Sunday, October 12, 2008

Like rats fleeing a sinking ship

My aesthetician is a German woman. She has all of the newfangled technologies but prefers to use old-fashioned methods of skin cleansing – her fingers, a sterile needle, a steamer, washcloths. I like going there and sometimes even fall asleep as her heavily-accented English washes over me as she explains what she is about to do.

Getting a facial has become a luxury I can really no longer afford. But this being a long weekend, and having gotten so caught up in work that I did not make any plans, I decided to treat myself from tip to toe. I rationalized that the money I would have spent in a frenzy of weekend activity, I could simply spend on myself.

I started off with my hairdresser. Normally her salon is crowded with women seeking the expertise of her Dominican fingers. Yesterday the salon was com
pletely empty. I walked in and went straight to the shampoo chair. I had my choice of attendants – they were all available. On a typical Saturday, I could easily spend three hours just getting a shampoo and blow dry. Yesterday, I was out in an hour.

Before I left, I asked the salon owner what the matter was, although I knew that it had everything to do with the poor state of the economy. She responded that it was like that some days and that the day before she had had so many customers that she didn’t know what to do with them. I respected her right not to show me her fears. But while flat-ironing my hair she took a telephone call and switched to talking in Spanish. I gathered that she was planning a trip back to the Dominican Republic to see about starting a small hairdressing business there.

Next up was a pedicure. I decided to try a salon I had never used before, one that was conveniently located on the way from the hairdressers'. I have never in my life been so happily greeted by so many Vietnamese attendants. The empty salon offered me my choice of magazine, chair, and nail color. I wa
s once again the only customer. The salon advertised $5. off the spa pedicure. I took it. Honestly, it was the best pedicure I have ever had. The attendant was undistracted; there was no need to hustle me out of the massage chair to accommodate the next customer. I tried to ask her view of the empty salon but her English was just not good enough for meaningful communication. But of course I had my own answers. The economic backslash is in full swing.

I closed out the day getting a facial. The aesthetician greeted me warmly. Normally I have to call a good month ahead to get an appointment with her. Yesterday I called in the morning and got an appointment that same afternoon. As she lathered my face with cleansers, I commented on the surprising ease with which I had gotten an appointment. She opened up about how bad things were for her and how she has barely made any money in the past three months. She then revealed that if things got worse, she would just pack up and move back to Germany.

“How long have you lived in the States?” I asked incredulously.

“Thirty years!” she replied. “But I go back for holidays every year. My parents are still there. And to be honest I have always banked there. I prefer to save my money in Germany where it’s too far for me to spend it!” I
laughed along with her, but I could feel a knot of displeasure growing inside me.

Look, I get that attitudes like my hairdresser’s and my aesthetician’s are largely the legacy of a history in the United States of official policies of hostility towards minorities and immigrants. And I include those who came here voluntarily, those who were forced to do so in chains and shackles, and those who actually predated colonialization but found themselves herded like cattle onto reservations where they could be more easily marginalized. The 1790 Naturalization Act was explicitly designed to refuse citizenship to “non-whites”, which then included immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy and France. Other racist policies have included the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1924 National Origins Act, and the 1924 Immigration Act, all of which were aimed at restricting entry to the US by people categorized as “non-white”.

Today, racism is no longer an official component of US immigration policy. But in practice, US officials continue to persecute illegal immigrants from some countries while looking the other way for others. And the granting of a visa can be facilitated by the size of one’s bank account.

One outcome of such racist policies is that when times are hard in the US, and when this country needs the minds of its best thinkers and the skills of its best workers, we are faced with the phenomenon of some folks clamoring to get out. They’re like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

The truth is that despite its many racist policies, a whole lot of people found life in the US to be preferable to what existed in their countries of origin. But now that times are tough and seem on the verge of becoming tougher, many are plotting their escape. I find this both unseemly and unfair. If the US was a good enough country for you to live in when times were good, then it should be good enough during times of recession. In fact, you should be willing to do your part to help re-build it. To flee just because you have a passport allowing you to do so is a statement that you were just using this country conveniently and really never wanted to belong here. You forfeit the right to complain therefore if the door is slammed on your way out.

(cartoon remains copyrighted to Mike Lukovich of the Atlanta Journal;