our migration & travel stories

Travel and hospitality are political acts

Meghann Ormond

My early childhood was spent in the tiny rustbelt town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, a place which has the dual and rather unusual fame of being the childhood home to the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and – though I remember this clearly, I cannot find proof of it online any longer -- the winner of America’s ‘Podunk’ (meaning ‘insignificant’ or ‘average’) town contest. The town was home to a significant proportion of my extended family, all descendants of Germans who had settled in the area in the 1830s when Ohio first became a state. Like his father and his father’s father before him, my grandfather was a farmer and the rich glacial soil he tilled each year to plant soy beans and corn would regularly turn up flint arrowheads used for hunting for centuries by the native Shawnee tribes that were forcibly pushed out or suffered far worse fates when my ancestors began to claim the land as theirs. 

Meghann Ormond
Meghann Ormond

And like a number of his forefathers, my grandfather was a soldier in his youth – he was a pilot stationed on the Pacific island of Guam. Many of his local contemporaries also ended up on the frontlines in Asia during the Second World War. One of the Wapakoneta boys drafted to fight like my grandfather was William ‘Hafey’ Lietz, a man who later became my grandfather’s brother-in-law and the mayor of Wapakoneta. Hafey was a bricklayer by trade and a friendly family man, and it was at his house that my extended family and I would regularly gather for birthday parties and Fourth of July celebrations. He was also a man haunted by the terrors of war, someone who watched his close friend being slaughtered and held him as he died during the Japanese bombardment of his ship near Okinawa. It’s not surprising then that, in the 1980s when the American auto industry was entering into decline and many in my part of the United States turned to the rising stars of the auto industry – Japanese makers like Honda and Toyota – to bring stability and jobs to local people, the presence of Japanese in the US was extremely upsetting to Hafey. When requested to go on a trade mission to Japan to attract Japanese business to his community, he resigned from the mayorship. In a People Magazine article from 1988, he made it clear that ‘I just didn’t want anything to do with the Japanese personally. I don’t hate them; I just can’t forget what happened 125 miles off Okinawa’.

"...he made it clear that ‘I just didn’t want anything to do with the Japanese personally. I don’t hate them; I just can’t forget what happened 125 miles off Okinawa’."

Though only 8 or 9 years old at the time, I can still clearly remember how upset I was to first see the magazine story’s accompanying photo of Hafey’s smiling face and the brick wall he was building. I couldn’t comprehend how he could harbour ill-will for people from an entire country for more than 40 years. It’s only now, some 30 years after his resignation and the publication of that article, that I have even begun to grasp how difficult the situation would have been for him in light of his war trauma. But, as a young person, I simply didn’t understand. You see, by the time Hafey resigned, my mother and I had already moved to the nearby town of Bellefontaine, coinciding with the arrival of many young Japanese executives and their families settling there following the construction of a Honda factory a 20-minute drive away. Some of my closest friends in Bellefontaine were Japanese kids around my age. The war that, a generation ago, had killed millions of people on either side of the geopolitical divide was not relevant to us when we were playing together in each other’s homes. Yes, we were kids eating different food for dinner and speaking a different language at the dinner table – but we were just kids and we liked each other’s company. For that reason, I was deeply dismayed by Hafey’s actions. I vowed to myself then that I would make it my life’s mission to see people, wherever they were in the world, as individuals – people shaped by culture, language and politics very different from those in which I was steeped, yes, but first and foremost as complex and vibrant individuals. I promised myself that I would try hard to be open to and learn from the diversity around me, and I did so with the mindset that it is only through mindful communication and open exchange that we can end misunderstanding and the violence that follows in its wake.

"In simply moving from a rural to an urban area of Ohio, my entire experience and understanding of ‘America’ was transformed – ‘America’ was suddenly so much more diverse and accommodating than I had ever imagined it to be. My new vision of ‘America’ was far richer than Hafey’s ‘America’, and I was terribly grateful for that discovery."

Throughout my schooling in the US, I was drawn to people who came from abroad for their studies, jobs or to escape war and other kinds of hardship. I wanted to know what similarities and differences they identified between life back home and life in the US. Often, they provided fresh perspectives on things that I took for granted. For example, at the end of the Cold War, A., a teacher from Hungary, visited my school district as part of an exchange programme, and my mother and I hosted her. She was astounded at the way a 10-year-old American kid like me could consume can after can of Coca Cola. In accented but perfect English, she bluntly remarked on this while I was guzzling my second or third can in the backseat of the car. Her observation took me aback. At first, I felt that I had been scolded, but then I realised that I had never before really considered how I – and countless other Americans – take abundance for granted, giving little consideration to how or why so many things were so easily accessible to us. She had just emerged from a communist regime where Coca Cola was a luxury, something extraordinarily hard to come by and, thus, something to be savoured, not guzzled. She taught me an invaluable lesson: to not take one’s actions, beliefs and behaviours for granted and to critically examine what circumstances contributed to producing them.

Over time, a steady stream of ‘foreigners’ came into my life in rural Ohio: after A. the Hungarian teacher, I had the fortune to spend time with S. the Japanese teacher trainee and H. the German exchange student. But it was only after I left rural Ohio to complete high school in the capital city of Columbus, that I befriended kids with migrant parents of extraordinarily diverse origins – M., the son of Coptic Egyptians who had done their university studies in the US; A., the son of Russian Jewish refugees escaping persecution in the Soviet Union; S., the son of Chinese refugees escaping Mao’s Cultural Revolution; M., the daughter of an Uruguayan academic – or whose grandparents – like J. and S.’s multilingual anthropologist grandmother – had escaped the Holocaust and sought refuge in the US. In Columbus, I also began to learn Balinese dance from B., an American artist who had studied dance for years in Indonesia, and performed in a troupe together with Indonesians who had come to the Ohio State University for their postgraduate studies. In simply moving from a rural to an urban area of Ohio, my entire experience and understanding of ‘America’ was transformed – ‘America’ was suddenly so much more diverse and accommodating than I had ever imagined it to be. My new vision of ‘America’ was far richer than Hafey’s ‘America’, and I was terribly grateful for that discovery.

