WHY AMERICA IS GREAT and WHY SHE ISN’T

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Deeply troubled by the reports of violence against the Jews in Europe, Gil Kraus decided to rescue children from the clutches of Nazi Germany. His posh home and successful law practice in Philadelphia were treasures he could let go. Even with two kids, 13 and 9 – and perhaps because of them – he was willing to confront danger for families suffering terror. His wife Eleanor, won over to his vision, prepared affidavits from people who signed on to help support the kids financially. When she was kept from joining him on the voyage to Europe, Gil convinced their friend and children’s pediatrician Dr. Robert Schless to take her place. The men found themselves in Austria which, swept into the Third Reich, saw Jews by the tens of thousands in a panic to flee. At Gil’s urging, Eleanor caught the next ship out across the Atlantic.

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Austrian Jews streamed to give their children up to the couple, fully aware they might never see their precious ones again. Eleanor wrote: “Yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Each parent seemed to say, Here, yes, freely, gladly, take my child to a safer shore.” The most agonizing part was choosing whom to save. Dr. Schless advised caution, as any child who was sick would be refused at the threshold of Immigration and the children needed to be mature enough to endure the separation from their parents. Hoping for 50 visas from the American embassy in Berlin, the Krauses along with Dr. Schless finalized their selection of the kids, ages five to fourteen. Since “Jews were not permitted to give the Nazi salute and any parents who so much as raised an arm could be arrested, their eyes were fixed on the faces of their children, Eleanor remembered later. Their mouths were smiling. But their eyes were red and strained. No one waved. It was the most heartbreaking show of dignity and bravery I had ever witnessed. Almost a third got visas and were reunited with their children. Several more succeeded in coming to America during and after the war, but others perished in the Holocaust.” Reader’s Digest excerpt of Steven Pressman’s 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.

50 Children by Pressman

50 Children by Pressman

About half the children are still alive, now elderly. With the support of counselors and medical staff, and some with their parents, the young emigrants seized the lifeline of a new language and culture. Fear gave way to hope, hope answered by achievement. When these teachers, doctors, writers, business executives found love, they became parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Their lives, in other words, meant the lives of many others. This, despite the stringent refugee quota and unconcealed anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department, thanks to the startling sacrifices of three Americans who wanted their lives to mean more than personal comfort and safety.

Fast-forward 25 years, the law that would determine my own place in the world before I was born:

This measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways. This system [that] violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man…is abolished…We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege…The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld.

Lyndon B. Johnson, as he signed the The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that opened America’s doors to Asia, Africa, Latin America.

Fast-forward 50 years. The man who campaigns to build a wall and protect the nation’s borders wins the presidency.

The response to the election results opened these Korean eyes to the, shall we say cultural complacency, of some people my family interacts with regularly. Though they have been plenty polite, nice even, I had not noticed the white bubble that floats them from activity to activity, a way of life that seemed unnatural to me in diverse Southern California. But then again, aren’t these Caucasian families entitled to keep the company they wish? I was reminded of the way Korean-Americans always manage to find their own in every large city. And there are the Chinese and Indian and every other ethnic group. Take a mélange of people, and we don’t disperse like marbles you shake in the jar. Multiculturalism never works that way. The marbles organize themselves, often by color. NYC’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy. Sure, we build cross-cultural friendships. The marbles mix. But cultures will always build their own communities. The reasons are many but it’s one way those who have to interface the white mainstream as outsiders maintain their blood identity. So it jarred me to see white acquaintances enjoying life in their happy sac. It meant they were content to keep outsiders…outside.

But I get it. If I had grown up on Wisconsin cheese, if my grandparents and great-greats were all white, I wouldn’t be necessarily racist for not flinching at threats against immigrants. After all, these are other people. Not the ones you have Bible Study with, the ones your kids have sleepovers with, not the friends you gather over a latte. They are characters in the margins of your life, the check-out girl at Walmart you don’t look at, the day laborers you drive past in the rain, moving as on a reel. They are center stage only on TV and news media.

