I lost touch with you after I returned home for good from the US, where, you may remember, I was a student for eight years during the 1980s. I could not help thinking of you after following the news and analysis of Obama’s re-election. That’s because everybody is talking about you! I mean the Latinos generally. I was struck by how an immigrant from a Latin American county explained, to a CNN reporter, why he had voted for Obama, “We share the family values of the Republicans. But they don’t want us here!” The second part of his remark reminded me of an amazing story that I heard from you at the University of California, Berkeley, where you went to college while I was a graduate student.
Francesco, the story that I recall vividly is about your daring passage to the US as a young boy along with other members of your family. You were born in Mexico. But sometime around the late 1970s, you and your folks embarked on a risky journey across the border to El Norte in search of a better life. Unfortunately, after getting inside the US territory, you were unlucky to be spotted by the police while crossing a highway. You were all rounded up, taken back to the border somewhere near San Diego, and deported to the other side, Tijuana. But, undaunted, you guys crossed the border again, on the very night of your deportation! If I were watching a movie that depicted this story, I would be clapping for you at this point. There was no problem after the second crossing. Your folks settled somewhere in California, and in time you would attend college at UC Berkeley.
At Berkeley, you and I both lived at the International House, a place where overseas students and visiting scholars from around the world lived alongside students from different parts of the US. If the I-House, as we called it, was meant to foster cross-cultural experience, the diversity that Berkeley as a whole had to offer was vast, very special and quite unique. The large undergraduate student population, which reflected the changing face of the US, represented the whole spectrum of the ethnic makeup and lifestyle choices that one could expect to find in the US. I remember that by 1990, the last year of my studies at Berkley, the enrolment of minority (i.e. non-White) students at the undergraduate level had crossed 50% for the first time in the history of the university. Unfortunately, however, this trend was not necessarily accompanied by increased levels of multicultural interaction leading to any ‘melting pot’ of identities. Instead, one started noticing a phenomenon that would later be compared to the salad bowl, a situation in which people of different backgrounds coexist by developing and maintaining distinct identities, often involving increasing levels of insularities.
During my four years at Berkeley, I did find the place to be mostly tolerant and accommodating towards all kinds of people, including a significant number of homeless people who were permanent fixtures of the Berkeley scene. However, by 1990, some parts of the campus town started to become gentrified, a sign of which was the move by the administration under Chancellor Tien, the first Asian American to head a major research university in the US, to transform the historical People’s Park – a place associated with various movements of the 1960s – into a volleyball court or something like that by clearing it of homeless people. I remember seeing clashes between riot police and protesters over this issue, but I don’t know what eventually happened since I lost touch with Berkeley, a place that I had adopted as my second home in my mind, after I left the US for good in January 1991.
On my way back from the US to Bangladesh, I remember that just as I was boarding a Dhaka-bound flight at Bangkok on the last leg of my journey, news broke out of the invasion of Iraq, codenamed Operation Desert Storm. Upon reaching Dhaka, I struggled to attract the attention of the staff on duty at a hotel where I checked in, as all were glued to the radio. And while moving around on the streets, I faced cat calls – shouts of “Bush! Bush!” – aimed at me. Even though I did not remotely resemble the senior Bush who was leading the Gulf War as the US President at that time, my long hair and other clues like clothes probably made me appear like a ‘foreigner’, someone who came from the alien warmongering world represented by ‘Bush’, in the eyes of the average street person in Bangladesh. The Gulf War would end soon, but there would be no peace in Iraq, or in the world as a whole. Since 1991, the world has changed so much. The Soviet Union ceased to exist; there were horrors like Rwanda and Bosnia; …then 9/11 happened, giving the US an excuse to invade Iraq again, destroying the country completely afterwards; the US is still waging a war there, as in Afghanistan; … on the economic front, we witnessed the introduction of the Euro, and the relentless economic rise of China, which has also been building up its military muscle. With such major changes reshaping the world, and various conflicts going on in so many parts of it, with direct or indirect involvement of the US and other major powers, it is hardly a surprise that the whole world followed with keen interest the US Presidential Election that just ended with Obama being re-elected. There has not been the same sense of witnessing history or an atmosphere of high hopes this time as when Obama came into power four years ago. Instead, there are those who point out that when it comes to things like drone attacks along Pak-Afghan borders – causing untold sufferings and mindless deaths that are hardly acknowledged by the world – it does not really matter who is at the Oval Office. Nonetheless, many people around the world, just like many US citizens, felt slightly relieved at Obama’s re-election, mindful or worried that the alternative could mean greater levels of warmongering around the world, and harder times for minority groups of all kinds.