Hiroshima Peace Park
Hiroshima Peace Park
"Sadly, however, it has really only been by travelling abroad that I gained insight into the extent to which the US government was itself involved in many of these struggles and conflicts."

When I myself began to travel abroad and became the ‘foreigner’, however, my sense of cultural humility expanded enormously. I lived for six months in Montreal, Canada, using my school-acquired ‘standard’ French to communicate but struggling to understand the Quebecois-accented French around me. S., my Japanese-American internship supervisor at the landscape architecture firm at which I was volunteering, was born in one of the US internment camps set up for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Her family had lost everything because of those camps – her father’s successful dentistry business and family heirlooms had to be sold off hastily and could not be recuperated after the war’s end. R., when only a small child, was smuggled out of Haiti in a wooden crate by her parents seeking refuge in Canada. P.’s Zoroastrian family fled Iran during the Revolution, with him spending the first part of his youth in India and, later, Canada. It was through these experiences with individual people in Canada – and in my subsequent travels, study-abroad experiences and life as an economic migrant in places like Mexico, Morocco, Belgium, Portugal, Scotland, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Japan – that I gained an even greater appreciation for the geopolitical struggles and cultural conflicts that have forced people to leave their places of origin. 

Sadly, however, it has really only been by travelling abroad that I gained insight into the extent to which the US government was itself involved in many of these struggles and conflicts. Somehow my American public-school education quietly glided over centuries of American colonialism and geopolitical intervention in places like the Philippines, Central America and the Caribbean. Somehow Japanese-American internment camps and the Cold War were overlooked in my history classes. So, to borrow a phrase from the influential American travel writer Rick Steves, I came to see travel as a political act – an act of recognising and holding myself and my contemporaries responsible for understanding and accountable for what is happening and has happened throughout the world as a result of what we and our ancestors have done. Like Steves, I deeply believe that it’s our responsibility to get to know people as individuals and to understand what conditions have made them see and act in the world in the way they do because this means that it will be far harder for an ‘us’ to simply bomb a ‘them’ as distant, faceless and nameless populations. This belief has likewise led me to gladly enter into conversations with people who at first just see me as ‘an American’ – representing things good and bad perpetuated by the US government – and not as an individual. I see it as my responsibility to – through my actions, behaviours and interests – try to understand what underlies stereotypes about peoples and places and then work to foster a greater multifaceted grasp and acceptance of humankind. 

The 'nose-bleed' view from the baseball game in Hiroshima.
The 'nose-bleed' view from the baseball game in Hiroshima.

In 2014, my partner Oscar and I travelled to Japan for the first time. Needless to say, I was thrilled to finally visit a country whose richness I had come to learn about through Japanese friends and American friends who admired Japanese language and culture. We went to Tokyo and Kyoto – both mind-boggling fascinating and beautiful – but I am most touched by our time in Hiroshima. Just prior to travelling to Japan, I read John Hersey’s collection of survivors’ harrowing accounts of the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb being dropped on the city in 1945, and I again felt the weight on my shoulders of coming from a place whose government at the time thought it appropriate to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people in an instant and that unapologetically wreaked havoc in countless other places around the world before and after 1945. Given my great-uncle Hafey’s Second World War-triggered anti-Japanese sentiment, I couldn’t wrap my head around how it seems that, despite entire cities and multiple generations of families having been destroyed by atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese people today rarely demonstrate similar sorts of anti-American sentiment. How had they managed to move on? Upon reaching the withered skeletal remains of a steel dome in the Hiroshima Peace Park, the most symbolic ruin of the atomic disaster, I wept. I wept for the violence and loss of life there and then, and also out of frustration that we have still apparently not learned enough from that terrible day that violence cannot be resolved with more violence. 

The next day, perhaps to partially relieve some of the heaviness of what we had experienced in the Hiroshima Peace Park, Oscar and I went to a baseball game. Yes, the American occupation after the end of the Second World War led not only to the introduction of bread and beef into Japanese diets but also a profound love of the ‘all-American’ game. That night, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp were playing the Nagoya Chunichi Dragons. We managed to get nose-bleed seats in a completely packed stadium. Speaking no Japanese, we at first struggled to communicate with the local Hiroshima fans sitting next to us but they quickly, warmly welcomed us with wordless hospitable gestures, sharing typical baseball game snacks and showing us how to cheer at the right times. As we cheered, ate and laughed together, I thought about my great-uncle Hafey who has long since passed away. I wished that I had been able to share my experience with him, to help him see how good people – regardless of their origins and countries’ histories, or perhaps precisely because of an awareness of them – can be to each other if only just try. Just as travel is an important political act, so – I wished I could tell him – is the hospitality shown not only to one’s neighbours but also to people who have come from afar, like the traveller and migrant I have become. 

Meghann Ormond is a cultural geographer living in The Netherlands. Her research and teaching focus on questions of heritage, care and responsibility. She is co-founder of the Heritage-from-Below Education and Research Collective (HERC), a new initiative that aims to bring together heritage practitioners, artists, teachers and scholars to creatively and collectively re-envision how mobile lives can be better integrated into the ways in which history is understood and taught in schools.

She participated in the Pocket Stories’ Storytelling Journey in April 2018.

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