Why I Dislike Walls, Part One
Warning: The following post is only tangentially related to Chinese history (and this first part not at all!) but is highly personal, and potentially politically offensive, instead.
The prospect of yet another wall going up and mercilessly dividing a contiguous region by cutting through towns, communities, families, and friends who I deeply love and care about on both sides, and the reality already of innocent people being torn from their communities, rounded up, marked as different due to some human-made distinction expressed by a piece of paper, and shipped off to a place of no return, breaks my heart and forces me to speak up. The current hateful political discourse on building a wall and deporting “illegals” to “make America great again” touches me more deeply than any other political issue ever has in my entire adult life, and I have been around the block.
Perhaps it’s partly that I am an immigrant myself, have only recently left behind the interesting status of being “alien” and become “naturalized” (what an insulting term!!!) as a US citizen, and still have the fear of immigration and border agents in my marrow. Perhaps it’s my childhood experience of growing up only a short distance from just such a wall. Or perhaps it’s just my personality and my refusal to see any human as anything other than human, and to apply the term “illegal” to a human being, for heaven’s sake! I have lived abroad my entire adult life and have always had friendships threatened by expiring visas, uptight and masochistic immigration agents on unpredictable power trips, illegal jobs or temporary or willfully withdrawn work permits, and dehumanizing time lines dictating personal and professional lives. One of the reasons why I chose to end up in a place proudly calling itself the “United” (!) States of America was the promise that we are all in this together, that we are better than xenophobia and hatred of the Other, that diversity is what makes us strong, what makes life interesting and real and exciting, what makes food tasty, music saucy, fashion fun, intellectual life stimulating, and personal growth never-ending… You get my point. And then I wish I didn’t have to mention the blatant hypocrisy of the current immigrant-bashers, the vast majority of which are descendants of immigrants themselves who arrived here penniless and the traumatized victims of their own persecutions, able to create a new life in peace and prosperity for themselves and their families. In my eyes, the only people who get to speak up against immigration are the native Americans, and I have yet to hear one of them embracing Trump’s hate speech.
My experience of living in the US has mostly been in the Southwest, first in Arizona and then in New Mexico, both places with obvious, undeniable, ever present historical, cultural, social, and economic ties to our southern neighbor. In fact, in my lived experience both in Tucson, in the bioregion of Sonora, and in the mountains of “New Mexico” (not named as such for no reason), I felt culturally closer to my neighboring communities on “el otro lado” than to a far distant place like Michigan, Maine, or even Oregon, where I now live. Perhaps it’s partly because I am from Bavaria that I find myself relating more easily to Catholic Hispanic culture than to Anglo Puritan culture. Or because of my love of accordeon music with the glorious cumbias, polkas, and waltzes of Mexican and Tex-Mex norteño music in that irresistible combination of African rhythms with Southwestern twang, native power and persistence (for absolute lack of better words), and German rolly-polly jolliness? My love of chiles and beans and bakeries with warm tortillas handed to you in a steamy plastic bag that is empty before you get home? Or maybe I am just homesick in far away rainy cold grey Oregon? As you can tell by now, the current political practice of blaming immigrants and stirring up tempests of fear and hatred in order to ruthlessly and greedily claw for ever more power and money really challenges my proper civil German politeness and respect for law and order. What is a good German, especially a well-traveled and educated academically inclined one, to do when fascism rears its ugly head again?
As a German, my relationship with walls goes way back to my formative years, during my childhood in Bavaria. Growing up, I was acutely aware of being fortunate to be living on the lucky side of a giant, insurmountable, menacing wall at which almost all roads stopped, between what used to be West Germany (aka the “Federal Republic of Germany”) and East Germany (aka the “German Democratic Republic”). My parents and grandparents shared stories about their families’ lost lands and lives, the historical sites, famous cities, and beautiful landscapes of a region more foreign to me than Greece or Iceland or even America. They depicted East Germany to us as a depressing grey place where kids had to live without bananas or Swiss chocolate, where most of the wealth had been and continued to be hauled off to Russia by the occupying Soviet government. As I learned from my parents and history teachers, this wall was the dividing line in the Cold War, between the wealthy free democratic Western bloc and the dreary impoverished Communist East. Tellingly, the Soviets and their East German puppet regime referred to it as the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall” while their Western counterparts named it the “Wall of Shame.” Stories of the construction of the wall, which brutally divided a country, cities, towns, fields, communities, friends, and families, were all around me growing up and touched me deeply. Living only a quick trip away from “The Wall,” I visited it on a school trip, staring fearfully at the East German soldiers with their machine guns ever ready to shoot from their awful watch towers, not at us who were safely standing on the right side of the wall, but at their own people! I listened to stories of desperate East Germans digging tunnels underneath it to escape to the West, getting blown up by the invisible mines in the bare strip of dirt just to the east of the wall.
On family trips to visit relatives in Berlin, I remember driving through East Germany on the Autobahn as a tightly supervised corridor where no stopping and interacting with the locals was allowed, passing the slow ratty East German cars, shabby crumbling houses, unkempt fields, and in general a landscape that looked a few decades behind the boom and bustle of my own Bavaria. And then entering the West German part of Berlin only after handing over our passports at gunpoint to Russian soldiers, having the car searched top to bottom with high-tech equipment and vicious-looking German shepherds for secret spaces in which we might try to smuggle a human body across, and finally passing under a giant Russian tank symbolically positioned to point straight at the heart of this hold-out of the West surrounded by a wall that we lucky ones got to pass through. That Russian tank and the guards with their dogs and machine guns will remain etched in my memory forever. East Germany was like a black hole, a world that stopped existing east of The Wall, that we grew up with but ignored for the most part. And then, seemingly out of the blue, while I was living in relative isolation in far distant Taiwan, I received news that the wall was gone, that the East German government had collapsed, and that Germany was reunified. Coming only a few months after the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing in June 1989, my Western friends and I originally thought it was Taiwanese propaganda, because it just seemed too unbelievable. Just like that, the wall crumbled and Germany became a single country again. I still can’t quite wrap my head around what happened. So perhaps that should give us perspective and reason to never lose hope, that human-made walls can crumble just as easily and suddenly as they are constructed.
To be continued in part two of this blog post, where I will ruminate on the Great Wall of China....