In Bangladesh, we are also getting ready for parliamentary elections, due to take place next year, although we are not sure of the exact date, and the process to be followed, yet. Here, there is a general mood of uncertainty and resignation among the common people over the absence of a democratic culture, even though 1991 marked Bangladesh’s return to parliamentary democracy after 15 years of military rule. Upon my return to Bangladesh, I too cast my vote, for the first time in my life, during the general elections in 1991. Since then, we have had four more parliamentary elections in this country, three of them under a special arrangement called the caretaker government. I was away for academic purposes during the time this unique arrangement came into place, after a lot of turmoil. For various reasons, I could not or did not vote in any of the elections since 1991. But this time, having recently applied for my voter ID card, I hope to be able to exercise my right to vote. I know that electoral democracy is not a perfect system, but the other alternatives that we have had some taste of are even more unreliable. Therefore I wish to do my bit as a citizen by exercising my rights and responsibilities as a citizen of Bangladesh. After all, this is the country where I was born, where, in a place called Khagrachari, my parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on were also born, lived and died. I do have relatives and friends who have opted to emigrate to the US and other countries. But I made my choice in 1991, and have been living here since then. Currently I live in Dhaka with my wife and a teenage son, and naturally I am keenly interested in the course that this country is taking.
As I indicated to you already, I am equally interested in the course that the US is taking. There are many reasons for this. We have already touched upon ongoing wars in different parts of the world, and global economic rivalries. Then there is the issue of climate change, something that Bangladesh is forecasted to become heavily affected by in the decades to come. The policies that the US or other affluent and powerful countries follow, on matters like climate change, aid and trade, have impacts on the poor, on women and children, on Indigenous people and so on in various countries around the world. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that we do follow with keen interest the kind of president that you and other US voters elect into office.
Before I end, I would like to share with you my experience of having been back to the US, just once, on a work-related visit, since my permanent return to Bangladesh. It was in 2003, after 9/11. I did not at all enjoy the experience of being back in a country where I had once spent eight years of my life. Because of the passport that I carried, it took me hours to complete some procedures that I felt did not make much sense. I know my experience could have been far worse if I had a name like Mohammad or Hussain. Anyway, I will not say much about the whole experience except to share with you the feeling that it evoked in my mind. I felt like I had set foot aboard a huge arc that had for a long time taken in whoever came seeking a place on it, regardless of where they came from. However, by the time of my last visit in 2003, things changed and I felt that I was entering a place where the gates were closing, and those who boarded it last were the ones guarding the gates so that no newcomers could get in!
The other night President Obama gave a rousing speech in which he referred to some lofty ideals. We are happy that you or your fellow Latinos, and voters representing other colours of the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ that Reverend Jessie Jackson once tried to mobilize, elected someone like Obama into office. I am sure you will never forget – but in any case pollsters and politicians of all stripes will not allow you to forget – that your vote counts, and that it can and will make a difference, not just for your pocket book, or for the US, but for the whole world, in future elections as well.
So, Francesco, please remember that as more people in the US start counting you, many others around the world will be interested to know what choices you, or others like you, make. They will be counting on your good judgment!
Dhaka, November 8, 2012
Prashanta Tripura is a development professional and former teacher, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.