On ‘Six Words Fresh Off the Boat’

SIX WORDS FRESH OFF THE BOAT: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America (ABC)SIX WORDS FRESH OFF THE BOAT: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America by Larry Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story of the United States is the story of immigrants intermingling. (It is also one forgotten, where most of those migrants decimated native populations as well.) But, capturing the stories of immigrants in six words only is as compelling and beautiful as it is tragic.

‘Six Words Fresh off the Boat’ eloquently pieces together six-word narratives alongside longer stories and context, illustrating all that it means to be an American in today’s anti-immigrant climate. George Takei and Chimimanda Nogozi Adichie provide shorter reflections from their own lives alongside the painful truth of undocumented DREAMers who have lived invisible lives.

‘Nobody is ever just a refugee’, warns Adichie. Indeed. No-one is simply ‘American’ regardless of how recent they arrived.

These collections are poignant reminders that America was already great. And, it will remain so as long as we cherish own rich diversity and patchwork histories rather than dismiss them in search of uniformity.

My own six-word narrative as an American?

‘American falls in love with Cuban.’

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Lady Liberty

I’m all out of words. So, I’ll borrow a few from the base of Lady Liberty.

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


In the blink of an eye

10 years_2

Arriving in Helsinki from Sheremyetyevo, 21 July 2007

Ten years.

Ten years ago today, we took our three suitcases and Che Fufu carrier (with Che Fufu less-than-pleased to be in it) and made our way to Sheremyetyevo with one-way tickets to a country next door and yet worlds away. Several security checkpoints and an hour-long flight later, we arrived in Helsinki’s very clean and quiet airport.

Ten years. It simultaneously feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago.

There’s still so much of this city and country that remains utterly foreign to us (Finnish language, perhaps?). And, yet, we’ve built a life here. I remember that first summer missing a bus whilst standing at the stop because we didn’t signal as it approached. I remember being in awe at how huge and well-stocked the supermarkets were and how cheap things like clothes were. I remember the novelty and delight of an online journey planner which would tell us how long it would take to walk to the bus stop and what time the bus would arrive at that stop. And, even better, how long to the minute the journey would take. Furthermore, it was typically correct!

After Moscow, this was utterly unbelievable. Much of our new life was. It all seems so normal now, but was completely surreal ten years ago.

Helsinki has been good to us, and it isn’t at all a bad place to live. It’s clean, it’s well-organised and safe. It’s quiet—so quiet that when we first arrived the quiet proved unsettling.

Since we’ve arrived, we’ve celebrated milestones (getting married counts, right?) and birthdays, endured unimaginable uncertainty (residence permit saga anyone?) and come through it all to enjoy a bit of calmness and serenity. The world beyond may be crumbling or chaotic, but our little life here is relatively peaceful and stress-free these days.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine living in Finland. But, here we are. I never imagined marrying a Cuban until I met mine. I’ve no idea how long this glorious-in-summer / abysmal-in-winter land will be home to us, but here’s to ten years and counting. It’s passed in the blink of an eye.

On ‘For All of Us, One Today’

For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's JourneyFor All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey by Richard Blanco

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A good friend of mine (and poet himself) attended a reading by Richard Blanco and had him sign a copy of this little gem of a story for my husband (a Cuban) and I. It was a lovely surprise to receive in the mail. And, one made all the more meaningful for the various connections and parallels with my own little part of the world.

As an immigrant to another country myself, married to a one-time immigrant to the US, there is so much that resonates with me in this particular journey and story. Blanco’s poems are lovely and meaningful. And, I can see now why he was chosen as the inaugural poet.

Aside from the poems and process of being inaugural poet, the more inspiring bit is his devotion and inspiration to making poetry more relevant and visible in contemporary American life in the wake of his experience. Rather than boasting about being selected as inaugural poet, he desires to do good with that voice gained as a result. And, to give voice to all those whom he influenced and inspired with his poem.

