3 Brown Immigrants In Washington D.C

First off, I know - what a sensationalist title!

Objectively speaking though, it is true.
Observe picture below - we are brown, there are three of us, and we are all immigrants:

But why call it out?

One thing I’ve noticed happening rather often since I arrived is getting this question: “Where do you come from?” 

It’s an innocent enough question, but you can’t help noticing the sheer volume of being asked this repeatedly and often. You don’t know if you’re getting this question because you’re seen as just a passing tourist or recognised immediately as an immigrant. 

From what I know, that’s something people don’t often ask back in Singapore, or at least not on first contact (but that’s also likely more due to how inhibited we are culturally… We’re incredibly shy and soft-spoken in comparison to the Americans.)

Visiting Washington D.C., though, was an eye-opener on how ingrained the role of race, immigration, and history is in American cultures, and why

Let me take you back to when I first I arrived in the United States in the last week of November, 2019… 

(This is the part where you imagine a swirling transition into a dream sequence as we flashback .)

-

It was the week of Thanksgiving, a long weekend from Thursday through Sunday. Paolo, my roommate, and David, a long-time friend of his based in New York, had made plans to go to D.C. - I made the spontaneous choice of joining them, despite the jet lag hitting me harder than a brick. All I knew about D.C. was what I had seen in Bones (a criminally underrated TV show, by the way), that it was home to the White House, and that you could visit famous Smithsonian museums. 

I’m not going to dive into a blow-by-blow recap of where we went, a la teenage blogging style, but there are a few highlights from the four days we spent there to call out:

1. An obsession with history - The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and The United States Capitol.
2. Historic icons of freedom - The Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorials
3. The stories of black America - The National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the United States Capitol

First off, the Smithsonian institutions are iconic museums by reputation alone - this one definitely lived up to it. If you needed a crash course on America’s highs and lows, this is the place to go.

Almost every landmark moment in their history was on display, from pursuits of war, the birth of music movements, records of civil unrests, different American presidencies, and so on: everything was recorded in painstaking detail for all to see and remember. Just the amount of knowledge on show would overwhelm you as you try and soak in the richness of the archives.

But that’s where you go to seek historic moments. 

If there’s one other thing the people of the U.S. seem to love more than these moments, they’re also obsessed with worshipping iconic figures. For that, you have to go to the United States Capitol.

The Capitol is one of the most symbolic places in the entire country, having housed the meetings of the Representatives and Senate for centuries now. Walking through the building, you’ll be met with dozens of statues and busts of revolutionaries, from the likes of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Harriet Tubman, and more. With each state always contributing and having ownership to one statue, representing their history and values, there were so many on display at almost every turn in the building. 

You get the feeling that each of these statues not only represented the moment of history they were in, but were also held in deep reverence for what they had achieved as individuals against all odds. Heroes to the people, and each now immortalised within the Capitol. If you need further convincing that there’s a sense of worship to these people, there’s no better encapsulation of this than the ceiling of their rotunda, painted with a depiction of George Washington rising to heaven in glory. Could this be any more dramatic?

The Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorials

I bring up these two for three reasons: 1) they are leaders of everlasting change, 2) Turns out, they’re also incredible writers and have been behind some of the most iconic and impactful lines history knows, and 3) It’s Abraham Lincoln and MLK Jr. - do you really need more reason?

Everyone knows who Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. are, even if you don’t live in the United States. But that’s all we know them as - figures in history who have created momentous change for a nation thanks to their decisions and sacrifices. Lincoln freed the slaves and ended the rule of slavery, while Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. How?

Personally, after going through their memorials, you can’t help but to be further convinced that there is no power stronger than that of words. These two were behind incredibly emblematic pieces of writing, be it in MLK Jr’s one-off quotes and speeches, or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Reading through some of the things they’ve said, I repeatedly realised and thought, “Holy fork, I didn’t know this line was by him!” 

Personal favourite of mine by Martin Luther King Jr.? 

The time is always right to do what is right.

That’s some straight up wisdom right there.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

If you’re ever in D.C., this must be a stop on your list. This place blew my mind, made my heart heavy, and inspired me all at once.

How big a deal is this museum? 

Here’s a few facts: it took over 100 years for the museum to become a reality, with efforts being traced back to as early as 1915. Their founding donors are a long and inspiring list, including icons and powerhouses Oprah, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Tyler Perry, and even motherf****n’ Samuel L. Jackson. Take a look at the list - you have to, just to know the sheer desire and impact this place had and needed to give to people. And the line. We were incredibly lucky to get timed passes for an afternoon in the museum, as the lines for general admission snaked on for really long and you had to wait for potentially hours to get in. Big deal? Very.

