Aug 18, 2015

On Wanting To Fit In


The other day we were visiting with some neighbors who were talking about how moving to this small town wasn't what they were hoping it would be. They said that people here were too 'clicky', not welcoming enough. They felt snubbed. They still feel like outsiders after more than 10 years of living here. We discussed how alot of small towns have that and how its one of those things you just accept when you move there. You take the good with the bad, right? You realize that over time, maybe people will become more accepting of you once they get to know you.

Later on the conversation moved to the topic of our individual heritages and where our families were originally from. One of the people spoke up and said, "Enough with our old ethnicities, we're Americans now and those ethnicities don't matter. Too many immigrants nowadays want to come here and force their customs and ways on our country. They need to be more American.  It didn't used to be like this. Back in the old days people tried hard to assimilate and become more American."

I didn't say much in response to what this person said because number one, I was too taken back by such vitriol towards people he doesn't even know, yet hates. I was aghast at animosity towards others who want to be accepted by people around them when he was just complaining about the exact same problem. I was amazed at the level of racism that permeates every facet of our country when our country only exists because of immigrants. The only true people native to this land we've shoved onto small parcels of undesirable land (don't even get me started on our treatment of Native Americans - it's purely shameful). 

Since my tongue was tied the day this person spewed his opinions in my direction, it took several days for me to find my footing and figure out how I wanted to respond. My heart was broken. I didn't want to respond in anger or ignorance. That would make me exactly like this other person. This post is my response.

Being that I work with and know alot of immigrants as an ESL teacher, I know quite a bit about what they go through moving here to America. Many of them never even imagined themselves here but were forced out of their native homelands by war, death threats, or starvation. Others I know wanted to come because other family members live here or because they have an American spouse. Still others came with hopes of starting fresh with the hope of the 'American Dream'. Everyone has a story.

I know one lady who was chosen to come to the US from a Somalian refugee camp before her husband and son. If she refused to come, she may never be chosen again. It's been 5 years since she moved here and every single day she waits and wishes for her family, hardly ever getting the chance to talk to them. She works long hours at a factory and still finds time to go to school every day of the week before work to learn better English. She was never allowed to go to school back in Somalia. Yes, she wears a hijab. Yes, she is of a different skin color. Yes, she is Muslim. But I didn't think any of those things disqualified her from living in the U.S. We are supposedly a nation of tolerance.

I know a 63 year old man who had to stop going to school at age 7 and start going to work after his father was injured on the job. He grew up in Pakistan. After getting married he moved to Dubai and raised his 4 children on the salary of an auto mechanic.  He worked for the same company for 30 years and never once knew how to read or write in his own language of Urdu. He can speak 5 languages. He can manage over 100 employees. He moved to America to live with his son after he retired. He is happy to live with his extended family (his son married an American lady) as is their custom. He takes his grandchildren to school every morning. He works the night shift at Walmart so he can have health insurance to still care for his wife. He works all night and comes to school in the morning for 3 hours. He now knows how to read English and gets tears in his eyes when he explains to people that he knows how to read now. He goes to the library every week to check out new books to read while on his dinner break at Walmart. He has an infectious laugh. He loves to travel. He loves to cook food for his entire mosque on special days. Is he not American enough? 

I know a lady who's parents left her and her sisters behind with her grandparents when she was 5 years old to come to America and try to earn enough money to send back home to Mexico so their children could eat. They scrimped and saved for years in order to be able to pay for visas for their children to come to the US at a chance for a better life. It took 14 years until the family could be together again. This lady worked two jobs and went to school after moving here legally. She learned survival English but still feels insecure and comes to school to help improve her English. She lives with a constant sense of not being good enough. 

These people migrate towards others they feel they have commonalities with. They attend the same church, temple, mosques with like-minded people. Just like we do. They live in housing they can afford, just like we do. Oftentimes, they are scared in this new country and so they congregate with others who are similar to them. Just as I would do if I moved to a new country. The first person I saw that spoke my language and had similar likes and dislikes and understood my culture is the person I would want to be around. Little communities grow up out of these commonalities. 

It is not 'these people' trying to change America to be more like their culture. 'These people' are just used to a certain way of life and are trying to keep some of that familiarity in tact while also trying to assimilate in an often-time starkly different culture. It is completely understandable. Yet, we'd rather accuse them of not being American enough. What does that look like exactly? How do you be American? Do you have to be white, drive a nice car, live in an expensive house, speak flawless English, have a 9-5 job and be a Christian? 

Our civil liberties include among other things the freedom of assembly, to dissent with our government on issues, to worship as we choose. Why does the government care which clothes I choose to wear? They don't usually, unless those clothes are Muslim looking. Why are we so suspicious? Is this a new fear? Don't we wish we could go back to the 'good old days'? America's hatred of immigrants has a long and ugly history that seems to be glossed over and forgotten about.

Actually, there were no 'good old days'. Maybe for a few white people, but not for a large majority of the population of our country. When people use this line of reasoning, it is based solely on opinion, an ideal, a romanticized version of reality. It is ignorance of the facts. Here are some facts from the 'good old days':

Roosevelt (before he was president) issued this speech in St. Louis in 1916, "I stand for straight Americanism unconditioned and unqualified and I stand against every form of hyphenated Americanism...Unless the immigrant becomes in good faith an American and nothing else, then he is out of place in this country and the sooner he leaves the better." I guess this is where we get our idea of people needing to 'act' American. I guess it means you can have no fondness for your native country. This speech was given right before America entered WWI. Nativism was rampant and fear of 'hyphenated Americans' was all the rage. Hyphenated Americans were German-Americans at the time. You can substitute any country nowadays. Patriotism equalled exclusion of anyone not like us.

Ever heard of the Alien and Sedition Acts? This government proclamation made it illegal for any one from Germany  who was not a 'naturalized citizen' to posses firearms, criticize the government in writing, use aircraft or wireless devices or reside in certain areas of the country. If people in your town heard you speaking any other language other than English you would be ostracized and worse. Often times people were accused and sentenced for crimes they didn't commit just because they were German. Does any of this sound familiar? We repeated this exact same brand of patriotism against immigrants or 'alien enemies' in our country multiple times since then; WWII, McCarthyism Era, post 9/11. Our own government sent thousands of it's own American citizens who happened to have Japanese, German or Italian heritage to internment camps during WWII - just because they weren't 'American enough'.

My own great-grandparents came to America during this uninviting time of the turn of the century, pre-WWI, when being different could cost you your life or your livelihood. No wonder they told my grandparents when they were children to only speak English, no more Polish. The way their new country treated them affected the way they raised their children. It's unAmerican to be proud of your heritage, supposedly. At least that's what many people were led to believe by the media, the government and their neighbors.

I'm not claiming that all immigrants are saints. I'm aware that its a much more complex issue. But I believe that you wouldn't judge another as harshly if you actually took time to know the 'other'. If you have met only horrible, unthankful immigrants, then I guess I can understand having a negative outlook on this topic. But if you don't know one immigrant, haven't taken the time to hear their story, eat at their table, look at the world through their lens, then you cannot hold a legitimate opinion about them until you do.

If we really did treat others the way we wished to be treated imagine how much nicer the world would be. Patriotism shouldn't mean exclusion of others because of their differences.  That's as immature as children on the playground. If we saw children treating each other as harsh as adults do, we'd put a stop to it, teach them to be kind, point out that we can learn from differences. We all need each other, we just don't know it yet.
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