The first time a stranger told me to “get out of the country,” I was in Paris. It was my 31st birthday. I posted a selfie from the Arc de Triomphe on Facebook and captioned the picture, “Oui Paris suits me!” The Eiffel tower stood tall and clear in the background, even among low, grey clouds. I was proud to be there and you could see it on my face – a dream had come true.
Later that evening, while still buzzing from my Bordeaux at dinner, I scrolled through my Facebook “likes.” (You know you do it, too.) Many of my friends wished me well and happy travels. Some gave me recommendations of places to visit. Then my eyes caught a person’s photo I’d never seen before. It was a man with white hair and a white beard who wrote, “If you like it so much then move there!”
Stunned, I squinted to look at the comment more closely. I clicked on the guy’s profile. I didn’t know him. I thought, did he really type that? And to a person he doesn’t even know?
I promptly blocked him and deleted the comment. But this stranger’s comment stayed with me and became the premonition of what was to come for me, my family, and many other multi-ethnic families in this country — families and individuals who thought they belonged, only to find out they didn’t … and maybe they never had.
A few months later, the U.S. was reaching a political fever pitch. The simmering hate and apathy was growing and becoming glaringly obvious. In 2016, we didn’t just have a candidate that had unfavorable qualities or questionable policies – we were faced with one that was blatantly racist, xenophobic, and sexist (and bragged about grabbing pussies). The scariest part of all — he had a band of supporters who shared the same troubling ideologies, fears, and hatred as him. Some of these supporters revealed themselves as my own neighbors, life-long friends, college roommates, and even family members. It was heart-breaking and confusing all at once.
Like many others who were upset, I took to social media to air some of my frustrations. Almost every time I shared article on social media criticizing Donald Trump’s platform, I’d get at least one commenter saying, “If you don’t like it, then leave!” I also got, “If you don’t like it, go back to your country.” Go back where exactly? I was born here.
I was born in upstate New York to a family of Italian and Polish immigrants.
I’m third generation and my first language is English. I attended public school in my hometown of Syracuse, New York and went away to Charlotte, North Carolina for college.
I met my husband at a fraternity party among Bud Lights and games of beer pong. (Talk about the modern American love story.) He is also multi-ethnic, including first-generation Iranian. He speaks Farsi and is very much culturally Persian. Our daughters, 6 and 7 years old, were born in North Carolina. Our last name is Hosseini, a pretty common Middle-Eastern last name.
My kids have learned to celebrate all of their various identities: Italian, Polish, Persian and American. We like meatballs and hot dogs. We celebrate Iranian New Year and Christmas.
I’ve always viewed myself, my husband, and my kids just as I do other Americans — a multicultural family in a nation that is full of diversity. Not lately though. Instead, we’re made to pick sides. Unfortunately, picking sides is an impossible feat for those of us that love America, but also love our blended heritages. Essentially, it feels like there is no way for multiethnic people to belong.
If we belong to ourselves and honor our blended cultures, we’re not American enough and we’re acting “unpatriotic.” If we belong to white America’s narrative and align ourselves in this way, we directly threaten and hurt the parts of us that make us, us. We hurt our loved ones. Our histories. This is why we now question our “belonging” to this country daily. It just doesn’t feel right anymore.
According to Maya Angelou to belong nowhere is freeing. She writes, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
So far, I’ve only felt the price. And it is high. The price is hate. The price is, “Get the fuck out of this country bitch if you don’t like it,” messages in my inbox.
Many people, ethnic or not, have no doubt heard the ol’ “love it or leave it” line. It’s a logical fallacy that assumes there are only two choices when faced with unhappiness or conflict: stay or go, which is obviously not true. There are always viable options in the middle of two absolutes.
This “love it or leave it” and “us or them” mentality also assumes we all have the financial privilege to drastically change our circumstances (i.e. move to another country) if we’re unhappy, which many of us don’t.
Deep down, I know this flawed logic is rooted in misguided patriotism. I know these people typing these things to me don’t know what the hell they’re actually talking about. But if I can be totally real and vulnerable right now, the words still stung. They have made me worried and anxious for my family. I’ve shed real tears over these words. Fellow Americans, who I thought I identified with my whole life have told me “leave.” They told me I don’t belong. It’s a horrible feeling.
One month before the election, my husband and I sat out on our back patio drinking beers. The election was getting to me and I wanted to vent. People were becoming emboldened with their racist ideologies. My neighbors were mockingly shouting “Allahu Akbar!” to my husband and kids when they walked down the street. Kids in class were saying awful things about Muslims to my children. I was an anxiety-ridden mess. Hell, I was in therapy to discuss how these issues were impacting me.
“If Trump wins, we’re leaving,” I said to my husband. And I meant it.
I wasn’t alone in saying I’d move. Many progressives were making these bold claims, most notably Cher, who joked on Twitter that she’d move to Jupiter. Maybe the logical fallacy had rubbed off on me. I couldn’t see a middle ground anywhere in the US.
“We loved Italy, let’s go there and eat all of the wonderful pizza forever! Or Canada is nice, let’s go there. It’d be an easy move.”
My husband rolled his eyes presumably thinking I was being dramatic or I was drunk.
