is a multifactorial and multi-experiential construct. Our environment changes us. What we think about changes us. Who’s in our lives, changes us. Who’s in charge – the bosses, the leaders, the governments – all have an impact on who we are. But we have an effect as well. A film I saw at the ThirdI festival years ago showed how children living in a slum collaborated to get a clean drinking water system set up. The director said words to the effect of “you can let your environment master you, or you can transform your environment.” It always works both ways, though, doesn’t it.
I say all this because I feel like I just immigrated to America this weekend. Today, Monday, is my third day in this country, and I’m not quite sure where I am, or how things work. What’s the social order? How do I get things done? What will I be allowed to do here? Who will be my friends? What new languages will I have to learn to communicate with the locals? What new thoughts will I have to have to cope with all the changes? Who was I yesterday, and who will I be tomorrow? What will be possible, what’s in the cards? What’s going on, in this new place? Which brand of toilet tissue should I buy? There are so many, there are so many.
So many questions, so many questions.
Have you heard of ‘backdraft’? When firefighters enter a burning building, they must be careful to place their hands on the doors to check for warmth before they go in. If there’s a smoldering fire on the other side, the oxygen that enters when the door is opened could cause a conflagration.
The same thing is true emotionally. There is an emotional backdraft. When the heart and mind have been closed, wounded or hardened, if you open the door, even if you crack it, with even the tiniest amount of compassion or insight, an inferno could result. I’ve experienced this within myself, as a once-closed door of my heart opens; and I’ve experienced it with others, patients and friends, as I’ve offered myself in some, perhaps imperfect way. And of course, there are times when others have tried to tell me things I haven’t wanted to hear, and it’s made me tense or confused or defensive. Sometimes we just shut down, because whatever that voice in our head or in our lives is telling us must be dismissed if we are to carry on with our lives and goals as we see them.
Who am I? What is going on? In 2010, when I thought I was in America (but I still wasn’t) I wrote this poem Cleanup on Aisle 3. It’s a playful take on race and identity. A few years later, I wrote Collection of Parts, heard at the beginning of an Asian Art Museum presentation about collecting. More recently, I wrote a poetic response to that sometimes annoying question we’ve all heard so often “Where are you from?” As if where you’re from tags “who you are” in some essential way. Or even what you do for work, or your accomplishments. We are a sum of all our parts, and then some. We are who we are to each other, and who we are together too. I always feel like I’m making myself. Sometimes it’s a joy and an adventure, and sometimes it’s exhausting.
I experienced a lot of backdraft this weekend, and it turned me into a space cadet, as I sorted through what was going on. You see, I’m kind of an empathic amoeba at times. I pick up on other people’s emotions, their judgments, etc, and it kind of sits in me, somewhere. If I’m around a narcissist, my thoughts get blocked. An uncomfortable rope of tension appears in my brain, a thread of conflict. Narcissists need to stay on top, and they tend to devalue others in many ways. This can get pretty tense in therapy sometimes.
Sometimes the backdraft is a river in flood.
I saw many films this weekend, and caught many glimpses of beauty. Yuqi Kang’s A LITTLE WISDOM allowed me to watch young monks being boys – their playfulness, their affections, and their fears. Kang said that of course, they have no understanding of dharma at that age, but they’re planting seeds of something – perhaps relatedness more than anything else. Music video pioneer Warren Fu’s vast visual imagination stunned me. Adele Free Pham’s NAILED IT did just that. Who wouldn’t love a sold-out house to see H.P. Mendoza’s BITTER MELON? Finally D’Lo, Atsuko Okatsuko and Jenny Yang got me a dose of laughter at New People, after a long day at the Kabuki, at the DISORIENTED COMEDY SHOW.
But truth be told, I was a bit disoriented myself. Backdraft blew my mind into outer space, and what was left of my brain tried to fight the fire as best it could.
Sometimes an immigrant is not quite sure why he doesn’t fit in, why he doesn’t belong. Is it something I did? Something I said or wrote? Is it just me, my face? I have been happy in San Francisco, San Francisco has been good to me. The other places I’ve lived across this land have also been good to me, overall, even as I’ve gone through other “immigration days.” But truth be told, something is still missing after all these years. I still carry this feeling of not belonging, really belonging. I mostly just coped by saying to myself “maybe this is as good as it gets, for any of us.” This is part of the human condition. Loneliness is America’s biggest epidemic, probably at the root of many if not most of our ills. When you don’t have love and belonging, apathy and antagonism take their place. I just don’t want to spread that toxicity, that Zeus amidst us, as I wrote about in MOSF 13.6. As much as I can, I’d like to say “the buck stops here.”
All I can say is CAAMFest is bringing up a lot of issues in me, a lot of buried traumas and a huge dose of dreams. The world is medicine. CAAMFest is medicine. Medicines are meant to heal, but there are often side effects, and sometimes strange dreams. What will my CAAMFest fueled American dream be? Who cares? I’m just feeling Kendrick Lamar. “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me….friends are overrated” Facebook appropriated the word ‘friend’, and my life hasn’t been the same since. But Lamar’s got the best guide to America I’ve heard in a while, and even America knows it. There’s also Paul Simon:
“As god goes fishing,
And we are the fishes
He baits his lines
With prayers and wishes
We sparkle in the shallows
…we hide our hearts like holy hostages
We’re hungry for the love and so we bite.”
I just realized that last word can be heard a few different ways…But this holy hostage is hungry for the love. Maybe my dream is a line I read in a short story by a high school classmate: “And then we will be like gods, feasting on love.” So maybe I’m not a hostage after all, just someone who’s ready for CAAMFeast. Good thing, cause that’s tonight.
I look forward to seeing you soon. I’m the new guy, fresh off the boat.
I just landed in America. America just landed on me. Or did it just land in me?
Choose D: All of the above.
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The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent the views CAAM.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His full-length nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Book Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. He just found out Thich Nhat Hanh won the Gold – so he can’t really complain. His latest longform essay on gun psychology, Guns Are Not Our God! The NRA Is Not Our Church! is available now. He also leads compassion and self-compassion workshops. More MOSF posts can be found here. You can sign up for his occasional newsletter, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.