The rise of xenophobia and the death of Anthony Bourdain

in Featured/Indy Essay/Journalism by

In 2015 a Canadian Immigration officer handed me a beige laminated card, about the size of a driver’s license, and I breathed a sigh of relief: no longer would I have to worry about being separated from my spouse and my child. After my marriage to a Canadian citizen in 2010, and even more so after the birth of my Canadian-born son, I had grown to expect that my wife would be pulled aside by American immigration authorities, just as I kept a thick dossier of important documents to show to Canadian immigration authorities. That dossier included all three of our birth certificates, as well as my proof of employment by an American university, as well as the sheaf of papers that documented my wife’s application for American permanent residence, as well as my own growing sheaf of papers that documented my own application for Canadian permanent residence. I did all of this on the advice of an immigration lawyer in Halifax. Our marriage across national boundaries had made us something of a target.

I constantly played out possible alternatives. If I were denied re-entry to Canada how long would I be separated from my son and my wife? Would my son and spouse be denied re-entry into the United States once I had been prevented from re-entering Canada? The questions were impossible to answer: timetables shifted and extended as new immigration policies came into play. Immigration officials were either difficult or impossible to contact, when you did talk to one their answers were vague and unconvincing.

It took me the better part of a year just to assemble the paperwork for my Canadian immigration application: just one category included making an appointment to be fingerprinted by the Stephenville, Newfoundland police, then sending those fingerprints to the American Federal Bureau of Investigation. After a 6-8 week wait the FBI confirmed that I was not wanted by any American state. After the application was turned in, I had to wait almost a year for the Canadian federal government to issue an appointment for a medical exam, a medical exam that included a gentle doctor in St. John’s doing little more than looking at me and writing down a few measurements, before sending me on my way, to wait for another couple of months for the next interview, the next round of questions, the next bit of paperwork to be completed.

I should not exaggerate my anxiety: I never became sufficiently worried about my tentative immigration status to decide against taking my son to visit his American grandparents in the Seattle-Tacoma area. Still, the immigration lawyers I spoke to on both side of the American-Canadian border made it clear that the border enforcement officials had broad power to make our lives difficult if they even suspected that either my spouse or I was working in the other’s country. The burden of proof would be on me to show my relationship to my spouse and my son. I should always be able to show that I was at least making some attempt to become a Canadian Permanent Resident. I needed to prove, in other words, that I was doing things “the right way,” as one Canadian immigration officer in Halifax put it. I found her confident moral tone puzzling. I desperately wanted to ask her if the requirements of her employment even allowed her to do things ‘the right way,’ the ‘humane way,’ the ‘decent way,’ but a border station where my anxious wife waited with our son who desperately needed his diaper changed didn’t seem like quite the right place to engage in subversive Socratic dialogue.

When we heard that Glen Greenwald’s partner had been taken aside at the U.K border and questioned intensely for hours because of his Greenwald’s journalism, my wife and I were horrified. When we saw the scene play out in the documentary Citizenfour, I found the images both familiar and chilling. Keep in mind: all of this happened under the supposedly benevolent regime of Barack Obama. Many immigrants did not find his administration’s approach to immigration humane, or particularly just: immigrants rights activists went so far as to name Obama the “Deporter-in-Chief.”

In 2015, not long after I received my PR card, I published a satire of my Canadian immigration form in a Pittsburgh-based literary magazine, and that essay played at least some part in my eventual reception of a NLAC writing award. All’s well that ends well, I told myself, and indulged in the luxury of sleeping soundly at nights.

Then, in 2016, as Trump’s unapologetic xenophobia cleared a path to White House, an American colleague at my new Canadian university said that she believed that immigrants had to ‘play by the rules’ during an event that addressed Trump’s rise. I wondered if she had any idea how contradictory and macabre those rules really were. I couldn’t respond to her without becoming undone in public by boiling anger. I held my tongue. Just behind me, one of my favourite students—from Mexico—witnessed my silence.

~

Over the past couple of weeks I have found myself revisiting these memories with repeated intensity as the American immigration policyo f separating children from their parents has gained traction in the North American press. I read these stories with horror: I want to look away, but at the same time find it impossible to ignore what was once one of my greatest fears made manifest.

Consider the cultural capital I do possess. I am a white English-speaking American married to a white English-speaking Canadian: the racism and linguistic bias that too often informs the perception of immigration officials works in our favor, not against us. My spouse and I both hold PhDs from prominent universities in our respective countries of origin; she is a published poet; I make what little living I can explaining complicated literary texts to university students. So—while we found the immigration rules and regulations and requests for endless documentation difficult to understand, often contradictory—we brought an unusually high degree of rhetorical and linguistic sophistication to the process. While I was living in the United States I had the financial means to hire an American immigration lawyer. When my wife and I decided that we would rather settle in Canada to raise the child then rapidly growing inside her, I had the cultural wherewithal to contact a Canadian immigration lawyer for advice. If an overzealous immigration official decided to separate us—and it would only take one—the financial firepower of two comfortably middle-class extended families on either side of the American-Canadian border would have almost certainly been exercised: Newfoundland Nan and American Grandpa both would have ensured their grandson could cross that border whenever he damn well felt like it. My father’s tenure as a lawyer and a judge would likely have had me in touch with even more immigration lawyers within hours of any separation.

All of that knowledge comforted me from 2011 to 2015; I trusted that any separation my little family might experience would be relatively short. Six months to two years might be excruciating, but solutions would be found if solutions were required, and likely sooner rather than later.

