By Tessa Lena
Overnight, many of my friends have become great experts on the culture of my home country — a place they have never visited.
When I was 5 years old, my Soviet teacher announced that America wanted to nuke us for our freedom, and that a missile could hit any moment. That day, I couldn’t focus on my homework, and I couldn’t sleep at night. I was just staring at the window in fear, waiting for the nuclear missile to fly in and burn us all to ashes. I didn’t want to die.
Later on, I learned that it was a blatant lie. Nobody was trying to nuke us. When I came to the States and told this story to my American-born friends, I discovered that they, too, had lived in fear of being nuked. We laughed about the glitch, and life went on.
Fast-forward 20 years, and the Russians are at it again. Vodka-drinking GRU operatives with heavy accents are waging cyberwar against America and inundating us with fake news. I call America home now, and I don’t feel so good.
The other day somebody posted a link to a Russian restaurant with a comment, “Russian food? NO, THANK YOU.” I said nothing, and bitterly unfollowed. I guess they have never tried my mom’s borscht.
Overnight, many of my friends have become great experts on the culture of my home country — a place they have never visited. To avoid argument, I have trained myself not to interrupt them with passionate tirades against stereotyping. I am frustrated with being pigeonholed in a whole new way — the Russian bear now has Vladimir Putin’s head — yet I know that my friends are acting in self-defense. I remember.
But there is something else I will never forget: The year is 2002, and I am in the back of an immigration van, handcuffed to two young Chinese girls who are crying at the top of their lungs, scared even more than I am. Me, playing tough, and the girls, wailing like crazy.
“I hate Chinese people. Why do they come here?” These are the words the driver utters, as he makes sure to drive rough so that our helpless, chained bodies hit the walls of the van.
I feel bad for the girls. They don’t speak English, and in their eyes I can see undiluted animal fear. As for myself, what am I doing in the back of an immigration van, chained to two strange women, listening to a sadist in uniform? Why am I in shackles? Sadly, I married the wrong guy. He was kind and charming when we were dating, then turned abusive on the day we got married. When he realized that he could no longer control me, he brilliantly decided to take care of the “problem” by getting me deported. “They won’t believe you,” he said. “You are a nobody. An immigrant. I am an American.”
Do you know what it feels like when four armed men walk into your apartment, grab you by the hands, cuff you and walk you out of the door as a criminal? If you haven’t lived it, I bet you don’t.
As an immigrant fighting with teeth and claws for every set of papers, hopping from one visa to another, infinitely applying for something and infinitely waiting for something, you get used to excruciating uncertainty — you never know where you are going to be tomorrow, you live in-between worlds. But I know I followed the rules. I followed the rules religiously. And there I was, in the back of a van, banging my head on the hard surface with each rough turn, and listening to the screams of the young women chained to my arms.
Do you know what it feels like? You don’t, do you? Fear and uncertainty sitting heavy inside your chest. No rights. “But Tessa, this was just a mistake. Clearly it was wrong but it was just a mistake. Mistakes happen.” Reasoning sound great when it’s not about you or your family. But when you are on the receiving end, it’s hard to theorize. For a long time, I thought it was just a mistake, my individual tragedy, a one-off horror, something I was going to receive an apology for — any minute now.
But as years went by, I came to believe that the way I was treated was not an exception. Xenophobia toward subhuman immigrants is the default. That’s what they do. They teach us a lesson.
When the news began exploding with numerous immigrant tragedies in the past year, it broke my heart in a familiar way. I know every step of the process, and I know how much it hurts. I have seen this movie before anyone was talking about it. Inhumane treatment of immigrants is not new. Contempt toward caged animals is not new, either.
Yes, I’ve moved on, and when my friends make prison jokes, I laugh with them. I am no longer bleeding, but I remember. I remember crying inside of a jail cell because something is hurting unbearably, because you’re scared. After a while, a guard checks on you, and says: “There is nothing I can do now but if it still hurts tomorrow, we will take you to a hospital.”
I remember the fear of being locked up as a faceless number forever. The fear of being tortured. Food that tastes like urine. Hopelessness.
I remember sleeping on a metal bed in a cold room with next to no clothes on, begging the officer for a blanket. But no luck with that, because the officer doesn’t feel like it.
I remember the hopelessness.
You are an animal who is putting on a smile so that other people think you are not afraid. The callous federal agents who try to break you down, just like they do in the movies. “You must be kidding,” you say. “I am not working for any government. It’s my husband, it’s my cruel husband who arranged for me to be here!”
“Oh we don’t care about that sort of thing,” they say. “Your husband is for you to deal with. So tell me, are you going to cooperate?”
Me, with my crushed middle-class arrogance, my useless 4.0 GPA, and too little experience in street fighting, eating it all up. You are an animal who has to put on a smile so that they don’t eat you. It’s a mob feeling. Cruel, infectious, senseless.
In my case, it ended well. I won. I am innocent. I am in America, and I am here to stay. But when I celebrated my victory, I did not think that years would pass, and other immigrants would be living my humiliation, while I would be freshly stereotyped based on my ethnicity.
Back in the day, I was saved by the power of friendship. As I was going though my ordeal, many of my coworkers at the time wrote powerful letters in my defense. Others chipped in for a lawyer. It took a village to save me, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to win without their trust and their support. I can’t help but wonder whether they would still feel good defending me if it happened today. In the age of collective anxiety and social media, would it be acceptable to trust a Russian-American? I don’t know — do you?
This article has been written by Tessa Lena, an immigrant artist, writer and entrepreneur.
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