In the 21st century, we are all migrants

Humans are in motion across time as well as geography. Why must we be divided, the migrant versus the native?

BY MOHSIN HAMID an article I re-posted from the Nat Geo magazine August 2019 edition as my reaction to the on-going gun violence in the U.S. Last week, there were three mass shootings in Gilroy, Dayton and El Paso. The shooter in El Paso was allegedly targeting immigrants. Reposting this article is my way of processing the grief and shock of what is happening. Thank you to Mohsin Hamid for your compassionate look at what defines our collective experience.

ALL OF US are descended from migrants. Our species, Homo sapiens, did not evolve in Lahore, where I am writing these words. Nor did we evolve in Shanghai or Topeka or Buenos Aires or Cairo or Oslo, where you, perhaps, are reading them.

Even if you live today in the Rift Valley, in Africa, mother continent to us all, on the site of the earliest discovered remains of our species, your ancestors too moved—they left, changed, and intermingled before returning to the place you live now, just as I left Lahore, lived for decades in North America and Europe, and returned to reside in the house where my grandparents and parents once did, the house where I spent much of my childhood, seemingly indigenous but utterly altered and remade by my travels.

None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time. We are not native to the instant, already gone, when this sentence began to be written, nor to the instant, also gone, when it began to be read, nor even to this moment, now, which we enter for the first time and which slips away, has slipped away, is irrevocably lost, except from memory.

To be human is to migrate forward through time, the seconds like islands, where we arrive, castaways, and from which we are swept off by the tide, arriving again and again, in a new instant, on a new island, one we have, as always, never experienced before. Over the course of a life these migrations through the seconds accrue, transform into hours, months, decades. We become refugees from our childhoods, the schools, the friends, the toys, the parents that made up our worlds all gone, replaced by new buildings, by phone calls, photo albums, and reminiscences. We step onto our streets looking up at the towering figures of adults, we step out again a little later and attract the gazes of others with our youth, and later still with our own children or those of our friends—and then once more, seemingly invisible, no longer of much interest, bowed by gravity.

We all experience the constant drama of the new and the constant sorrow of the loss of what we’ve left behind. It is a universal sorrow and one so potent that we seek to deny it, rarely acknowledging it in ourselves, let alone in others. We’re encouraged by society to focus only on the new, on acquisition, rather than on the loss that is the other thread uniting and binding our species.

We move when it is intolerable to stay where we are. We move because of environmental stresses and physical dangers and the small-mindedness of our neighbors—and to be who we wish to be, to seek what we wish to seek.

We move through time, through the temporal world, because we are compelled to. We move through space, through the physical world, seemingly because we choose to, but in those choices there are compulsions as well. We move when it is intolerable to stay where we are: when we cannot linger a moment longer, alone in our stifling bedroom, and must go outside and play; when we cannot linger a moment longer, hungry on our parched farm, and must go elsewhere for food. We move because of environmental stresses and physical dangers and the small-mindedness of our neighbors—and to be who we wish to be, to seek what we wish to seek.

Ours is a migratory species. Humans have always moved. Our ancestors did, and not linearly, like an army advancing out of Africa in a series of bold thrusts, but circuitously, sometimes in one direction, then in another, borne along by currents both without and within. Our contemporaries are moving—above all from the countryside to the cities of Asia and Africa. And our descendants will move too. They will move as the climate changes, as sea levels rise, as wars are fought, as one mode of economic activity dies out and gives way to another.

The power of our technology, its impact on our planet, is growing. Consequently the pace of change is accelerating, giving rise to new stresses, and our nimble species will use movement as part of its response to these stresses, as our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers did, as we are designed to do.

And yet we are told that such movement is unprecedented, that it represents a crisis, a flood, a disaster. We are told that there are two kinds of humans, natives and migrants, and that these must struggle for supremacy.

We are told not only that movement through geographies can be stopped but that movement through time can be too, that we can return to the past, to a better past.

We are told not only that movement through geographies can be stopped but that movement through time can be too, that we can return to the past, to a better past, when our country, our race, our religion was truly great. All we must accept is division. The division of humanity into natives and migrants. A vision of a world of walls and barriers, and of the guards and weapons and surveillance required to enforce those barriers. A world where privacy dies, and dignity and equality alongside it, and where humans must pretend to be static, unmoving, moored to the land on which they currently stand and to a time like the time of their childhood—or of their ancestors’ childhoods—an imaginary time, in which standing still is only an imaginary possibility.