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

And when you watch us Asian-Americans kick butt in school, take the stage with our awards.

Except the mentality of Other was the long sleepy response of the masses to word of Hitler’s brutality overseas, wasn’t it? After all, America had problems of her own. And to this day, claiming American citizenship remains a privilege and a problem. Let’s start in our backyard, the detritus we never cleaned up. In all the talk about race, we rarely hear about the Native Indians anymore, and that’s because they are going extinct. War, disease, emigration, loss of culture. The Navajo reservation in Arizona my church has visited remains worse off in crime and poverty statistics than those of our inner cities. The country that built herself on the bleeding backs of slaves grew on the sweet milk of bigotry and contempt for anyone who was not white. This included all “Asiatics” like the Chinese who laid the rails to unite the states of America. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history was not of blacks but the Chinese in the massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. We remember the Japanese-Americans, uprooted and packed away in camps during the Second War.

Let me put down the textbook and pick up my journal. Both my father and younger brother, separately, were mugged at knifepoint, and my mother spit on at the deli we owned in Queens, New York. On the other coast in 1992, my aunt watched the flames engulf her store in the LA Riots, the work of black arsons. America tried to dust the racial degradations from her knees and rose to her feet, not by skyscrapers but by the brick and mortar of dry cleaners, shops, restaurants, the acquiescence of immigrants who did whatever it took because hard work was not an option. The dirt and concrete just fertile soil for dreams, their Korean sons and daughters came out of the best schools. Harvard Law. Stanford School of Business. Columbia. M.I.T. If Trump had been President in 1965, he would not have welcomed the little girl with pigtails from Seoul, Korea. Although as long as he has no Native Indian ancestors, he hails from immigrants like the rest of us. In any case, I don’t apologize for having come. Somebody has to watchdog the English grammar in this country. I have taught children of all class and color how to write, and write well, figure numbers with ease, give speeches, write poetry, seek beauty. My friends have bettered hospitals, furthered academia, moved Wall Street, planted churches, fed the homeless. The commitment to excellence, our I.Q, the drive with which we emulated our parents served not only our secrets dreams but our country. This work ethic and hope in freedom have forged America, generation after generation, filled and cemented disparate cultures in the fissures of mistrust as we did business together, advanced the economy together with the currency of respect. This, Mr. President, is how we helped make America great.

And friends, free market to me doesn’t mean billionaires first, or corporate executives first. It means customer first. I come to the table every time expecting the type of service and dedication my parents and I put in whenever, wherever we were up at bat. And if you don’t come through, I open my purse elsewhere and you learn to do better. Free market means choice and choice means you had a chance.  It’s not always front and center but opportunity lies somewhere in this country, somewhere in the bureaucracy, sometimes in the cracks, for those who seek it. There is always room for resourcefulness, room to climb one more rung. And if you can’t move the boulder somebody put in your way, you can voice your grievance, request help. I honestly believe those feeling trapped can look up and find open sky. Or they could, before.

I am not saying we have to answer every country’s knock and plea. A group is only as strong as its weakest members, at least how well the other parts can compensate. And yes, turning the country into an international homeless shelter creates some serious socioeconomic complications. But to lock the pearly gates and do an about-face while humanity perishes behind our back hardly makes for world leadership. Don’t make it a zero-sum game, and don’t spew hateful rhetoric in the name of patriotism. History asks America to keep renewing her vows to liberty and justice, which she now looks about to abdicate.

There they stand, the good, bad, and the ugly of the most powerful nation in the world. The heterogeneous richness, opportunity, support, competition, hypocrisy, oppression. This April marks for me and my parents 40 years in America. English may be my second language, but this land will always be my home. Because it’s simple. I am America.

