On the night of November 9th, 1989, throngs of German citizens wove their way through the streets of Berlin, holding in their gloved hands the pickaxes, shovels, and hammers that would change the face of their beloved city. Once a thriving and vibrant European metropolis, Berlin had lived with a concrete and wrought-iron gash for some twenty-eight years, jaggedly partitioning her and pitting two halves against each other. But on that night, beer cans crunched underfoot as a city came together under the name of demolition. Young, old, man, woman, East, West, it mattered not. They came to tear down a Wall.
On this ninth of November, in the quiet of a late hour, I sit in solidarity, looking over the lonely streets of my city. My apartment building does not reverberate with the tink tink tink of a hammer’s breaking drive through stone; the streets are empty of most debris. I stare at the computer and watch the air absorb the lit blankness of the screen, letting the dullness seep down and fill gaping cracks like caulk. Airtight, it dries and hardens into the night. I sit still as a statue, sturdy as bone. I see the shadow it casts over my rigidity; I breathe in its grit dust and choke.
This night, this ninth of November, is when it begins. The earth has been mowed down, the path has been cleared. My city, turned construction site, refracts sun-glimmers off barbed wire, and with the rising sun, they build their Wall.
And if they are all pine and I, like Frost, am apple orchard,
doesn’t that mean that we are all trees?
Good fences may make good neighbors,
but good walls make suffocated roots.
I eat my apple on one side and shake my head.
For their fallen they build boxes from their own wood,
temporarily stepping away from their brick and mortar
to accomplish the task.
I see the Wall before me. And this is how my day will begin:
The morning will greet my unsettled slumber with jab of sunlight, thrusting brightness into my eyes. I will roll off my twin-sized bed and let my bare feet hit the cold, tiled floor. I will stub my toe on something solid, something concrete, something that wasn’t there before. I had felt sure that this could not happen, that the Wall would not reach its way to Taiwan, to Yilan, to my city. But it will be here nonetheless.
I will walk on the tips of my toes, careful to avoid the bits of pebble that litter the foundation of any newly minted structure, and head to the bathroom, where I will shower in silence. Spray will splatter on the Wall’s smooth concrete surface; whitewashed in the night, the water I wring from my hair will be its only stain. I will come back to my room and dress myself. I will sit in the floor, at the Wall’s base, and look into the full-length mirror I prop against my bedroom door. It is my birthday. I am 24.
I will walk in the rain to the car waiting for me, balancing precariously around the puddles on high heels. I will have carried the Wall in my backpack. Once inside of the car, I will sit my bag down on the floorboard, and I will feel the springs in the automobile’s undercarriage groan. I will be embarrassed by the weight of my load and look at my colleague out of the corner of my eyes. She will seem as embarrassed as I am; that is her way. We will not talk much on the drive to school. I will start to tell her in Chinese that I do not have the words to truly express my feelings, but she will wave the words out of the air. I’ll say I’m sorry and feel sorry I said it.
I will get out of the car and walk to the teacher’s office. I will be there earlier than most. I will sit at my desk and feel the Wall make its neat paneled screen around the four corners I occupy. When other teachers come in, they will not make eye contact. They’ll rummage through the papers on their desks. They will be uncomfortable with my largeness. The Wall will take up their space. Polite, they will leave me be, observing from a safe distance and talking in huddled conversations in covered hallways. They will wonder if there is something that can be done. The Wall will leave dust trails on their floors. This is an inconvenience to them, but they will never tell me. They will recognize that the Wall was not my choice. Still, they will have preferred that I did not bring it here.
I will finish my daily morning business and stand up to go to class. On the way, the students that normally say hello in the stairwells will shrink back to allow the Wall to pass through. They will be intimidated by its size and remain mute. I will wave to them and smile as I pass, but I do not think they will see my warm gesture over the barrier that now exists between us. They won’t wave back.
I will teach the rest of the day dodging concrete. My students will struggle to see the whiteboard; they will strain their necks and move around the room, but all they will see is Wall. They will want to ask me questions, but they will not have the English to say things like, Why would you revert back to this? What does this signify? Does this accurately represent how you feel about us, about your friends who do not look like you, about me? And I will try my best to teach over it, but my words will only make a hollow echo over the Wall. I will dismiss my class with a lump in my throat. And I’ll have to turn away from them, shrinking back into the Wall only to hide my tears.
I will pass the same man that I greet every day as I return home from school. He is always sitting on the corner in front of the Family Mart, on the stone steps that separate the road from the elevated sidewalk. His arms are resting on his legs by his elbows, and his head is bowed as if in prayer. If left to his own devices, his joints would rust permanently in this position, perpetually waiting on the corner for something or someone, I will never know. My daily routine is to smile as I pass. He then salutes me, and in that motion, I feel sure for a brief second that dark red flecks will fall from his overcoat and his wrist will creak with the sudden movement.
But he will not salute me today. He will look at the Wall and curtly sigh in contempt, revealing his rotting teeth and the slightly orange tint of his mouth. His eyes will not even meet mine. He will stand and adjust the cardboard boxes stacked on a nearby scooter in order to avoid awkward conversation. He will soon wait inside the Family Mart instead of on the corner; he does not want to hear what he thinks I will say.
Inside our apartment, I will toss my keys on the table and sit at my computer in the shadow of the Wall until I give up on productivity for the night and go to bed.