Such are the dreams of a species defeated by nostalgia, at war with itself, with its migratory nature and the nature of its relationship to time, screaming in denial of the constant movement that is human life.

Perhaps thinking of us all as migrants offers us a way out of this looming dystopia. If we are all migrants, then possibly there is a kinship between the suffering of the woman who has never lived in another town and yet has come to feel foreign on her own street and the suffering of the man who has left his town and will never see it again. Maybe transience is our mutual enemy, not in the sense that the passage of time can be defeated but rather in the sense that we all suffer from the losses time inflicts.

A greater degree of compassion for ourselves might then become possible, and out of it, a greater degree of compassion for others. We might muster more courage as we swim through time, rather than giving in to fear. We might collectively be able to be brave enough to recognize that our individual endings are not the ending of everything and that beauty and hope remain possible even once we are gone.

Accepting our reality as a migratory species will not be easy. New art, new stories, and new ways of being will be needed. But the potential is great. A better world is possible, a more just and inclusive world, better for us and for our grandchildren, with better food and better music and less violence too.

The city nearest you was, two centuries ago, almost unimaginably different from that city today. Two centuries in the future it is likely to be at least as different again. Few citizens of almost any city now would prefer to live in their city of two centuries ago. We should have the confidence to imagine that the same will be true of the citizens of the world’s cities two centuries hence.

A species of migrants at last comfortable being a species of migrants. That, for me, is a destination worth wandering to. It is the central challenge and opportunity every migrant offers us: to see in him, in her, the reality of ourselves.

Milestones, Bliss and Bad-assery

As I look around my messy, chaotic apartment I realize how much I have in my possession. I literally have so much that it is spilling onto every surface. But this chaos is welcome. Remember when I came here with only a few suitcases and big dreams? Well now, I have a  wonderful husband, an apartment overflowing with wedding gifts and memorabilia, and a whole new family to adore. I have overgrown plants, dishes in the sink, an overflowing trashcan, and an up and running in-home voiceover studio. I am also constantly stubbing my toe on furniture and random instruments. My sandals blasted with sand, our wedding album and photos spilling from piles, and my bridal gown, soiled from the grass and mud from our garden wedding. The Nintendo Switch, a much-prized wedding gift, is calling us to escape from our current chaos. This is what our marital bliss currently looks like.

Milestones are quite chaotic and short-lived like thunderstorms. There is so much prep, research and seemingly tiny miracles that take place in order for the stars to align. Some milestones are accomplishments, and some are celebrations of joy, like our wedding was. Some celebrations are loud, while some are quiet, like my 10 year New Yorker anniversary.


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Go Ahead and Go Bananas for this Turon Recipe

Today I simply want to focus on the banana. Did you know that the Philippines has over 100 species of bananas? According to Pepper, the most commonly found banana in the Philippines are Lakatan and Saba. Not only has it grown to be one of the main exports of the Filipinos, but the fruit is also a household favorite in all parts of the globe. The banana is cheap, it keeps well, it’s packed with nutrition and it tastes so good!

This yellow fellow has many varieties and uses. While its good on its own, the fruit is also used in many traditional dishes sweet or savory. I’ve had bananas in traditional Filipino stews, and the banana leaf has been used as a wrap for fish to steam in. Other fun uses for bananas: the leaf can be used as a large “plate” for a Filipino feast where Filipinos would traditionally share the meal and eat with their bare hands; or ever try banana ketchup spaghetti? If you haven’t go to your nearest Jollybee right now.

Banana leaf fibers have also been used in furniture-making and cloth-making. True story, I once did a fashion show and I got to wear a garment made out of the fibers of banana leaf. 

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Banana Jacket

This is me wearing Filipino Hawaiian designer, Iris Viacrusis, in a modern Maria Clara made with banana leaf over a recycled vintage silk Kimono.

Yup that’s a birds of paradise on my head. Isn’t learning about bananas fun? Bananas are aPEELing…

Don’t be fooled by the browning exterior, peel a banana open and it reveals a beautiful light yellow center. Don’t throw away the black or bruised banana-what a waste! A ripened banana can be frozen later if you want to make smoothies with it or bake it into a bread. Just make sure to peel it and slice it first before storing it in a container in the freezer.

A banana is rich in potassium, Vitamin C and B6, magnesium, and is naturally fat-free, sodium-free and cholesterol-free. So go ahead and go bananas for bananas! 