202 thoughts on “WHY AMERICA IS GREAT and WHY SHE ISN’T

      • Thank for your great blog! My best man is/was Jewish. I have blacks (AA) in our family. I work with the Filipino in the International Festival. I am proud to see the various Asian’s arts, the lovely people. This we all share and at this time, we need practicality and love for our fellow people. I try my best and learning six additional languages including Thai, Filipino and Korean. Thai/Korean are the most fun. I have lived overseas, so I see the dichotomy and languages help with bridges to all humanity. One time there was a MiddleEastern lady who was dancing, she was memorizing. Love it. To the immigrants who wish others harm, you have a responsibility to honor the host countries and not spread fear. The backdrop is to help others as we can. Our responsibility to the world at large.

      • An incredible life you’ve pieced together. Korean is simple and elegant in grammar and form, but very difficult sociolinguistically for the cues and nuances to watch for. Thanks so much for sharing. And I got your follow-up comment. Looks like that belonged here, under this post. A very good point on the inner cities. Appreciate your time.

  1. “I am not saying we have to answer every country’s knock and plea. A group is only as strong as its weakest members, at least how well the other parts can compensate. And yes, turning the country into an international homeless shelter creates some serious socioeconomic complications.
    But to lock the pearly gates and do an about-face while humanity perishes behind our back hardly makes for world leadership. Don’t make it a zero-sum game, and don’t spew hateful rhetoric in the name of patriotism. History asks America to keep renewing her vows to liberty and justice, which she now looks about to abdicate.”

    Diana: I agree that the implementation of many of DT executive orders lacks appropriate sensitivity, planning and implementation. I am not a DT fan, but as someone who lives in an area that has seen illegal immigration crush the economy, challenge property rights and burden the average middle income family tremendously by “paying their fare share” even when they can’t afford to take care of their own…I think that it is very easy for ALL of us to point fingers and blame the other “side.”
    But that is the plain problem – their should not be another “side” As a nation we are caught up in a game of identity politics and this I know for sure – a house DIVIDED against itself will not stand.

    Because this country has been taking decades-long actions of deaf ears to one another – THIS is what we get – a populist, angry leadership that thinks they must shout into the wind to be heard. Our “leaders” don’t listen to each other or alternate points of view from the people. They charge ahead with whatever agenda will keep them in their seat of power….and THAT IS WRONG and we the people are enabling it.

    As you so eloquently noted – we ARE America (the strength of the great melting pot). My 13-year old great grandmother languished for days at Ellis Island bcos her mother died on the ship over….A very distant relative was finally found to take her in and care for her…. BUT – she waited in place, and ultimately was allowed in as a legal refugee. She faced prejudice (she did not speak English) – as did both sides of my family, but somehow she learned to assimilate, secure a job and work hard in the factories in the North East. Her family was her community and she/they made a vibrant life together. She ended up birthing 6 equally hard working children (2 who died in WWII serving their country, and a husband who went blind from a war injury). Like your Korean family, they fought for everything they got – and with pride and sweat equity – accomplished much…it wasn’t handed out freely.

    Should this same opportunity be offered to any person within or from outside this country? Absolutely. However, a sovereign nation can no longer be sovereign if it doesn’t enforce its own laws. The US is batting at about 50% in that category – especially when it comes to illegal immigration, entitlements and the every expanding federal and state governments. This is not an economic model that can survive in its current form.

    As you noted, history asks America to keep renewing her vows to liberty and justice – and I am in total agreement – but can we just PLEASE do it within confines of the actual LAWS that exist and not turn every action taken into a political albatross? Do I agree with DT most of the time – no – but lets not forget that many of the angry “voices” we are hearing are not about the betterment of the country as a whole – but about forwarding their personal agenda (on both – god help me – “sides.”) When we open our mouths – our ears shut. If WE the people really want to make a change then the people should lead TOGETHER and stop screaming at each other the poisonous self serving rhetoric that is polluting the hearts and minds of everyone.

