I’m feeling very American, standing at my kitchen island and shucking corn. I hardly knew anyone with a kitchen island the whole time I lived in Germany, and the corn—well, that’s about as American as it gets. Because though I’ve spent plenty of summers running and hiking past cornfields in southwestern Germany, Europeans don’t eat corn. And it’s not a passive not-eating, like how in the Northwest we don’t really eat okra, fried or otherwise, but shrug our shoulders if other people want to. Rather the sight of an American gleefully devouring an ear of corn provokes laughter in the best case, scorn in the worst.
“Why are you laughing?” I’d ask.
“You’re eating corn!”
“But there’s corn everywhere!” I argue, wide arms encompassing the stalks that feather the hills each August. Everywhere!
“For animals,” comes the withering reply. “Corn is what we feed the cows. And pigs. Not people.”
So anyway, in America we eat corn, so much so that a steaming, buttery ear, sprinkled with salt, is not just a tasty treat, but an unmistakable staple of my nationality. So much so that I bought a shocking twelve ears for a Fourth of July party last week, way more than we needed, and now I’m undressing the leftovers, preparing them for dinner.
And I’m thinking about corn and the years I spent as an immigrant, a foreigner in a country not my own. We didn’t call ourselves immigrants very often, the community of missionaries of which I was a part, but that’s what some of us were, the ones without return dates. The rest were closer to migrants, but they really didn’t call themselves that, which never seemed quite fair. We were expats, always expats, a word that meant that we could go home if we felt like it.
I’d like to say I can’t imagine the suffering of the families currently detained at the southern border of my country, the corn-loving America. I’d like to, because it’s a dramatic-sounding phrase for horrors too great to fathom. But I can’t, for a few reasons. One, because I read, look and listen enough to know a little about what’s going on. Two, because I have a great imagination in general, so much so that there’s really little that I can’t imagine, just quite a bit that I’d rather not. And finally, because I can’t stop thinking of my own journey to this country, a year ago, imagining how it could have gone so horribly differently.
Our trip here consisted of a car ride, two flights, and another car ride. All told, it was about twenty-one hours of traveling, carrying us several thousand miles, over continents and oceans, almost over the North Pole, from Germany to the Netherlands to the West Coast of the United States. There were three (and a bit) of us: my husband, my two-and-a-half year old daughter, and me. And I was five months pregnant. It was not easy.
I remember how relieved and tired we were when we stood at immigration, our blue passports presented for what was likely to be the last time for a while. The journey had been exhausting, and we were ready to sleep, to be home, to be with family. We felt dirty, hungry and tired, emotionally frayed and mentally exhausted. We were leaving Germany, a place that we loved, a place we could go back to if we wanted, to go somewhere where we’d be welcomed. But we were still so, so weary.
I imagine the story again, with a few details changed. Instead of twenty-one hours, perhaps it was twenty-one days. Instead of two flights, perhaps swimming or long days of walking were involved. Instead of a well-loved home, to which I could return if necessary, a place that I couldn’t go back to, a place of danger and despair. And instead of a welcome, family waiting with hugs and a hot meal…
What if, at the end of that journey, they’d separated us? My husband and I to separate facilities, my daughter to another. What would she have thought? What would I have done? Caught between a place I had to leave and a place that we’d imagined to be safe, how would we have gone forward? My imagination falters, not wanting to see any more.
As I return to the corn, separating the drying husks and silk from the almost-white kernels, tossing them carefully into boiling water, I think about how this corn was the food of immigrants long ago. Not many of the Europeans who settled in North America in the seventeenth century were truly seeking asylum—political, religious, or otherwise—but some of them were. Like the separatists who found themselves starving at Plymouth in the autumn of 1621, until the Wampanoag people nearby visited them, bringing food and education regarding how to survive in this New World. Surely they had reason to be suspicious, and there was plenty of conflict ahead, but then, with strangers on their shore, the first people to live on this continent brought corn to starving refugees.
Ours isn’t the only refugee crisis. It’s by no means the largest. Worldwide, there are more people forcibly displaced than at any point since the end of World War II. Most of them are from Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan, not from Mexico or Central America, and most of them journey to neighboring countries, not to the United States.
A year ago, I left behind a nation facing an even greater influx of refugees, and responding differently. Near the town’s swimming pool in our village of four thousand, the refugee camp in Kandern houses about a hundred people at a time. Families live together in a room, share a community kitchen. They are waiting for more permanent housing, but while they wait their children go to school in the village alongside German children, learning the language of their new home. I was there one day when they call came home from school, chattering and laughing, running to greet their parents who were waiting. It wasn’t perfect, the camp, not a place that anyone wanted to spend their whole life. But the camp administrators worked hard to show hospitality, to educate their guests, to ease their transition into life in a new world.
It’s a failure of compassion, a failure of imagination, a failure of memory that’s brought our nation to this point, shrugging our shoulders while families are separated and humans are kept in cages. What would take for us to respond more like Germany, offering dignity to the human beings that seek asylum here? And what would it take for me to be the one to share my corn on the cob, this little bit of sweetness from the America that I love, to people who’ve arrived here, in exile?
It requires more imagining than I sometimes want to do, I confess. But I can’t look away anymore.