“Where are you from?” The National Park Ranger asked a question I have heard quite often, and even more often now. It is probably because of my strange accent. Or maybe because I look funnier and funnier with age. Perhaps it is just a good conversation starter. Or perhaps I asked her first? She was from Jinan.
We stood inside of Williams Castle, on Governors Island, it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Tourists from around the world were exploring the ever more popular destination right in New York harbor. I explained some stations of my life, and how I got here, and where I came from. Then explained where my parents lived, and even that we had visited them this summer. The following question would usually be about the multilingual upbringing of my son. But the ranger chose to ask me about refugees. “So what do you think about all those people streaming into your country?”
She looked as if she really wanted to know. With ’my country‘, she obviously meant Germany. “I think that in the long run, the movement of people is a good thing.” I tried to look at the bigger picture. I obviously could not avoid thinking about the individual stories and the horrible tragedies that surrounded the entire exodus happening right now. She wanted to be upset about the refugees:”but they are so different. They have different values, they look different. They have different beliefs, a different religion.”
I tried to imagine a family boarding a boat, trying not be scared but be hopeful. I imagined those who make the decision to abandon everything they have, and risk everything for a completely unknown patch of hope. “Well, first of all, the people who decide to take the step and flee a place, are people with a certain level of courage, and probably intelligence. They have some fire of hope in them, they actually are not only leaving to stop being in harms way, they choose a new place because they want to create a better future for themselves and for their children. And yes, the values might be different, and the opinions might clash in some ways. But in the long run, some new ideas and the ideas that will be born out of the complexity and differences, are going to create something outstanding. And even if it were not to happen with this generation; perhaps the next one will create it; or the next, or the one after. In the long run, a certain intermix of ideas feels positive, hopeful to me. Isn’t it ironic, that I took a boat to get to this island, that we are not very far from Ellis Island. It also feels a bit ironic that this country here will accept about as many refugees from that crisis in a year as you probably get as visitors on this island in how many days?” “In less than a day. We get about 14 thousand visitors in a day here.”
It was obviously also interesting that I was talking with a National Park Ranger who was placed in a former Fortress, and that her birthplace was in a Chinese province. What variations of immigration policies has China had in the thousands of years of its existence. And what have the resulting advantages or disadvantages been? What does “long run” actually mean to me? How many tens or hundreds of years could I have in mind? I am in no way qualified to talk about issues that involve hundreds of thousands of people who would rather risk death than stay in a place they have called home for generations.
Though I do remember what it felt to leave everything behind. I remember what it felt to be scared to enter the unknown. And our conditions were incredibly mild compared to what so many experience today. I tried to think of someone who would be an interesting illustration for a German-Syrian heritage. The only person who came to my mind was Steve Jobs. But I was not sure if he was that. I did not actually bring him up. I do not actually remember how our conversation ended. It was friendly. I think we spoke about Tea & Water. We probably spoke about Yunnan. It was a beautiful afternoon. We were in the courtyard of a fortress, and a prison, and a National Monument.
The little guy and I took one of the last boats back from the island. He had some real Vanilla ice cream that a lady with a Caribbean accent from the Belgian waffle truck gave to him in an oversized plastic cup. This world is far too complex for me to understand. But that’s probably the whole point.