Dictionary.com’s United States of Diversity
by Taneesh Khera
In April, 2018 I traveled to India for a college friend’s wedding. When I came back, I read part of this essay to two friends, and we began to discuss borders and what they’ve become today. That conversation was inspiration for this episode, so grab a cushion and get comfortable for the United States of Diversity: Borders.
Communication at borders is choppy and isolating. If you don’t know the language, you still have to navigate the murky waters to cross. If you’re familiar with the language, you feel much more at home. This disconnect is why I want to look at borders today—with my own experience in China under the microscope—as well as how borders have affected the US and our culture, focusing on Trump’s “Muslim bans” and his “wall” along the Mexico border. And, all this leads me to my dream: that universal languages, like kindness or love, collapse borders altogether.
Foreign borders, choppy waters
My journey home is rocky. Communication is stuck in translation.
I leave New Delhi, India, for Beijing, China, direct. That’s according to the plane itinerary: To Beijing, overnight layover. Then to Kunming, overnight layover. And, finally, to San Francisco International Airport. Twenty days abroad means spending the trip back thinking of my home in Oakland. I’m excited to walk the Great Wall in Beijing, but I’d also love my robe at home.
But we land in Shanghai, instead. Nobody told us this would happen until we started boarding. At the gate, over the loud speaker, the woman announced the destination as Shanghai/Beijing. Shanghai and Beijing—note—are nearly 800 miles away from each other.
On the flight, the attendants don’t explain what they mean by “Shanghai.” After asking, they give only instructions: For Beijing, go through customs and claim baggage at Shanghai. Then, go back through security to board for Beijing.
So, we’re ushered to Shanghai via plane with no explanation, and it’s disorienting. Being somewhere you never intended to be, so far away from home, not knowing the language—Shanghai was like that. A surprise border check for people passing through China without a visa. Luckily, I researched ahead of time. US citizens could stay in China for 72 hours without a visa, so fine. I’m okay, I thought.
And, in the end I was. But, going through customs felt like finding my way out of a maze.
Borders and (body) language
At foreign borders, body language matters.
In Shanghai, no one is guiding you, no one is helping. It makes every encounter when asking for directions that much more important. I walk to the information desk to find out how I get to Beijing. They tell me in words and hand gestures. I try to remember both. Still, I erroneously wait in two lines and fill out one paper, before an agent in a window directs me to the correct line.
It’s an immediate change from my life just a day before. Most of the wedding party I was with has known one another in different ways since childhood. And, on the opposite end of the world in India, it means there’s always someone there to help. Some of us offer help in the same moment. Nearly nothing goes unappreciated, and communication flows freely. It’s weirdly utopian.
Now, in one plane ride, the atmosphere is cold, windowless. If you have no visa, it takes an average of 10 minutes of inspection per person before they let you through. There are two people in one window, and 24 people in line in front of me. (For you at home, that’s four hours of wait time, total.) Both agents take turns asking questions to the same traveler. After two hours, someone comes walking through the line to ask us about our itinerary. I pull mine up and show the man—Beijing to Kunming to San Francisco. He shakes his index finger, wildly, saying, “No,” while walking away.
At foreign borders, body language is louder than words. I didn’t speak the man’s language, and he spoke only a little of mine. And, as he walked away, his back and shaking finger told me he was speaking mine reluctantly.
Conversations at borders
“What do you mean, No?” I pipe up. “I have 72 hours here without a visa.” Nothing I could say would’ve mattered, though. It was like shouting into a black hole. He goes back up to the front and they talk, and it circulates in my mind:
Conversations at borders lack compassion.
So, at my turn, they get my information to verify it. I’m instructed to wait further, but this time at the front of the line. They call for the person behind me to go through.
After several minutes the same man who told me No, comes back and talks to the inspectors. I don’t know what they say. He then walks toward me, and we have a few conversations through our movements, without words.
He knocks me on the right upper arm with his right knuckle and orders me to follow him. I don’t appreciate being touched. I’m also crying from such an abrupt change in environment.
He speed walks, then turns around to tell me to walk faster, but I stop. He turns back around and speed walks again, I start walking again. We do this a few times along the way. I’m negotiating my distance; I don’t know where I’m going and I don’t want to be touched again.
We end up at a ticketing counter. There, tears flow as if a dam has broken. I cry into my yellow scarf. They change my ticket to the first flight directly to SFO. It leaves the next morning. I’m instructed not to miss it, or “immigration will come after you.”
