Empathy for Immigrants

Published by marco on

“How can those people not know how things work here? How can they abandon and/or endanger their children?How can they not know they’re going to get caught?”

Think of your own culture, of the many idioms, historical events and nuances of language that influence your quotidian actions. Think of how much work it is to know implicitly what is possible and what isn’t, what is acceptable, how things are done. Many of our cultural idiosyncrasies blossom from large or small events in the past, spreading like kudzu over everything we do, until no-one can even remember how a particular custom got started—only that it’s a super-important that we continue doing it.

Comedian Demetri Martin pointed out in a recent special that’s it’s not appropriate to walk around with poop in a plastic bag—unless you have a dog. Another example: Our bathroom rituals are sacrosanct and everyone else is crazy—even though we’re the ones eliminating into multiple liters of perfectly good drinking water and then cleaning up with dry sheets of paper instead of soap and water. We’re the ones who’ve built an enormously expensive sewer system that can accommodate our idiosyncratic approach to waste.

Mythical Building Blocks

These kinds of social habits can be learned relatively quickly, though. You can pick them up within a year or so. But there are so many things that can’t be learned so easily, features of the cultural landscape that are rooted in cataclysmic events that may or may not have even happened in the way that a culture remembers it. These are the deep myths of a culture that suffuse everything. The truth of such events—the actual details or the reasons behind them—doesn’t matter. What matters is that the culture has taken these details to heart, wrapping the sand grain of the initial event in the many-layered, ennobling nacre of cultural indoctrination.

What chance does an immigrant have of understanding these things in the same way that a native does? Perhaps they can grasp it eventually, but the form of understanding will still be different—and will likely be mimicked rather than felt in the same way. At a certain point, the difference won’t matter anymore, but the process takes decades.

Consider an immigrant to the U.S: how can this arrogant alien have never heard of 9/11? That event is the Yucatán meteor that annihilated and transformed American culture, didn’t it? How can anyone not have heard about it, much less not respect it as the most important thing that’s ever happened to any tribe, ever? What about the Holocaust? WWII? All of these events shape the American in the 21st century.

But it’s extremely possible for other people in other countries to have never heard of them. Why should they care? We certainly don’t care about the giant events that impacted their cultures. We don’t even think that anything significant has really happened to any culture other than America—even when we’re the perpetrators.

For example, though most Americans would say that the U.S. retaliated against Afghanistan for 9/11, most of the people living in that country have no idea what that even is. They don’t know anything about American history or myths—just like Americans don’t know (or care) anything about Afghan history or myths. Afghans are forced to learn American myths in order to try to make sense of what is happening to them.

Most of Southeast Asia has been severely impacted and bent by the warping effects of relatively recent US wars. Hell, the Middle East, too. That continues to this day. Immigrants from these countries are shaped by completely different world-views.

Russians are terrified of being invaded—because it’s happened so many times. They’re terrified of sweeping cultural change, as well. Again, because it’s happened two times—for many, in their lifetimes—something that we can’t even imagine having happened once. The first time everything went to hell fo the ruling class and got better for most people briefly, before the pendulum swung the other way again. Then, in the 90s, the pendulum fell right off the clock and a new ruling class seized an iron grip like it’s never had before.

Syrians, Iragis, Libyans, Eritreans, Somalis—the list goes on—they all have far bigger fish to fry than to lend reverence to an isolated attack on a US city that killed fewer than 3000 people. For Americans, it’s on every second T-shirt sold at Wal-Mart—for everyone else, it’s a Wikipedia entry (and no-one knows what Wal-Mart is).

Love it or leave it

Well, then, how dare they try to immigrate to the U.S. if they can’t even respect American culture? If they can’t even be bothered to learn how things work in the country they want to live in?

Again, a bit of imagination helps. Imagine that your life in your home country is so intolerable that your best bet is to leave.[1] You can’t support your family, you have no food, no water, no shelter, no prospects. Imagine your life is like standing in the window of a burning building, on an upper floor, say the fifth. You’d have to jump, wouldn’t you? Or just die right there.[2]

Remember those people on the World Trade Center in 2001, who were much, much higher up? Even Americans will jump when things get bad enough.

Myths are just that

No, don’t veer off into believing that 9/11 was different. It’s different to you, but has no significance for everyone else.

