I just finished reading They Called Us Enemy, a new graphic novel written by George Takei that depicts his life as an innocent, young boy growing up in California who was torn from his home by the U.S. government due to his ethnicity. George Takei was Japanese American and on that fateful day of December 7, 1941, the lives of many Japanese Americans was thrown into turmoil as they were villainized by their American neighbors and then eventually they were thrown into "internment camps."
There are obvious comparisons we can draw with the current situation going on at the U.S. border, where countless children are being torn apart from their families and being thrown into cages because they lack legal U.S. citizenship or residency status. However, many of these families being imprisoned have simply come to America to seek a better life for their spouses and children. Many of them are asylum seekers fleeing gang violence, drugs, and poverty. And it's 100% legal to seek asylum in the United States of America. These similarities obviously weren't missed by George Takei either as he clearly draws comparisons to the current administration's Muslim ban and his reaction to asylum seekers crossing the border.
Something that struck a chord with me is when George began reminiscing about his time playing a version of cops and robbers that was replaced with Japanese vs. Americans, with the Americans of course being the good guys. It's crazy to imagine why Japanese children would be playing a game about killing people of their own ethnicity. It's also hard to understand why children who were so mistreated by America, would still think the Americans are the good guys and the Japanese are the bad guys.
However, they've done studies like this in the past. The baby doll experiment that helped win the landmark Brown v. Board of Education supreme court rings a familiar tune. Not only did white children prefer the white baby, but the black children showed the same preference for the white baby doll. Socialization is extremely powerful in affecting child development and behavior as we're shaped by our environments. When kids constantly hear that a certain group is evil, they begin to develop a hatred towards that group, sometimes even leading to self-hatred.
While George Takei didn't seem to go as far as hating himself or other Japanese Americans, he showcased a splendid display of childhood innocence in this moment. These children were not thinking in the same complex terms their parents were. George often mentions his adventurous and gleeful attitude at a time that his parents experienced great suffering. However, to young children who didn't know any different, life in the internment camps began to feel normal. And children learn through imitation, often imitating the scenes they see on television or hear on the radio.
While I worked in Prince George's County, Maryland as a 3rd grade teacher, I witnessed children playing in a nearly identical manner to George. However, instead of playing as cops and robbers or Japanese and Americans, they played as ICE agents and undocumented immigrants. The vast majority of my students at the time were most likely undocumented or had parents who were undocumented, coming primarily from Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
I vividly remember one boy running around chasing after the kids, pretend knocking on doors, shouting, "DO YOU HAVE YOUR PAPERS!?!?! WHERE ARE YOUR PAPERS?! YOU'RE COMING WITH ME!" The other kids would run away, laughing or pretend crying saying, "No! I have them. I promise." Or they might shout, "No! Don't take away my family!"
These kids transformed their fear of deportation and turned it into a game. To them, the reality of living as the child of undocumented immigrants in the US could not have been fully comprehended. School segregation only makes it harder for students to understand the experiences of others. My students that I taught in Belgium would have no idea what it's like to worry about deportation on a daily basis. But to these kids, it was normal.
And while teaching middle school in Montgomery County, Maryland I had students that would skip school, skip after school programs, and live their lives in constant fear of being snatched up by ICE agents. These students have immense pressures weighing on their shoulders, yet they've come to know this as their reality and the only reality that exists. They can hardly comprehend the lives of other children who might have it better or even worse than them.
The lives of my students in Belgium revolved around the military. They didn't have to fear deportation like my students in Maryland. But they had their own struggles. These students were constantly ripped from their friends and their home as they move on average, once every three years. Then to make matters worse, their fathers or mothers will be expected to go on deployment leaving for months at a time. But to these kids, this life becomes normal and all the other kids they interact with have similar experiences.
My students in Utah were dealing with depression, suicidal tendencies, homelessness, and drug addicted parents. At another school, I've had a student who was sexually molested. I've had students with parents in prison and parents who have been deported.
These children are experiencing things that many adults could not imagine facing themselves, all while they're expected to excel in school and their extracurriculars. These students have heavy burdens weighing on their minds though that constantly act as obstacles, preventing these students from reaching their full potential.
But the innocence of youth acts as an environmental adaptation. Children may not be as developed physically, mentally, or even emotionally but their innocence serves as a shield to protect them from the harshness of reality. Children can suck the marrow out of life and find the bright side of a bad situation by making a game out of their reality.
An Italian film called Life is Beautiful set in the concentration camps during WWII also highlights this innocence of youth. Giosue who was sent to the camps with his father, was having the time of his life because he imagined the whole thing was a game. His father had to experience not only face daily torture through forced labor and starvation, but in order to protect his son, he pretended the entire experience was a game. Giosue remains skeptical of the game throughout the movie, but he plays along and enjoys his time with his father. His innocence saved him as his will to live was never hampered by the harshness of reality.
Just like George Takei in They Call Us Enemy, Giosue in Life is Beautiful, and my students in PG County, Maryland, we can learn from these children. While we may not have the same degree of innocence as these children, we can learn to view our hardships with new eyes. By viewing our difficult encounters as a game that we need to conquer, we can find the light in our situation. We can learn to view these challenges as rewarding, even if they may not always be fun.