But the Empire Made Us

Andrew Lee explores how the frontiers between countries, their borders which are literal and figurative, also create adoptees in the material and in the ethereal.

3 years ago

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I. On the Nature of Things and Missing Children

I would have dropped between 30 and 50 atomic bombs on his air bases and other depots strung across the neck of Manchuria… For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the north. The enemy could not have marched across that irradiated belt.

- General Douglas MacArthur

In a previous piece, we looked at international adoption, the process by which children disappear from poor countries, their social personhood extinguished, only to reappear in the American heartland with new names, new identities, and Social Security numbers. We found that we cannot understand international adoption without understanding empire and that these adoptions can teach us about the empire’s nature, as well. Today, we wish to see what the same fact of adoption between countries might tell us about the frontiers between them.

Tijuana/San Diego Border

Of all the inarguable, material things of the world we have built, few are more solid than a border. One may not argue with walls or fencing or the armed men that stand behind them on one side or the other. There is no debating the scars in the earth that separate laws and peoples and families and tongues and those with wealth from those who lack it. When the location of a border is disputed, bombs fall until a mutual understanding is reached. In tumultuous times, it is so often the solidity of borders that people grasp on to in an attempt to regain their footing. We need to remember that the border is not the wall; the border is the dividing line. In the naïve liberal imaginary, when President Trump tried to construct his southern wall he was creating a division on the continent. We cannot forget that before Trump proposed the idea of a contiguous border wall, the prevailing US border security logic was the promotion of the “funnel effect”: those areas of the US-Mexico border easiest to cross were policed and fenced, forcing migrants to traverse more perilous routes. There, humanitarian aid was systematically destroyed, ensuring that those attempting the only possible  crossings would be left more likely to die. Word of these deaths, it was hoped, would then deter future migrants. Certainly not more humane or less lethal than the construction of a concrete wall, this strategy was possible because with or without a physical demarcation, in the world of power and life and death, the border nonetheless remains. The border is not the wall; it is what the state is allowed to do to those who cross it. It is what allows a government to aspire for the death of desperate children in desert sand and face no reproach, for without borders, after all, the nation is nothing.

II. On the Contentious Permeability of Borders and People

We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked.

- President Barack Obama
There is a psychological phenomenon that consists in believing the world will open up as borders are broken down.

-Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Fenced or unfenced, walled or not, there are those for whom the border is irrelevant. For the frat boys returning from spring break in Mexico, the wall, the desert, and all the space between Cancún International and LAX dissolve. The border is replaced by a customs agent’s cursory glance at the authoritative blue of an American passport against the sunburnt pink of the hand that holds it. The tourist glides smoothly between nations, returning to his community as easily as he departed from it. When the time comes to breach the frontiers that demarcate and limit and condition our lives, there are some for whom it is lethal and others for whom it is a mere formality. Of these two figures, the adoptee is both.

We may dance across the world with the lightness of the drunken spring break reveler, with impeccable English and American homes and, provided our parents filled out the necessary paperwork, an imposing and powerful passport. With so many of us brought here before our first words, we find ourselves utterly at home in the United States, and it is a mighty thing to feel at home in a country that takes so much from the others. We were not born here, but most of us do not remember the erasure of what came before. We do not struggle to pronounce the street name of a prospective home. Our surnames cause no alarm when we submit our rental applications. We too accrue a portion of the surplus of the world and convert it into belonging.

“There are dreams on this side as well” by Acción Poética, US/Mexico border

We too may skip over borders, provided we save enough for the flight. But there lingers the reminder that we were once destroyed by one, as well. It is true: we did not die of thirst.  Our parents did not die after us. Our bodies were not lost. They were sent to waiting homes with enough disposable income to spend years planning to bring a child from abroad. But our sustenance and survival were also contingent upon the social death of the name and identity and foreign citizenship we once held, dissolving in US airspace.

In the 1960s, as the National Liberation Front defeated American troops in Vietnam, the Chicano/a movement dreamed of a revolution in the American Southwest to liberate “a nation autonomous and free.” Remembering that land from California to Wyoming was once the northern half of Mexico, one slogan infamously proclaimed, “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” The international adoptee might say, in contrast: we didn’t cross the border, we were obliterated at its edge. We passed through it at the cost of being made new entirely. We didn’t cross the border for we were created by it. We are the border’s children; we carry it with us.

III. The Cartography of Freedom and/or Horrifying Deaths

Democracy is afraid to remember and language is afraid to speak.
Civilians are afraid of the military. The military is afraid of a lack of weapons.
The weapons are afraid of a lack of war.
It is the time of fear.

-Eduardo Galeano, “El Miedo Global”

Korean adoption to the United States did not start until after the Korean War. For one thing, Korea was previously a colony of the Japanese Empire. For another, as we have seen, American missionaries, half-American war orphans, and the aftermath of American carpet-bombings were all necessary preconditions for a policy of mass baby-exporting to seem prudent. Finally, it was pressure to outperform another Korea to the north that incentivized South Korea to transform adoption from a special measure to a permanent feature of national policy. Korean adoption across the Pacific became thinkable, practical, reasonable only once the 38th Parallel bristled with the guns of an unfinished war.

Korean DMZ

This is all to say: in a world of states and hungry people, there’s always a border somewhere. The ease with which one travels from New York to Florida depends on the brutality inflicted on those trying to pass from Chihuahua to Texas. (Or, more and more, upon those attempting to pass from Guatemala to Chiapas; the brutality is still conditioned in the last instance by American tongues, though it is the fingers of others grasping the triggers.) The freedom to leave Lisbon for Venice on a whim requires that a certain number of migrant boats find their way to the bottom of the Mediterranean. If people could move as freely as things it would all fall apart. The armies would fall into confusion and the mansions would crumble into the sea. This is what the world of power demands: a bit of death for every freedom.

