It's Not Enough to Bear Witness
Two days after the Supreme Court of the United States took this country backwards, with one of the more extreme justices stating that he wished to also examine the constitutional right to same-sex marriage and contraception, I found myself having the same conversation over and over.
As a newly arrived foreigner, not yet an immigrant, what are my options?
It is natural to map injustice to your personal situation, to see how exactly something impacts you. If it is no longer a constitutional right to be in a same sex marriage, then I cannot be here. I cannot be here. A same sex marriage between two foreigners would have no immigration or other rights; I literally cannot live in a country like that. We are not there yet, though we may be.
Fight or flight kicks in. You look for the exit. If you have a powerful passport, like I do, you have many exits.
It becomes unbearable to listen to the naysayers. Not the people who are working behind the scenes to wreak havoc on others'—no, we should not be listening to those people anyway—but to the people who witness each injustice, and instead of being alarmed or upset, spend all of their energy being upset at our reaction to injustice instead. It won’t be that way. It’s not so bad. Things are fine. Calm down.
I am never calming down.
I am not leaving either.
This is not a story about how it’s important to stay and make the change. The individualistic concept of making change on your own fails to consider the overall systemic power imbalance at play, the same one that breathed life into injustice and turned them into policy.
For many Americans with the privilege to go elsewhere and start anew, whether it’s because of jobs that let them work remotely, or because they have documented ancestry in countries that are now able to provide them with second or third passports, leaving is very much a personal decision. If you can manage it, seeing the world outside the US is always rewarding.
Yet as someone who has left multiple countries and homes in search of the next, I will simply say that being far from the problems of home is not the same as those problems not existing. Removing yourself from the epicenter is essential at times to regroup and reframe. Problems compound. No matter how faraway you are, you know they are there. If you have the privilege of deciding that you will never have problems again, that’s good for you, too.
What’s more likely is you will go somewhere that’s simply five years behind the US on the authoritarian timeline. I have no desire to uproot my life to go live somewhere I never wanted to live in, where I am going to be even further from any ability to resist injustice because of linguistic or cultural distance. This is my home, too.
Many methods of resistance are closed to me as a foreigner in this country. While on a visa, I simply cannot risk street protests or deep organizing, knowing that law enforcement and federal authorities do not look too kindly on foreigners who are involved in these things. Nor do they have to, because I don’t have the same rights as an American citizen or long term permanent resident.
Writing about the injustice as it happens is one thing I can do. But it is not enough. Not for me. I want to interrogate why they happen, who was responsible, how we can roll it back or fight back. I am inspired by the writers who have been writing about the worst actors of our generation: fascists, authoritarians, misogynists and terrorists of all stripes and inclinations. From Hindutva to Tigray and the Donbas, our world today would be unrecogizable to the young person who traveled through pre-war Syria, pre-housing crisis United States, in 2008, like I did. There was the world before. The one I was told would go on and on forever: forever growth, and forever peace. Now I’m old enough say: growth and peace for whom exactly?
It is important to grieve the end of that era. The post-Cold War era of growth and development at all costs is on its last legs. Everyday in my neighborhood in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, I see the people who lost. Vestiges of their past lives: their expensive camping gear now houses them permanently on the streets, instead of once or twice a year in California’s campgrounds. The backpacks that carry everything they own. Four years in this country, all of it in San Francisco, and I am reminded of how desperately alone one can feel here. One misstep, one mistake, a series of unfortunate events, and you are on your own.
That’s why I think it would be radical for an individual to build community where they live, and to help everyone thrive. Especially if they are people who are least like you. Not to think of it as charity, because that would be crass, but as an overwhelming need to be the connective tissue that can help heal the scars of the broken world that we we live in. Maybe I have privilege today, as a tech worker with a powerful passport and a disposable income, today I can help to literally feed the hungry. Even when if I don’t have those privileges—because existing in this country is so fraught with anxiety about how one mistake or illness can take everything away from you—it would still be an overwhelming duty as a human being to work to improve conditions for the people around me.
I want to bear witness, by writing about the world, particularly about the injustice that authoritarianism and religious fascism is going to cause in the US, in India and in Singapore. But I also want to reduce suffering and cause no harm. That’s what my new commitment to Buddhism is helping me understand: every world at every moment in time is endless suffering. The most radical act you can do is to know that you are empowered. Sometimes that means you can help chip away at removing the causes of suffering; but most times, just knowing that you have the power to name and note an injustice is more power than the abusers want you to have.
Right this moment, by writing this, I am committing myself to the work of leaving a better world than the one I existed in.
Figuring out how exactly I’m going to do that is part of the work.