Dhaka to Rome (Indian Express article)

A friend Kaushik and I got an article published in yesterday’s Indian Express.

Dhaka to Rome: the Bangladeshi community, the eternal city’s most visible immigrants, travel “by donkey” to reach Italy, struggle to make a livelihood but believe in a better tomorrow.

FYI – keep an eye out for Kaushik’s novel Windhorse, which will be published by Harper Collins in the coming months.


Europe’s Enlargement Fail

European leaders prove once again that they have no clue on how to proceed with enlargement, integration and overall identity.

What is America? Who is an American? These are difficult questions that demand a certain level of nuance and a willingness to listen to people with whom you disagree. We often don’t agree, but something tells me that everything will be OK in the long run. When I think of Europe, I’m not so sure. I’ve recently come across two advertisements that have been in the news, both of which capture a certain mood and cultural outlook.

The first is the Chrysler spot entitled “Halftime in America” that ran during the Super Bowl. It features Clint Eastwood (life-long Republican) arguing that even though “division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead…after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one”. The commercial, in spite of its cheesiness and aggressiveness, has been well received – some Republicans have come out against the ad, claiming that it gives credit to the Obama administration’s auto industry bailout. Also, you can’t get much cooler than Clint Eastwood. Halftime was created by the same company (Wieden+Kennedy) that made a similar and equally famous ad with Eminem for last year’s Super Bowl. 

That brings up our next ad, called “Growing Together”, which was released by the European Commission (EC). The ad was taken down almost as quick as it was put up. See if you can spot why. 

Where to begin? Did they all make up in the end? Did she defeat them? Does it matter that it’s a woman and a bunch of aggressive non-white men? Are the men foreigners or immigrants? Is the EC rallying support for an invasion of China and India? Does Quentin Tarantino know about this? Is it OK that I find it ridiculously hilarious?

My initial feeling was that it was a hoax, but according to this official statement on the EC’s website, it’s the real deal. Part of me still doesn’t believe that the ad could be real, but assuming that it is, it unintentionally captures the anxiety and awkwardness of European identity as it expands, in spite of it’s already shaky foundation. It’s halftime in America, and in Europe, it’s the halftime show – zing!

At the end of the day though, these are just two commercials. Europe’s road ahead is much more challenging than America’s because the latter is already a politically integrated entity. It’s unfair to use these commercials, or any others as exemplars of American or European culture. On the one hand, it’s easy and fun to jokingly poke across the Atlantic, but on the other, I think a bigger and more integrated Europe is in everyone’s interest – if only the EC could figure out better ways to market it.

When Anchor Babies Attack

The Constitution of the United States guarantees citizenship to any person born within its territories. Fear of immigration is threatening this fundamental aspect of our national character.

Having grown up in the United States, I simply assumed that being born in a country was enough to earn citizenship. It turns out that the world is starkly divided in how it grants citizenship. Almost the entire “New World” (i.e., North and South America) gives citizenship to anyone born in their country – a system known as jus soli (soil juice). Almost the entire rest of the world requires some form of lineage or blood line to establish citizenship – jus sanguinis (blood juice).

The blue countries grant citizenship to anyone born there. The grey countries care who your mom and dad were.

The long-held tradition of jus soli has recently been revisited in the United States because some Americans feel that the system of citizenship is being exploited by those unfit to be American. The latest nativist fear-mongering centers around the supposedly popular practice of immigrants giving birth to a child in the US so as to facilitate their own legitimate immigration. What they fail to mention is that such a child would not be permitted to sponsor any parents for immigration until they reach the age of 21. Furthermore, immigrants having children in the US and establishing long-term roots is not new – the only thing different now is that the immigrants are coming from Latin America, Africa and Asia, and not from Europe.

Conservatives no longer feel that being born in the US is good enough. They are not scared of anchor babies, but using them them as an excuse to spew bigoted rhetoric. What they are really scared of is a non-White America. The same people who argue for the trumpeting of American exceptionalism are the ones who are advocating for the repeal one of our most fundamentally exceptional laws and traditions. The same people who complain that Obama is making American more like Europe are the ones who wish to revive an archaic (by American standards) practice.

I understand why Europeans maintain the jus sanguinis principle. Immigration poses more challenges for smaller European countries than it does for the US, where large-scale immigration predates the founding of the country. Places like Denmark and Switzerland feel much more threatened by the hordes of outsiders, armed with Schengen visas and strange languages. But as my Republican brethren repeatedly remind us, the US is not Europe and we should not abandon a principle that has enriched the country for over a century (and with the huge exception of the slave population and their descendants, since the writing of the nation’s constitution).

Anchor babies are not the problem, xenophobia is. Birth-right citizenship is not a universal truth that should be applied in every country. The United States, however, is in a unique position to posit the belief that a country can be built upon values rather than an idea of race or bloodline.

Is Superman American?

He was born far away but came here as a baby. For some, he’ll always be an outsider. 

Over the weekend, a few friends and I were playing a guess-who game in which each player must figure out the secret identity that they have been assigned  by asking yes or no questions. When it was time to play Clark Kent, someone asked “Am I American”? At first, the group responded with an unsure medley of yes-no-maybe. Then, it seemed as if everyone simultaneously remembered that Superman was born on the planet Krypton. The group almost unanimously answered that Clark Kent was, in fact, not American.

I insisted that Superman was American. After all, this was the guy who fought for “truth, justice and the American way”. My claims were roundly dismissed. I kept silent for not wanting to give the player too many hints, but had wanted to ask whether by the group’s logic, I too would be considered “not American”. Clark Kent arrived in Kansas as a baby whereas I immigrated from India at age 4. Was I even less American than this non-American? Of course not.

Obviously, a Saturday night party game is not the best test  for the boundaries of perceived national identity. Most people, Americans and Indians included, perceive me to be more American than Indian. But I wonder if the group’s answer to the question that night means anything? Did they merely forget that immigration and assimilation apply to the comic book world as well? Or did they merely slip and revert to a bygone era in which the place of ones birth was all that mattered?

Perhaps I was guilty of a false equivocation – rather than being an issue of American v. non-American, this was an issue of human v. non-human. I.e. Superman can not be considered a citizen of any country on earth. But that of course is wrong, Superman was a US citizen – otherwise, he would not have been able to renounce it. Much to the dismay of Fox News and conservative American, Superman renounced his US Citizenship in April 2011. So I guess I was wrong, but not for the reason I had anticipated.