    What I pray for us all is that we find common ground first (we are all human BEINGS) lets start there. Find what we can agree on – build bridges – and reign in our elected officials (and some of the non elected professional activists) to put AMERICA first, not personal/political agendas first. In the book of Proverbs it says, “a foolish woman tears down her house with her own hands.” I am extremely concerned that America has become that foolish woman….and when the house is gone – there will be no rooms left for anyone…

    • I am in complete agreement with you, though some processes might look different played out. I think you’re helping crystalize my self-awareness: it is the way DT’s gone about things, with the haughty hateful rhetoric and currency of fear that jars me. We (my husband and I) – as educated US citizens are part of the middle class that is affected by the illegals and the ramifications of the way they are trying to survive here. Of course I get it, and hear you on the socioeconomic challenges that’s got your city. We obviously need to do something.

      “the angry “voices” we are hearing are not about the betterment of the country as a whole – but about forwarding their personal agenda”

      It’s as you said. No one’s trying to build bridges. We need a president who can wield the privileges of his position with sensitivity, not treat them like one long season of power at Disneyland.

      Thanks so much for the moving testimony of your great-grandmother’s struggles and triumphs in this country. It is my honor to add her story here, a tribute to courage and hope.

  2. Very eloquent words, Diana. I love your profound analysis of history first talking about the Nazi Holocaust, the account of the immigrants, who built America, who were often mistreated, the progressive extinction of Native American Indians, the black slaves, and your personal experience coming from an immigrant family. Of course you and the many other people in your situation are America. These are hard times for you all with the Trump administration. There must be a way to get him and his nominees ouf of power. I am sure you Americans will find it soon. As a European citizen I truly empathize with your situation, which also affects us. What is happening to the Syrian refugees and so many others, the endless war conflicts in our world… All this is just unacceptable in the 21 century and simply inhumane. I have shared your post on Facebook.

    • I of course appreciate the thoughtful read and share. DT is well ensconced in the White House, and yes, international relations I fear will sour with the various measures he’s already taken. I can’t believe we’ve entrusted him with the nuclear Button.

  3. It’s a sad state of affairs. I’m Australian, but originally from Germany and a cousin shared this recently – “Now Germans get to find out what we would have done if we had been our grandparents”. Indeed. We all get to find out and it’s both scary and enlightening, because among all the shouting and bigotry, many people are standing up and organising.

    • Mmmm. Put well, scary and enlightening. Half of America appreciates the measures DT is making to strengthen our economy and homeland security, but it’s an outrageous mixed bag of personal agenda, obvious racism, lack of character with what would otherwise be noble actions. Yes, at least many are speaking out but you know what? It’s too late. Many DIDN’t do that, didn’t vote, and he’s truckin’…

  4. Deeply troubled … what a good phrase to start this piece, a reminder that one should make oneself vulnerable to suffering when the zeitgeist tells us we should be rid of such ‘hang-ups’ and just look after ourselves. Nice post.

  5. Very potent and candid post. The all too familiar scent of legalized discrimination is in the air. It was just over 50 years ago–one generation–that racism was legal. The people who lived through it, suffered from it, and supported it are still alive and well. We must not become complacent and think we cannot go back there. Oh yes we can.

  6. I will never forget my birthday last weekend…the aftermath of Trump’s ban on dual citizens , immigrants and refugees from the 7 banned countries.

    Wishing the best for the U.S. in terms of domestic peace but above all, recovery to become stronger in diversity and in peace.

  7. I am reminded of the quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I thank God that Gil Kraus (family and friends) did something to help the Jewish children (and families.) May we have the same courage, boldness, and ingenuity to do something that helps in our current times! Thanks for posting.

  8. Wow. I’m new here, but already hooked. Your prose is convincing without being preachy, and captivating.

    “America tried to dust the racial degradations from her knees and rose to her feet, not by skyscrapers but by the brick and mortar of dry cleaners, shops, restaurants, the acquiescence of immigrants who did whatever it took because hard work was not an option.” Love this. Such a powerful image to remind us of the direction we need to go. We’re losing our way as a country. And the costs will be measured in our national identity, and, unfortunately, in lives.

