On all sides, endless white snow. The snow-draped trees stretch to the horizon as far as I can see outside my car window. I have never driven through New England in February, and now Sharat Raju and I make our way between snow falls to Dartmouth College for Divided We Fall’s New Hampshire premiere. The road is long and the winter is breathtaking.
Somewhere nestled in the snow, we find the small town of Hanover. A population of 6,000 people, the town’s Main Street is one block long. It leads to the smallest of the Ivy Leagues Dartmouth College, grand white and brick buildings standing tall and isolated. I wonder what it is like to be a student here.
We are warmly greeted by our host Nora Yasumura, Assistant Dean of Student Life. She has our schedule planned to the hour – classroom visits, press interviews, lunches and dinners, and the film screening itself. As we are nudged from one discussion to the next, I soon discover that Dartmouth students come from all parts of the country and world and bring a wealth of experiences with them, not all of them easily shared at a place that can feel more both isolating and intimate.
“I was in Indonesia when 9/11 happened,” begins Raj. “I went to an American high school where half of the American students came from families associated with the oil industry. They became bullies after 9/11. People said that America deserved it, and the school broke out into fights, the lockers of Muslim students were vandalized, kids got expelled. And I was in the middle of it! I wasn’t American, but as an Asian, I knew what it was like to be from a country targeted by terrorism. There was little middle ground for someone like me. My school in Indonesia was a microcosm of what happened in America.”
I begin to wonder whether Dartmouth students felt divided. I ask the audience this question after the film screens in the Dartmouth Screening Hall, where Martin Luther King gave the speech Towards Freedom in 1962.
The hall is quiet until one student says: “The students here definitely feel segregated.”Nora elaborates: “We know that 9/11 deeply affected the students and faculty here – the son of one of our professors was badly beaten in a hate crime – but it’s very hard to get people out of their comfort zone.”At that, a man with a tall turban and long beard stood up in the audience: “I would like to invite everyone here to attend our Sikh services every Friday in Hanover.” This man’s name is also Sodhi. He has been a long-time resident in Hanover. “After 9/11, I was in Alaska, and a group of Alaskan Inuit kids were chasing me and calling me ‘Osama.’”
After the film screening, Sharat and I have dinner with the South Asian Students Association on campus. We sit in a circle, balancing hot plates on our laps, listening to these kids’ stories into the night – Kapil’s dad was told by a school principle that he was a terrorist and should leave the country, Anoop saw Sikh kids cut their hair and friendships broken, Yuki’s dad was told to go home when he worked at a gas station in Arizona, Sindhura saw Muslims in France take up Muslim identity as a response to the discrimination they already faced, and Nadia learned something about her father:
“When I was five years old, I remember helping my dad tape up our car window,” says Nadia, who is half-Indian Muslim and half-white. “After 9/11, I asked him about that broken window for the first time, and he said that someone had thrown bricks into the car; that was during the first Gulf War. My dad then got out a big American flag. ‘This is our insurance,’ he said.”
Her eyes break, and she begins to cry into her hands. And I wonder what stories she has held, alone. I remember the times when the stories would burn me in the night, alone, burning me on the inside, because I could not get them out. I could not turn the curse into a gift for the world. It was because I was alone.
“You are not alone,” I tell her. You can change it, but not alone.
“I am at the point of becoming bitter,” she says.
My mouth moves, but I do not know what I say. I say things, all kinds of things, anything to keep her from accepting that bitterness as the logical conclusion of fighting the good fight.
“You won’t win. We never win,” I say mindlessly, “But the fight itself is meaningful, the courage to make life better for one another, with one another. And sometimes we are graced with a tiny glimpse of the impact of what we do.”
I feel the warmth of her hug, an
d it is enough. We gather our coats, wrap our scarves tightly around our necks, and step back out into the cold.