Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Immigrant Experience

What is an immigrant? The jaundiced but always entertaining Ambrose Bierce would have us believe that an immigrant is: "n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another." The more settled Noah Webster states that it is "a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence." Perhaps.

Neither definition really captures what we usually imply when we use the word. An Englishman moving from England to Australia or America in the eighteen hundreds would be called a colonist, not an immigrant. I think the difference is that we imply an element of power to differentiate the two conditions. A person moving from one country to another with the intention to settle may have some condition of power in which case they are considered a colonist as opposed to someone who moves between countries owing to straightened circumstances or seeking new opportunities, but arriving essentially powerless and as a supplicant - these we consider to be immigrants.

Part of the challenge is that many times peoples' plans are ill-considered and unsettled. Among the two million Italian emigrants to the US in the early twentieth century, some 25% ended up returning to Italy rather than settling permanently in the US. This pattern of returnees is not uncommon with percentages ranging from 15-50% depending on the era and the country to which they immigrated.

While we in the US consider our immigrant history to be one of the key historical attributes distinguishing us from many other countries, it is important to remember that there are other countries with significant traditions of receiving serial waves of immigrants including the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa. Each has a wealth of fascinating immigrant stories.

There are certain commonalities to the "immigrant experience" that transcend both time and place. These common experiences including being at the bottom of the pecking order on arrival in the new country; language barriers; unfamiliarity with laws, customs, holidays, and foods; becoming a minority for the first time by race, ethnicity or religion; and suddenly having one's entire life's accomplishments dismissed or hugely discounted. You might have been a doctor in your home country, but you are not qualified here and are just another laborer.

All of this amounts to putting oneself in a position of uncertainty and powerlessness with hardly any recourse if things do not pan out. Immigrants therefore are, despite all their manifest differences from one another, tied together by a fundamental courage, desperation and even ruthlessness that sometimes frightens - but often inspires - others.

Immigrant stories frequently have huge dollops of loss, tragedy, and sadness. As an immigrant, you not only go to something, but you are also leaving something. The excitement of an immigrant's story arises from engaging with the unknown but the unknown is also a quagmire for trouble and is built on a past loss.

Yet, with this inherent recipe for sadness, there is an irresistible pull about the immigrants' stories because they did make it, they did overcome, they did surmount the odds stacked against them. Not all of them, but many. These people that either chose, or had forced on them, the role of trail-blazers often end up having stories that we listen to and can only hope that, faced with the same circumstances, we would have even half the fortitude, perseverance, and endurance. They are, in short, inspiring stories. They invite us to measure ourselves not against our own comfortable standards, but against more exacting standards of experience where failure is not a matter of discomfort but of life, death and disaster.

I recall one tale in particular. I unfortunately do not recollect the book in which I read it. Having lived in Sweden a number of years in my childhood, it is quite possible in fact, that I did not read it, but heard it as a friend's family story.

It relates the experience of a young Swedish woman in the late eighteen hundreds. She was born and raised in a small farming village and, in the course of time, became betrothed to a young man. Their economic prospects were not good and they determined that he would join the stream of Swedish migrants to America to seek his fortune there. Once settled and with some financial prospects, he would send for her. It took two or three years but at last he had a small farm in the upper Midwest and had saved enough money to send for his fiancée.

She booked passage with her single trunk which was also her hope chest and sent him the details of what she ship she would be sailing, its planned arrival date, port, etc. He would be there at the port of arrival to welcome her to the new country and escort her back across it to their new farm and new life.

After her crowded and uncomfortable trans-Atlantic crossing as a steerage passenger, she arrived in New York only to discover that there was no-one there to meet her. Having full confidence in her fiancée, but speaking no English, having no one to contact and no way to contact him, and not knowing what to do in this unfamiliar country, she sat down on her trunk on the pier and waited. And waited. And waited. Unknown to her, he had been delayed four or five days owing to rainstorms' washing out the bridges his train had to cross to get from Minnesota to New York.

That picture of this young woman, in complete ignorance of her surroundings and her prospects, doggedly sitting there on her hope chest, waiting for the arrival of her love (in whom she had full confidence) is one of such inspiration that it always moves me when I recollect it. Of course he did arrive - eventually. And they did start their new life and I am sure there were many other adventures, but that one vignette is what sticks with me and inspires me.

As a nation built by and of immigrants, we have a marvelous hoard of immigrant stories relating everything from the passage to America (When Jessie Came Across the Sea) to the dawning comprehension of the strange new country in which they have arrived and the eventual process of assimilation (Mama's Bank Account). Every story is wonderfully colored by the circumstances that initiated the immigration (aspiration for new life or freedom or the fleeing of civil unrest or economic poverty), and by the tapestry of cultural baggage brought into the new world.

We glory in the triumphs and mourn the set-backs of these individuals and families. I think our heritage of immigrant stories, told from personal experience within the family, or absorbed through the culture and heritage of children's stories, is one of the things that serves as a flying-buttress to our cultural integrity. In a country as prosperous and wealthy as America, one would expect that there should easily be a degradation of spirit, a Roman dissolution. Yet, despite those expectations and that every generation inherently views the next with a jaundiced eye, all the numbers tell us that our people draw an aspirational spirit and resoluteness from somewhere and I believe it is, in part, that deep bank account of immigrant stories.

Has the immigrant experience changed over the years? In its fundamentals, I do not think so. There are a couple of twists which I suspect have modified it somewhat, though. The first is that the world is that much more connected than it ever was before. With cheap phones and cheap flights, it is far easier to come to a new country and maintain tight ties to the old country than was possible in the past. Presumably this slows assimilation and possibly increases the average returnee rate (number of immigrants eventually returning to their home country.) While this might be true for the individual, I suspect that connectedness has little impact on generational assimilation. I.e. parents may maintain a longer separation from their new host country than would have been possible in the past but I suspect the children will assimilate just as quickly as did immigrant children in the past.

While after a generation or two, immigrants are usually admired, at the time of immigration spikes, there is almost always a negative reaction among the population of the host country - immigrants are seen as a source of crime, dirt, sickness, job competition, etc. The second twist is in terms of how immigrants are viewed. In the past, eventually admiring stories would percolate up after some number of years and the immigrant experience would be admired. I think this is still the case, but there seem to be a higher proportion of books which paint immigrants as victims rather heroes, as passive pawns rather than strong individuals, which dwell on the unfairness of life rather than achievements against odds. I have no data to support that assertion, just an anecdotal sense. I doubt that that view will prevail - it would be a tragedy if it did.

We have put together just a sampling of stories which I hope you will find touching and inspirational. Here's a nod of respect towards the achievements of all those who came before.

Picture Books

Marianthe's Story by Aliki Suggested

Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone and illustrated by Ted Lewin Recommended

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel by Leslie Connor and illustrated by Mary Azarian Recommended

My Name Is Yoon by Helen Recorvits and illustrated by Gabriela Swiatkowska Recommended

Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say Recommended

They Were Strong and Good by Robert Lawson Suggested

An Ellis Island Christmas by Maxinne Rhea Leighton and illustrated by Dennis Nolan Suggested

Independent Reader

Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes Highly Recommended

Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen and illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy Suggested

Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse Recommended

The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez Suggested

Dreams in the Golden Country by Kathryn Lasky Suggested

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Lord and illustrated by Marc Simont Recommended

Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear by Lensey Namioka Suggested

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco Suggested

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan Suggested

Meet Kirsten by Janet Beeler Shaw Recommended

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith Recommended

All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor and illustrated by Helen John Highly Recommended

Dragonwings by Laurence Yep Recommended

Young Adult

Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch Suggested

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