    • A sobering reminder, Gabe, of the cost. Think on all that MLK, Jr and the rest fought for, paid with their lives. This country has risen over a bloody foundation and now…all for nought? A very disturbing time, all the more because so much of it happens in the name of patriotism and Scripture!

  9. “There they stand, the good, bad, and the ugly of the most powerful nation in the world. The heterogeneous richness, opportunity, support, competition, hypocrisy, oppression. This April marks for me and my parents 40 years in America. English may be my second language, but this land will always be my home. Because it’s simple. I am America.”

    Being European, I was away taught in school that America was the great melting pot. It is both scaring and surprising what happens in America right now. I am glad there are people like you. Me myself, being caucasian, I always wished I was “normal” because I had (and still have) those Chinese looking eyes. Only when I was growing up, I became prouder of my weirdness (but it still hurts when someone says that I am different). Embracing your ancestors is so powerful.

    In psychological sense this story of fighting resistance has turned you in the person you are today. In mythology the gods (the forces in your personality) where almost always taken by surprise by the Titans, the forces of nature beyond human control. Right now politics in America has become a battle of Titans. Let’s unite worldwide and chance life for the better.

    • Very good, Ankur. No nation can impose burdens on any other, just as people can’t among themselves. And yes, we need to take care of our own first to even be able to lend anyone strength. Unfortunately, the question of who comprises our own seems a complicated one.

  10. Oh, your words hit my heart. I am a social liberal–hell, I’m just for being kindly human to each other, despite our differences–but have many Facebook contacts who are from my college days. Many conservative types. Not bad people. But cocooned, shall we say. And comfortable in their seclusion. It pains me to see their attitudes. Truly pains my heart. And yet, so many of us awakened and ready to put it on the line for our fellow man.

    • Mmm. An interesting place to find yourself in, friend. You nailed it. Comfortable. I think it the seed of many ills, not only in the affluent and social mainstream but among our kids. Yes, change depends on the fearless who refuse to toe the line.

      • I agree on the change bet. And I think the difficulty comes in how to deal with the differing viewpoints. I like to build on areas of agreement. Instead of just standing there shouting our viewpoints at each other.

    • Cocooned…that’s an apt word. I personally experienced this living abroad. In America I belong to a historically oppressed group, but abroad I am simply this educated and seemingly well-off American who is preferred over others. It was really eye opening to realize that I too had a distance from the plight of other groups because I had been cocooned as an American citizen with privileges some people only dream of. That made me more sensitive to people in my own country who may not relate to my experiences as a black woman, and realize it’s not because the are necessarily racist or even prejudiced. Rather, they just don’t know the space I’m in because they’ve never had to be in it themselves.

      • Really appreciate this, N. Food for thought, the “innocent” unknowing of those who can’t relate. But it’s so easy to stay there, to keep your mind closed to understanding and sympathy.

  11. Wow. Great post and an awesome string of comments to boot. I like your socks in the passport picture and I really like your stuff, I appreciate a sharply drawn contrast to my own experiences as a middle aged white dude with no kids, it helps me keep things in perspective. Thanks for that.

      • Thanks for saying so. I try to be objective and sometimes I don’t have enough facts or viewpoints to really be objective. Some may say there’s no such thing, or insist that they are right no matter what, victory or death. That mentality, I fear, will be the ruin of us. As long as people are so enamored of their ideas that they are unwilling to question them, to view them in another source of light. the siege mentality will continue and ultimately we will be torn apart from the inside.
        I wish I had said this, or even knew who did say it but “America has become more of a salad bowl than a melting pot”. Perhaps the next generation will find the way to end the divisions and alienation that have held us back, a way for us all to be Americans, no prefixes, no outsiders.

