The Spiritual Dimension of Immigration
Ha Jin, Novelist
In his poem "Facing West from Californian Shores" (1867) Walt Whitman presents a prototype of the immigrant, who has come to America from the tyranny of his "God," "sage," and "hero." Having reached the end of his journey, its "circle almost circled," the man is full of misgivings about the promised land. He wonders, "But where is what I started for so long ago? / And why is it yet unfound?" Yet despite his doubts and despite the ironic upshot of his adventure, he is "pleas'd and joyous."
Whether forced or voluntary, immigrants are essentially travelers, having left their native lands in search of a true homeland. In English the word "homeland" has two meanings: first, the land of one's origin; second, the place where one's home is. Conventionally it was easy to reconcile the two meanings, since most people did not migrate and would use "homeland" to refer to their native lands. But nowadays, the second meaning of the word, the place where one's home is, has taken priority over the first. We often hear people say "my new homeland," "my adopted homeland," "my second homeland," and even "homeland security." As travelers looking for home, immigrants have to reshape themselves to fit the arduous, life-transforming journey. They cannot possibly carry with them the whole shebang of their past and can take along only what is essential and most useful to them. In other words, they have to abandon some of their heritages to become a capable traveler.
What they have brought with them may be "foreign" in the eyes of native-born Americans, but this foreignness is vital for the immigrants' existence and cannot be separated from their own being. This foreignness also defines them as valuable individuals in American society, and it is a source of nourishment that helps sustain and enrich American life and culture and the English language. The metaphor of "a melting pot" would be inadequate if it meant only to melt away the immigrant's foreignness. Similarly, the phrase "the land of opportunities" can be problematic as well, because many people come to America not just for material opportunities. Human beings are not animals that follow food. Many people come to America to seek fulfillment, to find out what they can become, and to build a true homeland. They see America more as "a land of possibilities," where one can start anew and dream of becoming free.
Indeed, freedom can be frightening, because it is conditional on uncertainty and self-reliance. As a free individual, one cannot depend on officials or connections for one's survival. Given the choice between freedom and security, I bet many people would choose the latter, especially those who live in an authoritarian society. To some people in the world, freedom is an alien mind-set; pursuing freedom in America, in a way, is like forcing a domesticated animal to turn feral. But the immigrants are brave souls who accept the challenge and the promise of this free land, although they know that a part of the promise can never be fulfilled.
Recently, immigration has again become a contested issue. Patrick Buchanan even uses the phrase "the third world invasion" to cast a dire view of this country's future if the immigrant influx remains unchecked. His position stands as the antithesis of the American promise, just the opposite of the Statue of Liberty's welcoming gesture" I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" One can argue that times have changed and that even Whitman realized 130 years ago that the American promise could no longer be kept. Even so, where else besides America is there still the dream of possibilities that draws people from all over the world? We ought to find ways to keep this dream alive.
2019 Vilcek Prizewinners
Congratulations to the remarkable biomedical scientists and culinary artists who have been awarded the 2019 Vilcek Foundation Prizes! Learn more about their incredible accomplishments.
2020 Creative Promise Prizes
Are you or is someone you know eligible for a 2020 Creative Promise Prize in Biomedical Science or Literature? Check eligibility requirements and apply today!
Press kits and images for publication are available only for the purpose of media coverage of the Vilcek Foundation. All published images must be accompanied by a credit line and copyright information. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for information.