I could go on and on about the different exhibits this place had, but it is, fortunately and unfortunately, one of those things you just have to go and see for yourself. (I hate it when people do this - “Oh let me tell you about, actually never mind, you just had to be there.” How annoying is that?! However, this is certainly one of those experiences, and I now unwillingly do the same to you.) 

Instead, let me describe to you how I felt and thought throughout that visit. Get ready, I’m about to tap into a well of emotion! (Just kidding, I’m dead inside.)

Once you enter, you’ll realise immediately a stark difference in atmosphere - we were surrounded by hundreds of people who came in not just to see history recorded, but to learn from its lessons and pay respects to those who had suffered. It was an aura I had never experienced before in any museum or place of history: you immediately understand that this place carried a weight with people: an unshakable presence of worship, not to religion, but to the troubled history it carried.

We were surrounded by black American families all around, with grandparents telling stories to their teenagers and children a common sight. Each spoke with a firmness that this place and the moments it had archived should be treated with reverence, and the young ones clearly understood the gravitas of all there was to be observed.

Most importantly, the suffering they’ve undergone in their history is unfathomable in today’s world, especially having lived in modern and cosmopolitan Singapore for so long. Slavery and brutal racism had been ingrained in the American way for centuries, and often repeating itself just when you thought it had died. In the light of today’s racial tensions, when you see hate crimes on the rise once again, you do begin to wonder if we’ll ever learn from history and truly break these vicious cycles. 

Paolo, David and I spent close to four hours in there, but we had barely scratched the surface. A return visit is definitely on the cards, and I hereby emphatically force my opinion down your throats that this place is a must go if you’re in the US. Go.

in hindsight, there was really no better way to have initiated my time in the United States than immersing myself in its history, and D.C. was the perfect kick-off ground. You realise why race is so pertinent to their culture, and even though it’s 2020 already, scars from history are still fresh for many. More importantly, especially with hate crimes on the rise (how even?!), these museums serve an important reminder to learn from lessons past. 

On a last note, big thanks to Paolo for introducing me to David, whose knowledge of the U.S. provided us enough foundation to understand what the hell was going on and was a fantastic friend for guiding us along, and also to David himself for introducing us to his aunt, Valerie - a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. 

What a trip. 


Landing in New York - the thought train.

25th November, 2019. Newark Airport, New Jersey.

5am, plane lands:

Holy crap on a cracker. I’m finally here.

5.20am, walking through customs:
You’re good. You have all your documents. You’re not suspicious just because you’re brown and Muslim. You’re just an innocent man here to work and enjoy himself. You even dressed up! Nothing bad will happen at customs.

5.25am, at customs.
“Sir I’m going to need you to come with me.”
Holy fork balls, something bad is happening at customs!

6am, interviewed in a room.
Don’t be suspicious. Did you stop smiling? Don’t stop smiling! Smile normally. No, not like that!
“Alright you’re free to go.”
America! Thank you, sir.”

6.02am, being escorted out of immigration by an officer.
“You Muslim?
“Yes.”
“Assalamualaikum, brother. Welcome to New York.”
Heart melted.

6.15am, driver picking me up arrives wearing a Top Gun leather jacket.
“Good morning, Maverick!”
“Huh?!”
Top Gun reference flew over his head. Turns out, he’s not a Top Gun fan, but just a grumpy driver. Also, not a morning person.

6.45am, seeing the Manhattan skyline for the first time.
Goosebumps.



Well, that was quick.

New Year resolutions are very tricky - the start of a new calendar year gives us this feeling of freshness we haven’t enjoyed in the last 365 days. It gives us reason to invest in notebooks, planners, and the joy of endless lists-creation that, really, no one usually makes past #3. Somehow, the new year is such a momentous occasion that even hoarders decide, “Hey, maybe spring cleaning isn’t that bad.” Most commonly in every country, the new year sees governments unanimously decide to spark joy for their people, literally through fireworks.

Personally, I’m not big on big changes. I’ve learnt that going cold turkey on anything is generally bad. You wouldn’t eat a cold turkey, either, so the logic checks out. Instead, I have decided that this year, the only thing I’ll do for the new year is start a website for all things I want to create in the future. If you are reading this, it means two very important things: you are on the website I have mentioned, and that you also have the ability to read. Congratulations on both.

I mean, I do have other general life goals. To succeed at work, start reading and writing again frequently, create more visual content of New York, learn how to cook for real, be more present, and get over my fear of public speaking. 

I realise now those are six goals instead of five, but maths is not my strong suit. (To clarify, learning math is not one of my goals this year.)

What will I be writing, you ask? 

I mean, you probably didn’t ask, but imagine you did.

I have 3 things in mind.
#1 - Life since I’ve moved to New York.
#2 - Comedy shorts/ideas.
#3 - Thought pieces on observations of the world.

Like I said, usually no one makes it past #3 on a list, so I’ll stop there.

Happy new year, everyone. 

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