That is why, even in a nation “of immigrants,” “of values,” “of laws,” every foreign admission is thought of as an act of beneficence and charity. We have let you in, goes the thinking, and did not kill you, or incentivize your killing, or do our best to let you die. In return, all that is asked for is allegiance and assimilation, your abjuration of allegiance to any foreign state, and a measure of gratitude in the knowledge that we, the richest and most bellicose, could very well have decided otherwise in your case. And international adoption is the pinnacle of such charity. The American state fostered its suburbs and strip malls and tech campuses and vaccine supplies by extracting from the world over. What largesse to admit some of those whose first homes it ravaged.

Beyond the nation, there is the world, but there used to be a few of those, too. The First World of capitalist nations, the Second World of the Soviet bloc, the Third World of the Non-Aligned Movement, whose countries were so cut off from circuits of capital that the name became a synonym for poverty. Each world contained its own boundaries between senior and junior partners, patrons and clients. And the sharp edges where the worlds clashed? The space of monsters and Stratofortresses and game-theoretic modeling of nuclear death.

Beyond the nation, there is the world, but there used to be a few of those, too. The First World of capitalist nations, the Second World of the Soviet bloc, the Third World of the Non-Aligned Movement, whose countries were so cut off from circuits of capital that the name became a synonym for poverty.

It was the construction of South Korea as a node in the American sphere of influence that allowed its children to be sent here. And it was its ongoing competition with the North that incentivized such transfer. Those of us imported and renamed owe our identity, in the most literal sense, to the border at the edge of America, but all Korean people since mid-century are creatures of the partition. “The countries which supply the United States with children,” we said, “are largely those which supply it with commodities.” The nations which may give children to American homes are foreign lands behind borders porous enough to expel materials in exchange for capital investment. And today, the world of integration into global investment and commodity flows encompasses almost the entire actual world. Chinese international adoptions started the year after the People’s Republic joined APEC. Perhaps somewhere in the bowels of the State Department, a bureaucrat daydreams about the day we receive our first planeload of destitute children from Havana.

IV. On Choosing Friends As It All Comes Down

4. Our constitution will guarantee the right of all people to travel and communicate with all peoples throughout the world.
5. We stand resolute in our unrelenting convictions to destroy Pig Amerikka.

-Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, 1970

There exists in America a moral spectrum of immigration. At one end, the worst immigrant comes here without permission or papers, polluting the Republic with foreign tongues and doing violence to its citizens through murder or crime or unassimilated existence. At the other end is the good immigrant, celebrated by all, at least on paper. She waited her turn and adopted the strange language of her new home. Her status is documented, her fidelity is to the law, her voice low and her hands busy. Both ends of the range are ideal-types; every immigrant is fitted along its spread. When the immigrant meets the American-born citizen, she may watch the subconscious calculations occur necessary to assign her place on the spectrum.

But of those born in places that Americans do not trust and cannot find on their maps, the international adoptee is even better than the best immigrant. Admission to the US is always a charity, and the recipients of charity are less virtuous and more compromised than those who dole it out. Therefore, the adoptee is the least blemished of the foreign-born since we did not even demand of America such generosity, for it is not us who impudently decided to seek our home here. We did not choose to demand entry for we were children, and children, depending on age and darkness of skin, are, in theory, blameless.

Illustration: Marly Gallardo

We do not need to assimilate because we were always-already here. We do not need to cultivate warm feelings towards America because it is all we have ever known. Our gratitude towards the United States is not sullied by any residual longing towards home for this country is the only home we remember. We are better than the best immigrant for while we came here from elsewhere, we are not immigrants at all. We demand nothing for having crossed the border because it was the border that made us.

We are therefore possessed of a tendency to lean in, as it were, to whiteness, to American belonging, to American power. To say no, I am not foreign. No, I am not like the others. I was invited before I was even me. This is mine. I belong. A tendency to brandish our English which they call “unaccented” and the white cultural practices which they label normal. We make a choice, and we should choose correctly. Malcolm X was not speaking of us when he said one does not integrate with sinking ships, but the point holds regardless.

We are therefore possessed of a tendency to lean in, as it were, to whiteness, to American belonging, to American power. To say no, I am not foreign. No, I am not like the others.

The United States maintains its fortified southern border while pressuring Mexico to fortify its southern border, beyond which El Salvador must fortify its border while Honduras in turn does the same. But the era of fortress states and imagined ethnic belonging is only a response to a concurrent age of movement, of statelessness and uprooting. The climatologists predict that the waters will keep rising and the crops keep failing and so much of the world we have made will turn into something not ours anymore at all. Movement and displacement and relocation will not sleep. Even more so will it be a world of states and hungry people. The hungry people may well win.

So we should be careful when deciding which ship to board. And those of us who were created by the border of the imperial core should remember that we were undone by it as well. We should remember our first homes divided or pillaged or bombed and the cost we have paid to arrive elsewhere. Those of us brought here and raised among the wonders and privileges of citizenship and whiteness should recall how many times we have seen its ugly small hatreds and barbarities, too. A belonging that is rotten is not one you should hold onto so tightly.

There may come a time where the puerile metaphysics of the border no longer have a place in the world. We are all to some measure the border’s bastard children, but if we choose wisely we might win a world where we could become something else.

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Andrew Lee

Published 3 years ago

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