I Love This Land; I Grieve

One writer’s meditation on belonging, home, and the 2016 election

On election night, driving in a carful of lifelong Democrats, most of them white, all of us dazed, I said that, if I’d loved this nation less, I wouldn’t be in such pain. I don’t know this America, they said. One friend asked if I could explain the love I felt. I’m writing this, I think, in that attempt. But maybe I’ll start by telling you that, looking as I do, I haven’t, not once, been called a chink. No one has insulted me by pulling up the outside corners of his eyes, or hers. In the United States in which I’ve lived, I’ve seldom been hailed with racist slights: no hostile “konnichiwa,” few “nihao” catcalls. Every now and then, a white person insists on finding out where I’m from, but no American has advised that I go back to Asia. To date, I’ve often thought that I belong.

Part of this, I’m sure, is a result of the upbringing I’ve had, in a small California town so full of Asians I made it through junior high before I realized that people who shared my ethnic traits formed, in America, a small constituent. I assumed the nation included a lot of public schools like mine, the class rosters crowded with the last names Kim, Lee, and Park. In time, I began to understand I was wrong: that being Seoul-born, a woman, I’d withstand challenges that white, straight, male friends might not undergo.

I assumed the nation included a lot of public schools like mine, the class rosters crowded with the last names Kim, Lee, and Park.

But even so, in all the U.S. cities I’ve inhabited since I left my town — in New Haven, D.C., New York, Palo Alto, and San Francisco — I haven’t felt out of place. No one stares at me, or fancies I can’t understand English. One could suppose this is because I’ve lived in such diverse cities, liberal enclaves on both coasts, but I’ve felt the same ease upon visits to New Mexico and Virginia; in rural, upstate New York; in off-season Colorado ski towns; and in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.

Please don’t think I fail to realize what luck I’ve enjoyed, the relative privilege I’ve experienced: this isn’t the nation most non-white friends have known. But I’ve also lived in foreign places where I’ve felt alien, exotic, ogled, and plain intimidated. In my peripatetic twenties, I picked up jobs or fellowships that let me live in Paris, Madrid, Budapest, Siena, and Buenos Aires. In all of these cities, in spite of how fluent I was or wasn’t in the local language, I heard the onslaught of sidewalk “nihaos” at last. Strangers at parties kept asking where I was from. I said America, and they pushed: No, but where was I really from. America, I said, blood up, a patriot. Even when I tried living in Seoul, the city of my birth, I stuck out. If I said five words, taxi-drivers could tell by my accent that I was just visiting. They asked if I was Korean, inquiring, in one of the question’s literal translations, Are you a person of our land? Yes, but no, I replied. Each time I’ve returned to the States, I’m moved to tears by passport officials who tell me, without fail, Welcome home.

Even when I tried living in Seoul, the city of my birth, I stuck out.

I write this from a tranquil artists’ residency, a mansion-turned-idyll where I’m housed and fed, at no cost, a month-long paradise where all I’m expected to do is to write. Even so, as I walk through the bucolic estate, ginkgo leaves crackling with each step, I’m aware of how white I’m not. That I’m a woman. I’m conscious that, nationwide, hate incidents are on an upswing. I sit down to work, and sight blurs. I blot the useless tears so that I can write again.

I’m here to finish a novel about a group of born-again, hard-line Christians who, in the name of good, bomb abortion clinics. It’s taken almost a decade to write this book. For close to a third of my time on this earth, I’ve inhabited, and I’ve loved, the fictional minds of the fanatical pro-life. Disciples of Christ who, in the real world, like some of you, might have voted for the Republican on the ticket not with the intent of being racist, and hateful, but because they exalt a God who’s said to revile abortion. Before that, I was one of you: raised religious, I believed I was called to be an evangelist, a life plan that lasted until, at sixteen, I left the faith. This past month, I’ve also tried to imagine thoughtful citizens voting for a candidate because he promised he’d prevent their jobs from being shipped overseas. Or maybe — and this requires more of a cognitive stretch, but here I am, trying — you feel nostalgic for a past epoch, one in which you felt less often in the wrong. I’m a novelist; it’s part of my job, I think, to strive to see people as they see themselves. I’m trying.

I’m a novelist; it’s part of my job, I think, to strive to see people as they see themselves. I’m trying.

I write fiction, as I’ve said. This is the first time I’ve attempted writing like this, a song of fact. It feels indecent, all but obscene, to exhibit such wounds. I’d rather strip naked in public. I want to tell you, though, without the veil of invention, about this pain. It hurts so much, in spite of all I’ve tried to understand, to learn how many of you voted into office a presidential candidate who promised to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants. Pledged to put all Muslim people on a list, and boasted, on tape, about assaulting women. Who excluded black would-be renters from his properties, and vowed to jail political rivals. Admires Hitler’s collected speeches.

This month, I’ve thought so often of James Baldwin’s glorious assertion that it’s because he loves America that he insists on the right to perpetually criticize the place.

When I’m not writing, I’m often reading. In what I’ve read, I’ve studied the marginalized, exiled, gulag-banished, suppressed, and killed. I’ve learned from Primo Levi, Oscar Wilde, Simone Weil, Liao Yiwu, and Osip Mandelstam; I’ve an inkling of how fast, and on what absurd pretexts, human beings can stop belonging. But I’m an immigrant, and it’s possible I have the convert’s zeal: I persist in longing to have faith in this shining, fragile experiment of a republic. Meanwhile, the news worsens. White supremacists are recruiting. Hope flails. I’ve seen some of you who supported the president-elect explain you’re not racist, homophobic, and sexist, in which case, I wonder, when the lists are made, will you stand with those of us who are chinks, or — what are the other terms? Dykes, kikes, bitches, towelheads, fags; if we’re uppity, if we’re spics, documented or not, in all possible hues of skin; while we might not all be white, straight, Christian men, will you uphold the truth that we’re as American as anyone else?

This month, I’ve thought so often of James Baldwin’s glorious assertion that it’s because he loves America that he insists on the right to perpetually criticize the place. I love this land; I grieve. I know the next four years have just begun. What I’m writing could well prove to be a dirge, but this American would like to tell you it’s still a love song.

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