Wednesday, September 26, 2012

J.W. Wang's Voice

Dear Mitt,

I’m a child of immigrant parents--you know, that classic American dream--parents who moved to a country they believed in before they even set their eyes on it. It wasn’t easy; when they arrived they had very little, but they didn’t ask for much, only a job and an opportunity to prove they could succeed. My father served tables in a Chinese restaurant, while my mother stripped roses in a flower shop. We were poor, but my parents were creative and we made things work. Sure, we didn’t have health care, so we had to be careful, and there was a scare when my father was rear-ended while waiting at a red light, hit so hard his car was pushed into the middle of intersection. But we were lucky, and there were nice people along the way who gave us a hand, such as the dentist who gave us a discount for annual cleanings.

I went to a good school--Berkeley--and worked part-time through college. Heck, I worked full-time near the end while bearing a full course load, scheduling all my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I could have five whole workdays. I barely saw anyone outside of work or class, and I lost a good many friends during that time. My parents both worked for the United States Post Office by this point--my father was a mail carrier and my mother one of those people who sorted your mail in the middle of the night--and a good thing too, because they were finally able to obtain health insurance and build up a pension. As soon as they were eligible, they went to Immigration and had themselves sworn in as naturalized citizens.

All of that is to say, none of us were ever entitled, though we were apparently foolish enough to pay more taxes by percentage of income than you seem to be doing. And you may applaud our family’s story and say, Good for you! You’re not part of the 47 percent! But of course we were, always have been. And here’s where the story gets tricky.

My father ruined his knees and his back, carrying all that mail for the Postal Service. For the last three years of his career, he walked with such a pronounced limp people who lived on his route would come out to get the mail before he could get to their mailbox. He was stubborn and refused to go on disability. Eventually he gave in and retired early. My mother went blind, a genetic condition that was worsened by the fact that she was squinting at countless envelopes during her graveyard shifts. She, too, was stubborn, and refused to go on disability until she got into a car accident and it became clear she could no longer function as a normal contributing citizen. They had built up a little pension, sure, but without Medicare or Social Security they would be in dire situations, despite contributing to the building of America and ruining their health in the process. If you had cut Medicare and privatized Social Security, who knows how they would be faring today. A welfare home wouldn’t be out of the question.

As for myself, I worked in the corporate sector for a number of years, at one point paying 40%--forty percent!--of my income to taxes, until I realized the extent to which inherent prejudices and biases were disenfranchising large, huge swaths of America. People, in fact, like my own parents. What the country needed, I realized, was not more greed, but more compassion. People who could help each other succeed, like the kind dentist who worked with the poor. Improving each other’s lives together, rather than knocking down someone else so you could be farther ahead. The 47 percent isn’t about entitlement, Mitt, it’s treating each other like decent human beings. It seems to me this was something you once cared about--Romneycare, you remember?--yet now you’re speaking a strange language even a slightly dated version of you would have eschewed, perhaps rebuked.

What happened, Mitt? What’s with the mean act? No, I don’t expect you to divide your millions with everyone, nor do I expect you to have even the slightest understanding of what it means to be the working poor in this country. But you don’t have to make things any worse for them than they already are, do you? They’re working as hard as they can to keep this country going, and they don’t need some rich bully who’s never had to bus tables or carry mail telling them they’re not pulling their own weight.

 So leave them be, Mitt. You have your millions, your Cadillacs, your stocks and trusts and however many houses. The 47 percent, many of them work for you: they mow your lawns, they cook your food, they do your laundry. Don’t make life any more difficult for them than it already is. They’re only human.

J.W. Wang

 J.W. Wang is finishing up a Ph.D. in creative writing at Florida State University. He's at work on a novel based on his family's immigrant experience.