“Thank you,” I say. Thank God, I say to myself. So the Great Wall waits. So grateful for my bed.
Conversations between borders
The ten-hour flight from Shanghai to SFO, direct, is a long and arduous affair of sitting. There’s a woman sitting next to me who could be my grandmother. I translate for her.
She’s native to India and a vegetarian like me. She speaks Hindi. I speak some Punjabi and understand a little Hindi, so we manage. No vegetarian option leaves watermelon, crackers, and bread for us to eat. Flight attendant asks, “Wheelchair?” Wide-eyed, her hands motion in the air, as if pushing an invisible wheelchair. I tell her what the woman says. “Yes, she needs a wheelchair. She had surgery and can’t walk.”
Time to San Francisco: 45 minutes. The flight attendants walk around with immigration papers. The lights go on, the cabin erupts in a song of Chinese, of voices debating how to fill out the customs paper. Questions fly across aisles, people stand to stretch their legs, outside dark turns to day in what seems like an instant. After finishing my customs paper, I fill out the Indian woman’s. As I work, I ask her questions. “Where are you staying in the US? Do you have any food items?” I think of my friends and my plants.
Time to SFO: 20 minutes. Oh how my tailbone hurts.
Borders at home
If Shanghai customs were choppy waters, San Francisco’s was a smooth glide to shore.
A Latina woman reviews my passport and immigration paper. I’m grateful to have a brown woman as an agent. She asks if I bought any jewelry or gifts, and I show her my two fists, each with a new ring. Smiling through teeth, I tell her how much my gifts and purchases would be. She smiles, says, “Welcome home.” It’s all very friendly.
I’m fortunate and privileged that it was so friendly. It isn’t always. I’m Indian and never know what to expect coming back in. Once, after ten days in Ecuador, an agent (an African American man in his thirties or forties) in Texas asked me what I was doing there, whether my parents knew, and it turned into a lecture on the importance of family. It was 2010 and I was 27… so borders have always been harder for some of us.
Of course, I can’t help but think of the Indian woman from the plane. How did she get through, not speaking English? And, what about the many people who call this country home, but can’t enter as easily as I did?
US borders today
Borders keep noncitizens and citizens, alike, out. They also keep citizens in.
We had two “Muslim bans” (as they became known) in the first year of Trump’s presidency, which provoked mass protests at the airports of major cities across the US (Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago …). Trump signed two executive orders restricting entry for people from six Muslim-majority nations: Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. (Iraq was included in the first executive order, but not the second, revised one.) Anyone with a US Green Card from one of those countries, or any dual nationals—holding two passports, one of them included in the list of banned nations—couldn’t enter the US. It suspended our Syrian refugee program indefinitely, and it kept people with the legal right to enter from boarding planes. If you live here, you should never have to fear being denied entry to your home.
Borders pretend that Mexico is not the US’s third largest trading partner. Borders forget that people on both sides of the line share Spanish as their native tongue. Borders ignore that the very names of towns and states here are of Spanish-Mexican origin: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Florida, New Mexico, California, Montana (an anglicized form of the word montaña meaning “mountain”). A wall doesn’t change the fact that our countries have been woven tightly together over our long histories.
Borders strangle cultural exchange and let otherness persist as part of a national identity. They bind and limit a nation by exclusion.
Languages breaking borders
With such a stranglehold on its citizens, we can only hope nation states collapse to a certain degree. We should be able to ease back into reality, where not everyone is out to get us. Where we’re not so wildly possessive of land—not realizing it wasn’t ours in the first place. And, where we respect people no matter where they’re from, because we have a basic level of decency for humanity. I imagine the US, right now, as a country with bars around it. As in, we walk through sand and look out at the ocean through bars. I’m asking, what would peace in the US look like today? What can we do to make it happen?
Kindness and love are universal languages, and we don’t need words to express them. If we let ourselves give a small gesture of love to someone who speaks a different native language than we do, what might happen? It could be to a neighbor, a classmate, or another parent in your child’s school. It could mean helping out a coworker, a storeowner, a fellow shopper. Letting kindness and love into our daily routines, however small, could grow into us becoming more aware of the kinds of people we elect into office. It could be how we stop news outlets and politicians from manipulating us so easily.
Learning to speak these universal languages allows our potential to go way beyond borders.
Taneesh Khera is a poet, writer based in Oakland, CA. She’s also a linguist trained in the US, Mexico, and Chile. Se habla español. See more of her work here: www.kheraphrase.ink.