We are a country of immigrants, some newer and some far removed from their ancestors who first stepped foot on North American soil. But, the majority of us are from elsewhere. Embracing that unique mixture and shared reality and history is what makes us truly great to my mind. What a fitting way to acknowledge that diversity and shared history through the selection of Blanco as inaugural poet.

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Struggling to make sense of it all

This year. This year brought with it hope and joy and goodness. It also brought unspeakable tragedy and despair, and what at times seems like an endless stream of senselessness. I find myself struggling with it all like never before. I suspect I am not alone.

Mercifully, none of these tragedies or despair are my own. Yet, as I attempt to absorb the news of each new tragedy, finding some glimmer of kindness amongst my fellow humans can seem like a futile quest. ‘What is wrong with us?!’, is a question far too often repeated, becoming equally and increasingly incredulous and louder with each passing week.

Most recently, like much of the world I have tried and failed to understand why we seem incapable of preventing the needless and horrid death of a young Syrian boy, whose only ‘crime’ was being born to a family living through what surely must be hell on Earth, and who tragically made a most desperate attempt to find peace and security in Europe.

But, it’s not just the images of Aylan Kurdi which haunt my consciousness; it’s how my fellow privileged folk in the peaceful and calm developed North react. Whilst messages of #RefugeesWelcome bring me a sense of awe and hope, the voices of hate and vitriol ring just as loud, if not louder and more persistent, drowning out those seeking and extending compassion and kindness.

This theme, which did not begin recently, seems to repeat itself over and over and over again. Each new injustice and each new tragedy, each new viral story of the idiocy and ugliness which pervades this world is accompanied by hatred so intense and profound that I find myself speechless. Who are these people? What has happened to them—to us—to inspire such intense feelings of hatred for another human based on seemingly insignificant traits or differences? Are we really that different from one another? Are our stories so vastly divergent that we share absolutely nothing in common with ‘the other’? What has happened to our humanity? And, can we find it once again? Or are we hopelessly lost?

It’s the worst sort of rabbit hole to find one’s self in; climbing up out of it can seem insurmountable.

We need a reset button. Collectively and individually. I include myself within this targeted mass re-calibration. Wars will end and new ones will begin. The outward traits of tomorrow’s refugees may differ from those of today, but they will all seek a life which is free from worry and fear for themselves and, mostly, for their loved ones, perhaps more so for the youngest and oldest in our midst. Will we ignore them, choosing instead to leave families who look different to simply exist in horrid conditions and ‘camps‘? Will we help them to find a different, less crisis-laden life amongst us?

Perhaps we simply need to re-focus our energy on those tiny bits of goodness each one of us can pass along to those in need. Re-train those individual strengths and talents we each possess to create a better, safer, more just world, which when combined may result in lasting change that benefits us all equitably. Re-image and discover that one common trait we share with those who seem so outwardly so entirely different from us.

We must do something. Otherwise, we are lost. And, ultimately, we all lose.

This week’s viral escapade featuring the worst sort of pigeon-holing, most troubling in that it was directed at a young boy with what appears to be a promising intellect, provides some hope. If we can collectively step up and police those who seek to profile based on antiquated and bigoted perceptions, perhaps we can create a better world.

So many stories remain untold, while each one is worth telling. Maybe that re-telling is our first step on the arduous path towards understanding and making sense of it all…



Calling out prejudice

We live in a relatively quiet little residential neighbourhood, filled with families who largely keep to themselves. The neighbourhood features two bus routes running through it and a small little shopping centre, along with schools, playgrounds and parks throughout. It’s not in the city centre, but close enough to not be in the ‘sticks’. It’s a fairly typical Finnish neighbourhood as far as we can tell.

Today, my husband looked out the kitchen window to see a couple of gentlemen obviously trying to get into their car after locking their keys inside. The car was parked just across from our building on the main road running through our neighbourhood. They were not being furtive, did not look suspicious, and certainly didn’t look to be hiding what they were doing.

