Rethinking Communities

By Marina Yoshimura


“[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat’s the pledge of allegiance?” I asked a Japanese-American friend in fifth grade. She said, “It’s what you say at school every day.” I nodded, but I had no clue what she meant. Coming from Japan, in which the closest to the pledge of allegiance is our public reverence for the Emperor before and during World War II, the concept of allegiance was odd. (I later learned this is called patriotism.)

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that nations are crafted and often part of our imagination. His argument applies in our society today, at Yale. But this literature piece becomes all the more important when we assess the current cases of immigration.

As a visiting international student from Japan, I knew I had one year to complete my non-degree program at Yale, that this opportunity was temporary, and that I would go home without a diploma from the school. I was fine with that, but I was delighted to be part of the community anyway. After a year, I thought I would return to Japan immediately and resume the life that I had lived there. However, personal circumstances, which I will not disclose here, made returning to Japan difficult. I decided to stay in Connecticut for a couple months near my peers at Yale, albeit on the periphery.

The term ‘belonging’ is subjective. Although I was born and raised in Japan for much of my life, I do not always feel as though I belong to Japan. Attending international schools allowed me to foster my own communities, not based on nationality or the color of our skin, but on mutual respect and interest in our differences. Communities were physically transient but emotionally permanent. Expatriates, such as children of bankers, CEOs and government officials, came in and out. I would make friends only to see them leave within a year or two. We built communities knowing that a parent’s promotion or an organizational restructuring would move them to another country. My kindergarten teachers bought skin color crayons for us so that we each felt like we belonged, and we did. We were all minorities, and although international, I did not experience power struggles that we see in many international organizations today. It was beautiful.

Before my visa expired, I went to the Office of International Students and Scholars. I had not only been studying, but I had also been working as a research assistant to a professor at Yale and working for Campaign For America, which allowed me to stay in New Haven on an extended visa. But this, too, was about to expire. As I spoke to the staff at Office of International Scholars about my plans going forward, asking them why they had written an email saying it was “not a good idea” for me to obtain an ESTA, and why I should “go home,” they asked me why I wanted to be in New Haven if I was no longer a Yale student. New Haven is not Yale, and Yale is not New Haven. “You’re challenging the integrity of your academic program.” I am not here to hurt any member of the Yale community. I needed a place where I could feel safe. “Build your community back in Japan. Yale is no longer your community.” Her words crushed me. Although I still loved Yale, I was afraid that I would hurt the people I care about at Yale by staying here.

After much contemplation, however, I decided to stay in New Haven for a couple months as I recover and find a new path for myself. Despite presenting a legal form to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the airport in Minneapolis, a customs official looked at me and said, “Take your passport and go to that room over there,” pointing to the quarantine room in which officials question travelers. I presented my ESTA form and said, “I’m staying here for 90 days to work on a couple projects and stay with friends.” “We think you want to immigrate.” (Under this administration? No thank you.) He looked at me and said, “Someone your age you I was treated differently the previous year, when I wore a Yale T-shirt, a swag that I had received in the welcome package from Y-VISP. Now, without the T-shirt, I was treated like a confused tourist who spoke English but could never belong to a community in the United States.“Go get your bags and come back with a changed attitude.” I got my bags but did not change my attitude. Another official came out and looked into my bags. I showed all the cash I had. I risked deportation but refused to apologize for having rights.

Discrimination can be legal. But this legal discrimination often stems from social constructs and attitudes. While I sympathize with their idea that a visa status matters legally, socially and personally, relationships are more complicated, enriching, and deeper. Discussing the law is one thing; disregarding and invalidating another person’s decision to be connected to a community is another.  

Yale is a community that always strives me to think, explore, and invest in issues that shape the world. But to understand the world, we need to understand ourselves, and the communities that we are part of. I am no longer a Yale student. I do not have a degree from Yale. But I can say, that my year at Yale has given me an experience worth more than a diploma. Whatever changes we see in policies or whatever voices you hear, I hope that we can all be true to our communities, because they shape us, and we shape them.