Certainly, there were other ways to deal with my growing unhappiness. Being able to ‘just leave’ was a privilege, and I could join more activist groups, call more lawmakers, and donate more money to organizations that combat injustices, to make it better for the families who can’t (or don’t want to) leave. I could send a check to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence’s name. If I could just channel my disappointment, disbelief, and disgust into causes I cared deeply about I’d be OK. The country might be OK. It might be enough for me, but would it be enough for my kids?
Much to my horror, Donald Trump became the president of the United States a couple of weeks later. Around the same time, my husband got wind of a tech start-up opportunity in India and he was seriously considering it. The idea of it was wild and exciting, but India? I couldn’t picture it.
On January 27, 2017, Trump signed an executive order for a travel ban, barring citizens from majority Muslim countries, including the country my husband’s family is from, Iran. His aunt and uncle who were slated to retire here in the U.S., were now halted indefinitely. They had no idea what to do next, neither did we. Reality set in.
A week after the travel ban announcement, a kid in my daughter’s first grade class told her that Trump was going to take all of the Muslims and lock them away. “Mommy, can’t we just pretend we’re not Persian and our family isn’t Muslim so that no one will try to come get us and get daddy’s family?” she asked on our way home from school. My blood ran cold. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
My throat tightened and I swallowed my tears. I knew in that moment that we couldn’t stay.
In the months that followed, I watched as my reproductive rights were rolled back. Our country’s healthcare plan was on the chopping block leaving millions of Americans, including children, with no safety net for their health. Undocumented mothers and fathers who immigrated here years ago were being deported, leaving their young kids alone here in the US. Then Charlottesville and white supremacy. The hits kept coming. Every day or week there was something new, something traumatic, damaging, or hateful.
During this time, my husband’s dream of working with a startup was becoming more real. The workload he thought he could handle by traveling back and forth between India and the US got to be too much. My kids and I would go weeks and months without seeing him. We needed to move to India.
Almost a year into the Trump presidency, I rode a plane for 17 hours with my two daughters and arrived at 2 am in New Delhi. The air was heavy with humidity, dust, and smog. My husband waved enthusiastically at us as he stood behind a uniformed man holding an AK-47. Our kids hadn’t seen their dad in two months. We had sacrificed so much to be here, and now that we were, had we made the right choice? Were we being too emotional? Too dramatic? I was questioning everything.
The next day, as our driver calmly navigated through the city’s hellish traffic where lanes are ignored and beeping is constant, I panicked. “It looks like a bomb went off here,” I said to my husband, pointing to the black, pollution-stained buildings splintered with re-bar. He shrugged it off as if saying oh well, isn’t this what you wanted? To get away? All of my insecurities, doubts, and fears built up like tears in the back of my throat. I swallowed them.
We arrived back in the U.S. a week later, and I felt sad. There was no Eat, Pray, Love moment for me in India. No magic. No wonderment. Doesn’t everyone love their visit to India?? I started wondering what’s worse — to truly be a foreigner in a country, or to be cast out as one even though you’re not?
The calls and texts poured in from my mom, grandmother, sister, and best friend. They asked enthusiastically, “How was your trip?!” I responded, “The people are really great.” I tried to stay positive and so I went on and on about how well the people in India treated us. It wasn’t a lie. The people were incredible to us.
I don’t have some grand delusion that living in India with my family will give me a magical life free from societal and political disappointment. Every country has faults, but maybe it won’t feel so personal somewhere else.
As I packed my family up from our cookie-cutter rental townhouse in Atlanta I found myself lamenting about stupid (spoiled) American things like:
I love Target, I love how Starbucks is conveniently located INSIDE Target, and I love how Internet connections work in the U.S. with little or no interruption. I also really dig walking on sidewalks without fear of being bitten by a rabid, stray dog. I’ll miss libraries too, and hamburgers.
I’m not necessarily escaping Trump and his vitriol (as an American writer I will get virtual vitriol no matter where I live). I’ve just had enough. I’m escaping the daily disappointment of it all. I’m standing alone with my family, taking this unconventional leap. It’s nothing like we’ve ever experienced before all because we so desperately want to belong. I want my kids to belong.
Again, as Angelou reminds us, the cost of belonging everywhere and nowhere is high. Not only is the cost high socially, it is economically. I recognize my privilege here and admit that we can afford to make a big, international move to any place in the world. It’s a privilege I don’t take for granted, and it’s one I feel I need to make very clear. Relocating internationally costs thousands of dollars and many people cannot just pick up and move to wherever they’d like. Then there are costs to our kids … emotionally.
My kids often ask me, if Donald Trump wasn’t president would we still be moving away from friends and family? Away from Grandma and Grandpa? I tell them I don’t know for certain, but he certainly made it easy for mommy to leave it all behind.
I don’t know where my multi-ethnic family will ever truly fit in, but I know it’s important to feel like you belong. Will we belong back here again someday? Maybe. Will we continue searching for a country that feels like home? Maybe. In truth, we may never come back. I’m open to all possibilities.
I don’t know if we’ll ever not feel utterly failed by the country we were born in. Maybe this hurt we feel is the path to freedom. The freedom that is our reward – to belong everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. I guess we’ll see.