A little while later, he was horrified to see not one but two police cars surrounding the car and gentlemen. Why? Most likely, simply because the gentlemen were black.

Anyone could have seen immediately had they cared to that these gentlemen were not simply trying to steal the car. For one, it didn’t seem particularly theft worthy (e.g., several newer cars were parked on either side of it!). In addition, this didn’t happen during the dead of night, but in the middle of the day. That isn’t to say that thefts don’t happen during the middle of the day. But, they guys were in no obvious hurry. Buses and cars and people are traversing the route upon which the car was parked. Finns may keep to themselves, but I doubt they’d turn a blind eye to an obvious car theft. This was obviously not an attempted theft.

Using the infamous coat hanger / wire trick to get at the locking mechanism, laughing and smiling whilst doing so, these men posed no threat to anything other than their car’s own paint job. Maybe, had the person who felt it necessary to phone in to the police stopped to observe the demeanor of those gentlemen rather than to simply note their skin colour, the two police vans called to our neighbourhood could have spent their time more effectively fighting crime.

I wonder, would they have called the police had those gentlemen been white? Would they have given them a second glance?

(Addendum: The gentlemen did get their car door open and were happily on their way once they got the doors open. No windows or locks were broken in the process.)

‘Humanitarian Reasons’…

My husband and I knew the process of applying for our permanent residence permits in Finland would be unpleasant and tedious. I don’t think either one of us was quite prepared for the hell we experienced yesterday.

For those already in the country, you must apply for all residence permits at your municipal police station in a designated section known as the ‘Immigration Police’. Lovely term for an utterly unhappy place. </sarcasm> The office for Helsinki is particularly unhappy. It recently moved and the waiting area is now much too large for the number of individuals they may assist on any given day. You arrive and choose a number from the electronic queue based on your purpose that day. And, then you wait until your number and the desk you must go to flashes on the various screens around the room.

We arrived and our number was ‘120’ in the queue for all nationalities. They were serving 20-something. This was at around 12.45. Oddly, all around the waiting area, there were signs recommending individuals to make an appointment online to avoid the queue. How one does that through the website we do not know.

Thus, we waited.

We were finally seen at around 17.20 or so, a full hour after the official ‘closing’ at 16.15. Our case worker was pleasant enough, but it did not go well.

Since we came to Finland through employment for The Cuban and he is no longer in that job, we cannot use that as our reason for being in Finland. When we explained that we can go to neither’s home country because of our governments’ policies, we were told to apply under ‘Other: specify’ for our reason for applying for permanent residence. Then, we had to specify that this is for ‘humanitarian reasons’ and explain what that means.

How do you describe on an inhuman and impersonal form that you just want to be with your spouse? And, how do you do that when you are sitting in a soulless, too-bright place with too many people around, whilst at the same time providing your fingerprints on an electronic fingerprint pad? And, how do you do that when the unthinkable outcomes flood over you and leave you in a complete panic?

Anyway, we now have to submit many other forms to supplement our applications. Some will require additional translation. Some we aren’t entirely sure will help our case. But, we are in for a very long journey. In our case workers words, it will take a ‘very, very long time’. How long is anyone’s guess. She had no idea, and that is a bit of a concern. (For easy, straight forward cases, the wait for a residence permit is about 6 months, although that is variable as well.) Our case once completed with the Immigration Police within the next two weeks will then go on to the Immigration Service and we’ll be assigned a separate case worker there with whom we’ll need to deal.

On top of that, once our current permits expire, travel becomes risky or impossible. For me it is less of an issue since I have a US passport, although there are risks. For my husband, he will be stuck here until this process is sorted.

At one point during our meeting, the case worker said to me, ‘I guess you don’t really want to go back to the US without your husband, eh?’.

Not an option. It’s simply not an option I can contemplate at all. ‘Humanitarian reasons’ indeed….