  12. That is a really profound piece. If you’ll check out “Before I Go” on WordPress, I’ve addressed some of this too. Think I could have done more about the immigrant issue, but there is so much to discuss. Fact is, we’re all immigrants and the Native Americans the only original inhabitants of this country.

    • You may leave me a link here if you’d like, Meghan. There are many legitimate concerns about national security and economy but it’s just hard to believe DT is driven by pure intentions and the love of his country. Thanks for the follow. Welcome!

  13. With regard to the new presidency, I’ve struggled to express my thoughts with clarity. There is just this heaviness inside. Signing petitions and local activities are only temporary salves. Thank you for what you wrote. I needed it.

  14. As the refugee crisis unfolds endlessly in Europe (I live in Britain), I’ve thought a lot about the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who were turned away by countries that could have saved them. We will live with the shame of our nationalism and narrowness for a long, long time.

  15. I appreciate this insight. I teach an African American literature course that focuses on the historical and political aspects of AA life in America up through the Black Power Movement. I tell my students that they must take cues from other cultures who have been enslaved, brutalized, had mythologies created about them, etc. and see what they did to still forge their way as productive citizens. I find having a strong cultural identity is invaluable. When you have a sense of self, it’s hard for anyone to tell you you’re less than a citizen and you will not roll over easily. What’s very important about this piece is you highlighted the experiences of Asians in America that are often dismissed. It is made clear that no minority group here has a monopoly on racism and suffering. We cannot claim that because Asians in general are success stories in multiple sectors of American life, that it must mean their sojourn here was not met with the same or similar degree of force as others. There has to be strong cultural paradigms in place that foster a sense of identity, history, and resilience that permits them to overcome the laundry list of prejudices faced on a daily basis. When I teach the course again I would to encourage students to visit the blog directly and comment for extra credit.

    Sorry so long! You are “up and through” my areas of interest!

    • You had my brows furrowed in profound agreement before lifting as I smiled. =) Let them know if they tell me they’re a student of yours, I will write you and confirm their participation in this dialogue. =) You picked up on something big. Yes, there is quite a history of bigotry against Asians in this country, which – guess what – I am less familiar with than the Afr-American history I’ve always been enthralled with. Because Asians are not a vocal people. That is one reason I spoke for us here. And even in the last several decades, I understand SouthEast Asians have shipped over as slaves. I think if anything, minorities have earned our American citizenship.

  16. Coming from Canada (your little brother from up north) it has been very intriguing witnessing what has been happening in America and wondering what ramifications this will have down the road for our country.

    But beyond the politics there are living, breathing human beings that experience feelings. Fellow humans who work so hard to make a positive impact in the world. Prejudices and stigmatisms really sadden me. Unfortunately Canada also has a dark history in regards to the early Chinese settlers and our 1st Nation People. We think we are making progress, but it is like 2 steps forward, 1 step back.
    This was beautifully written with tenderness and passion. Thank you for sharing. Love your “Little Wayfarer” photo.

    • “We think we are making progress, but it is like 2 steps forward, 1 step back.” Well put, Carl. (And I knew it was my little brother from Canada.) You’re also right to think on the ripple effects because for every action, there indeed is a reaction. I appreciate the thoughtful feedback. Hope you are well.

  17. Very nice piece, I think you did an excellent job pointing out to Americans, what we are supposed to represent, even though throughout our history we have never truly lived up to those ideals. The election of this President demonstrates the attitude of many citizens, that they are essentially Un-American. There exists in them, whether they choose to admit it or not, the seeds of racism and bigotry. Their candidate was their champion, with his racist rhetoric.
    I am ashamed that we have slipped backward, instead of insisting on going forward. Amid the cheers and applause for Trump, there are those of us who cringe. I will oppose in any way that I can this mans beliefs and any members of the Senate, and House. I think it’s long overdue that we see and accept each other as equal human beings.
    It must begin with parents to stop this cycle of hate, That is our only hope. We can not keep infecting generation after generation with that mentality.

My Two Gold Cents in the Holistic Treasury

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s