Anne Applebaum: The election is in danger. Prepare now.
My parents could never have fathomed the America of today when they moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, 24 years ago with a 3-year-old in tow. To live here, my dad attended law school during the day and waited tables at night, while my mother worked at a Chinese buffet. After my father’s law firm transferred us to Hong Kong, we returned to the U.S. frequently to fulfill green-card requirements. I still remember my parents’ tense silence while triple-checking their various documents each time we went through immigration. Years later, when my father’s company moved him to Beijing, my parents had to make a tough decision. They needed to stake a permanent residence in the States to apply for citizenship. So my mom moved to New York by herself the year I went to Connecticut for college. For America, my parents lived apart for nearly 10 years.
Right before the pandemic, my dad finally settled down in the U.S. with my mom. They were overjoyed to be together for the long term, to carve out their place in America. I loved watching them finally as a couple. However, I was pained to see their vision of the country unravel as the pandemic rolled on. My mom was uncharacteristically at a loss for words when she realized how much the government was neglecting its poor and working class, many of them immigrants like us. My dad fumed at the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for discounting the expertise of East Asian countries on mask wearing.
My feelings about America oscillated wildly prior to my naturalization ceremony. When China passed a national-security law cracking down on dissent in Hong Kong, I was grateful that I was about to become a U.S. citizen. I was aware that I couldn’t even write a piece like this if I lived in China. And, like all children of immigrants, I understood, and bore the burden of, my parents’ sacrifices to get me here, and I wanted to make my citizenship worthwhile.
But in the weeks before the pandemic hit New York, where I live, I felt like I was going mad. Leading up to my naturalization interview in March, I’d wake up, grab my phone, and read horrifying headlines from Wuhan and worried messages from my family in China. Then I’d go to work and have trusted colleagues tell me that the media were overreacting, that I was young and not to worry. I put out masks in the middle of the office, and everyone ignored them. But I knew I was right. The country that my parents had chosen to entrust our lives to was wrong.
Americans’ early skepticism about the pandemic and mask wearing underscored a feeling I’ve had many times before in this country. While most of the world orients itself around U.S. politics and pop culture, most Americans don’t typically pay attention to, or know much about, the rest of the world. When I arrived in Connecticut from Hong Kong for college, questions about why I spoke English so well, what people ate in Hong Kong, and whether I was experiencing culture shock were well-meaning. I didn’t have the heart to say that their ignorance of Hong Kong, or of anywhere outside the U.S., was the true shock.