It’s like when a family member dies: it’s devastating for you, but you can’t even expect the people who live down the street to care so much that they do more than send a card. They’re still going to binge-watch something on Netflix that evening. People don’t sit shiva for every single person in the world. Mourning and pity don’t scale.

Which brings us back to those ignorant immigrants at the airport, trying to get into your country without even knowing how things work.

Imagining desperation

Imagine you’re so desperate that you’ve jumped. You’re going to land somewhere—somewhere you don’t know the customs, the language—where you don’t know anything at all. A five-year–old is more at home than you are.

Imagine you’re walking in a foreign city with no cultural touchstones at all—they don’t have sidewalks, no traffic signs, you can’t read a damned thing, you can’t ask anyone for help, you don’t even know what food and drink looks like or how to obtain them. Maybe money works differently and you don’t have any, anyway.

Think of this the next time you see asylum-seeking refugees walking the streets of some small town or even a large city. We just assume that they’re grateful to be able to share our paradise with us. Instead they spend their entire day assaulted by alienness. Their home country—the one they had learned and knew—is gone, replaced with a living nightmare. This alien country is the best choice they have and it still feels wrong, every day. And they have to fight tooth and nail to be able to stay where they feel vaguely or distinctly uncomfortable because going back “where they came from” is far, far worse.

Can you understand now why they might just “hang out with their own kind”?

That’s pretty extreme, so maybe there are some cultural touch-points. They’ve been in an airport before; they know what a restaurant is. But everything—literally—works differently anyway. Take a number? Order a value meal? Stand in this line to order, this line to pay and this line to get your food? All with people around you, impatient and frustrated because you’re such a moron.

Demotions suck

Imagine now that this is happening to you despite your having been in the middle class of your country. You actually were pretty good at living in your country until a few years ago.[3] Now everything’s gone to such shit and you’re so desperate that you have to jump.

But you can still remember what it was like to be in control of your fate and you still have your pride. You’re making a move that is significantly shifting your place in the world, but it hasn’t hit home yet. You still think you matter and that other people will acknowledge this. Beating this out of a human being takes time and effort. It hasn’t happened yet for those at the borders—they still think they’re people.[4]

These people are forced by circumstance to jump out of the burning building of their own countries—often set on fire by us—to jump into the unknown of another country, without knowing the language or the culture or anything. They have nothing stable beneath their feet.

They only have a toy parachute put together by someone in their own country, a bundle of documents and instructions that’s supposed to help them land safely.

The person who prepared them may even have had their heart in the right place. But they’re still probably only marginally better at building a parachute than the immigrant. And they’re often criminals, intent on taking what little the immigrant has left, selling false hope.

What good is a postal address if you can’t read a map in the destination country? If you can’t even find a map? If your phone doesn’t work? If you don’t even have a phone?

So these people are standing in line at our airports, knowing nothing about the language or the culture, clutching a pile of entry papers possibly prepared by a criminal, knowing that their best prospect is that they end up working 16 hours per day in a basement somewhere, without family or friends or any cultural touchstones. In the worst case, they’re arrested and thrown in jail. And that’s still better than what they had at home.

And we’re expecting these people to know that they have to take off their shoes before boarding a domestic flight?

Empathy takes practice

Of course, you could reasonably expect some people to be better-prepared, to be more respectful of the customs of their target country.

I’ve described one end of the scale—the other end is the extremely rich who treat their destination with just as little respect. They see everywhere as a playground built for them.

Think of how you feel when you have to go out to eat in an unfamiliar city in your own country. You have a phone that works, you can “Yelp”. And, still, you’re out of your comfort zone. There are myriad people who don’t even feel at home in their own culture, because it’s left them behind. They can’t even travel at home because their culture is doing its best to egest them.

It’s a scale, but many of the people on that scale deserve empathy, not disdain, scorn or anger.


[1] This isn’t even such a shocking hypothetical for many Americans.
[2] We can argue about whether it’s better to just stay in the frying pan instead of jumping into the fire. An existentialist would accept death because nothing matters enough to make such a large, catastrophic decision. But most people would instinctively jump and rue it later.
[3] The actual poor are just chewed up at home without ever bothering us more than by appearing with fly-blown eyes in the background of some National Geographic cover.
[4] This happens to non-desperate immigrants and tourists as well. And we have no empathy with them, either.