In 2018, I find that knowledge horrifies me. If I was anxious in 2014, even having that considerable cultural capital behind me, what kind of sheer unholy terror must a Spanish speaking mother with a high school education be facing when rounded up for a mass immigration meeting, not even knowing where her child has been taken to?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials—the new secret police of this not so brave, hardly new America—know that the pro-bono efforts of immigration lawyers have been spread dangerously thin, and these officials act more or less confident that the legality of their actions will likely never be questioned. When their actions are reported within American media, they can count on a significant portion of xenophobes in America—and elsewhere—to yield predictable bromides about having no sympathies for rule-breakers.

~

This weekend past Anthony Bourdain took his own life in a French hotel room, and the news slammed across North American social media accounts relatively early Friday morning, competing with the news that yet another populist right-wing candidate had gained power, this time here at home in Canada. The weekend progressed, and on the flimsiest of pretexts the American president appeared to start a trade war with America’s closest ally, even as tweet after Facebook update urged people who were depressed to consider reaching out to suicide hotlines.

For any number of reasons Bourdain’s death hit myself and my spouse hard. Undoubtedly our reaction was a mixture of projection, a product of the strange sense of intimacy created by the kind of media that Bourdain created. My son has grandparents in the American Pacific Northwest, an aunt and uncle in Japan, extended family in Mississippi, a cousin he has never met in Bangkok, and his favourite friends of the family make their home in Mumbai. At the age of six Sam is on his second passport, and has opinions about Paris and Dublin as well as St. John’s and Seattle to go with it. Possibly in Bourdain I saw some ideal future version of my own son, for Bourdain himself was the result of a relationship that crossed borders, and his childhood had a foothold in France as well as New York.

Yet it was more than that. Bourdain ate raw seal with the Inuit, and presented it as something close to an American Thanksgiving feast. He visited ‘ghost gardens’ in a Detroit where American public infrastructure had almost completely decayed, forcing American viewers to confront the third-world conditions created in their own country. He provided a first-hand account of Israel’s invasion of Beirut. Like any television product, certain episodes were better than others. Bourdain’s Newfoundland episode, which aired a few weeks before his death, was one of his B sides; it followed one of his most brilliant episodes which made West Virginia a synecdoche for an American dream betrayed by industrial collapse and opportunistic capitalism. At its best Bourdain’s aesthetic made people usefully uncomfortable, refusing to let people relax in the comfort of their own accepted assumptions, forcing them to think hard and long about people and places that they might otherwise have dismissed.

Bourdain didn’t just reach across borders, and he didn’t naively act as if they didn’t exist. What it did do was insist, relentlessly, on the humanity of the people on both sides of the border by focusing on the manifold ways in which our species breaks bread together. It was a bizarrely simple idea that paid impossibly rich dividends: people everywhere like to eat. Let’s go ask them about what they like to eat, and how they like to eat it. Asking those questions might tell us something about how they live.

It was, perhaps, just a television show. Bourdain was a man who—he himself might have been pointed out—got undue amounts of praise for having the decency to recognize that the Palestinians were people, and that the people of Laos might have reason to be upset with western-imperial colonial powers in the form of France and the United States. He wasn’t a hero, as sometimes suggested, or even particularly brilliant: he just occasionally had the guts to turn his crew’s cameras toward peoples who had been forgotten, and then had the audacity to tell the truth about his experiences in those remote places.

Still, this weekend past decent people appeared to be in awfully short supply on the world stage. One of those decent people was tragically overtaken by his demons.

~

Donald Trump provides plenty of anxiety in the world right now. In the aftermath of Bourdain’s suicide, the rising American suicide rate came up more than once. And as more than one American psychologist has noted, it appears that national politics are playing an unusually large part in the anxieties that are driving people into America’s therapist’s offices. I speculated: might Bourdain be another victim of Trump’s paranoid delusions? The man who wanted to break down figurative national walls had to watch as his country indulged in nationalist delusions of grandeur that included building a literal Game-of-Thrones-style wall on its southern border. If your sanity depends on transcending national boundaries, then the global rise in xenophobia can feel not just depressing, but existentially threatening.

Yet I don’t know that it is actually Donald Trump who plays the archetypal villain right now, at least not to my mind, as much as I loathe America’s latest preening would-be autocrat. Instead it is the xenophobic virus itself—an infection that, ironically, easily jumps across borders without visa or passport—that needs to be addressed. On the basis of little more than some vague worries about immigration, the troubled national act of imaginative fiction that has named itself ‘Britain’ for some centuries decided in a fit of pique to redraw an old imaginary line in opposition to Europe. In response Scotland almost immediately expressed a desire to reconstruct Hadrian’s Wall. China and Japan engage, almost liturgically, in annual sabre-rattling over a group of unoccupied pebbles in the Pacific. Across the planet we cling to flags, to the cults of our heroic leaders, to the imaginary lines drawn on maps that are guarded with the threat of very real violence. We insist that rules must be followed, even if it means denying people access to healthcare based on little more than the fact that their parents were born outside of the country. Canada appears, to me, to be as susceptible to these myths as any other country, and the pernicious notion of ‘Canadian values’has begun to creep into this country’s election debates. When rule-following itself is seen as a moral prerogative, we enable the genocidal.

Even as I write this, infant sons are being ripped out of their mother’s arms, and toddler daughters are taken from their father’s care in the name of ‘patriotism’ and the ‘rule of law’ and our cultures become increasingly depraved and debased.

We live in a world where Anthony Bourdain’s vision of a borderless world of pleasure has been lost, and Jeff Sessions’s faith in the rules remains.

Nathan Elliott has published creative nonfiction, fiction, and journalism in a number of venues, as well as peer-reviewed research on nineteenth-century British literature. He is an American living on the west coast of Newfoundland, where he writes and occasionally teaches university classes.He can be followed on twitter: @writeronabike.

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