Without further ado, here’s my take on the turon:

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Jen Olaya’s Sweet + Crispy Turon Recipe

Traditional Filipino Banana deep fried egg roll

You will need:

4 ripe bananas of any kind

1 squeeze of 1/2 a lemon

1 pack of 16-20 egg roll wrappers

1/2 to 1 cup of any sugar

1 egg

1 pan

2 tbsp of oil

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Prep:

  1. Peel the bananas and cut each banana into 4 halves.

  2. In a large bowl, toss the bananas in sugar and lemon juice.

  3. Place the banana in the middle of one wrap, horizontally.

  4. Roll the banana into an envelope, using the egg to seal. (I posted a recent video on my Instagram doing turon envelopes.) This can be tricky, you have 4 extra wrappers to make mistakes! :)

  5. Put the rolls in the freezer for 20 minutes. If you skip this step, the envelopes may fall apart in the deep fryer—and it makes the turon more crisp.

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Cook:

  1. Heat up a pan in medium heat with oil.

  2. Drop a few rolls in and fry until brown and crispy. Be careful not to burn yourself or the turon! I actually prefer my turon a little black…no joke.

  3. Let turon drain, in a strainer or on a paper towel and let cool for 5 minutes before eating. Enjoy by itself or with a scoop of ube ice cream.

Mahjong Magic

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Mahjong is one of my favorite games. I love holding the ivory-like tiles, weighted, smooth and cold, clutching them with my fingers. I love the sound of the tiles knocking together on the vinyl tablecloth. I love masterfully building a four walled structure at the beginning of each game. Well, I finally acquired my very own set as an engagement gift. Recently a friend of mine came over and together with my fiance, we taught each other to play mahjong using the manual that came with it and what we already knew. As we played until past 2am, it dawned on me that this game of tiles has sparked so much joy in my life.


I grew up in San Diego, watching my parents play mahjong on potluck weekends — which for my immigrant family, was basically every weekend. Multiple families would come over for lunch or we would go to theirs and bring over traditional hot Filipino dishes like sinigang, kare kare, or chicken adobo with rice, and it would feel like a really chill house party. If the dads showed up they’d be handling the grilling outside, drinking beers while fixing someone’s car in the garage. By the afternoon, if there was no inclination to sing karaoke, then someone would inevitably pull out their mahjong set. Then, my cousins and I would play on our own set in a separate room, mimicking our parents. Instead of beers and cigarettes, we’d have our sodas and red vines, a few baby cousins crawling among us along with the occasional dog wandering in. It was my very own tiny world, and I must have been 10 or 12 when I first started to play mahjong.


The magic of mahjong (I learned to pronounce it as muh djóng) is that no one knows what each player has to start with—which also means you don’t know how good your tiles are compared to the other players. If you’re a good tile counter, unlike me, you’d soon find out what people have in hand, according to what tiles they throw away. Instead of counting, I observed their behavior: the facial expressions each player made, or how they put down a tile or rearranged their tiles. I was lucky to grow up with an entertaining set of sisters and girl cousins who cracked me up. The game was dramatically funny as we mocked our parents as we played, usually based on their funny accents and strange commands: “Klose the kurTaynes!” “Open da lights!” Every now and then, a parent would drop in, eyeing us with playful suspicion, and as soon as the door closed again, we would laugh so hard.


I look back fondly on the tricks we used to play on each other, and I am reminded of a time so far removed from my current life in Brooklyn.


The purpose of the game of mahjong is to improve your hand, using the same amount of tiles you already have, not knowing what the other players have in hand. The improvement of your hand requires luck and taking risks. You have to be willing to let something go that no longer serves your hand. One in, one out. This can prove challenging when you think you’re trying to build a triple paired suit but an opportunity comes when you can build a flush instead. In both scenarios, they are good problems to have but you have to make a choice — otherwise the players get really pissed at you and tell you to “hurry up Jen! Jeez! You’re such a grandma!”


I have lost many times, but I have also won quite a few. Win or lose, the game of mahjong has brought me so much delight. As in life, winning usually involved taking risks, letting go, making the best out of what you already have, making strategic choices, and simply not trying to win by having fun with the people you love. In my childhood, I remember that my belly was full from gluttonous weekends, laughing until our stomachs hurt, while playing this ridiculously formal game of mahjong. 


Now who wants to play with me?