The Wall is fearless in its imposition; it feels not the pain that it creates. It only stands, intransigent, radiating ill will. Decades earlier, the world celebrated the demolition of a Wall. The Berlin Wall, separating two ideologically opposing forces, was physically dismantled, a tangible representation of breaking through hatred and maliciousness, bringing barriers down and uniting Germany in a gesture of peace. The destruction of such a Wall symbolized the commitment to harmony and peaceful accord, a pledge made not to West Berlin or East Berlin, but to Germany, to the rest of the world.
But as election commentary pours in from all sides on this dark night, it becomes clear that soon another Wall will be erected. And by this, I do not mean the proposed Wall meant to barricade our southern border. A divide has been made, with origins deeper than any slabs of concrete could extend into our earth. Its foundation is in fear and its frame is traditionalism, promising that preservation is happiness. It keeps in what we know and out what we don’t. The Wall scales higher and higher with every new layer of fear and hatred that is created for us.
We are to fear the people of the Middle East, whose terroristic efforts threaten our nation’s very survival. We are to hate the immigrants, the people of color, the illegal aliens in our country for the opportunities they are robbing from our loyal, white citizens. We are to look down upon the women who do not conform to societal ideas of beauty, because that is more important in the real world than their character. We are to hate those who make their own decisions about their bodies or whom they choose to love. We are to fear views that are different from our own.
The Wall is the barrier I feel I must defy every time I approach the people in the streets here, in my own city. My blonde hair and blue eyes set me apart from the crowds, and my accent is clearly American. But this brick and mortar suffocating me is all the indication that they need. Its cast-iron shackles me into the choices that my country has made, decisions that reveal the fears my people have about the future of our nation, about the changes that they are not ready to face.
Do these passersby fear me? Are they afraid that I will start chanting “Lock them up, lock them up, lock them up…?”
Do they wonder what I think of them? Do they see the shame I feel when I am asked, Why? And I have no way to respond.
But to assume that the people of Taiwan only see the Wall is to assume that their views of what I am hinge on a fixed notion of America, on the set beliefs all Americans must adhere to. To the people of my city, and to the rest of the world, more credit is due. Because even though I feel the weight of concrete on my back, and I anticipate scrutiny from every questioning glance, I am not confined by the Wall. I am so much more than the borders that have been imposed upon me, and anyone willing to view me as simply another human being will see that.
This division in our nation has been latent, breeding foul and vile like mold in the cellars of our democracy. Fear of change and progression keeps many of our citizens clumped together behind their Walls in damp and dingy corners, inhaling the stale, putrid air as old as their memories. They erect these Walls, artificially preserving the America they remember, while the world changes around them. And I understand; change is uncertain and cannot be counted on. But to fortify oneself from it is to seal oneself off from the beauty that lies beyond the Wall, beyond their fear. Because there is much beauty to be found here.
I will wake up in the morning, and I will be 24.
My parents will take a few moments to Skype their birthday wishes and ask me about my day. I will see a small square image of the America I left four months ago in the background. The dusk will filter in from a window and on the table behind them will rest a discarded cup of water, ringing the wood with sweat. I will see no evidence of a Wall in the frame. I will see two loving parents who have encouraged their daughter to travel far, far away to learn more about the world around her and to show love to everyone she meets.
I will be surprised by not one, but two birthday cakes, one from the teachers at my school and one from my host family. The teachers will gather around the back table in our office and ask me to make three wishes instead of one as they light my candles. They will tell me that they saw how disheartened I looked yesterday, and they will scold me for keeping a frown on my face for so long. You are young, they will say, and there is much reason to celebrate. They will sing “Happy Birthday,” once in English and then again in Chinese, and I will blow out the little flames hovering over my cake. The principal will thank me for my service here.
Before class, two of my students will call out my name and run over to show me their new bracelets. They will tell me that they are so happy to have something so pretty. I will tell them I think their bracelets are pretty, too.
I will wave at the man on the corner, and he will smile as he salutes. He will point in the direction I walk to go home, and he will pantomime eating. I will laugh and nod. Apparently, no Wall will be able to hide my afternoon hunger.
My host mother will pick me up from the train station and take me to her home. My two roommates and the Fulbright coordinator will surprise me as I come in the door. We will feast on spaghetti, seafood casserole, and Chinese dumplings, and then we will gather in their living room to look at the wedding photos sitting out on an end table. We will share laughter in this warm, yellow room as we digest our dinner and prepare for dessert. When she drops me off at the apartment, late at night, there will be no Wall to hinder us from hugging one another.
Our Fulbright motto is “A little more knowledge and a little less conflict.” While it is true that today’s results seem to be a setback in that endeavor, we cannot fall victim to the Wall, trepidation that breeds hardheartedness and a lack of compassion. Walls do not fall in a day, but are only dismantled after days, weeks, years of chipping away at the weakened and breaking places. It is hard to say when our nation will thrive without the shadow of the Wall bearing down on all its Oppressed. But I can say that we, as Americans, do not have to be defined by it. We are still a country of diversity and still a people with the appreciation for beauty. It is important that now, more than ever, we dismantle the Walls that so many of our nation’s citizens are trapped behind and the Walls created for the misguided’s false sense of a past security. A world without them is the best hope we have for a brighter tomorrow.
Leave you preconceptions, those who are frightened. But bring your pickaxes, shovels, and hammers. We have a lot of work to do.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.