By Anna R. Dadlez, PhD
In his speech on immigration in June 2013, President Obama talked about diversity in the United States. According to Obama and many of his fellow Americans, this country is uniquely situated to take advantage of the multiplicity of people coming here from all parts of the world, people who can contribute their talents and labor to better their new home. Most Americans believe that newcomers and residents can benefit equally, and certainly most believe that the newcomers are better off. The United States gains a willing and loyal labor force, while newcomers obtain decent wages and security.
Are We Living in Dreamland?
These oversimplified and mistaken assumptions about immigrants, regardless of who they may be, are fueled by the assurances of unbounded gratitude and admiration for everything American that are expressed by some immigrants and repeatedly reported in the popular press. Indeed, it is a wonder that the average American is not even more completely convinced of his or her superiority to immigrants and their cultures after being subjected to an unremitting and steady diet of those obsequious assurances.
Taking into consideration the geographical distance between the United States and many developed foreign nations, the general lack of curiosity on the part of the U.S. public, and American monolingualism, there is little chance of U.S. “natives” knowing much about foreign cultures, unless the press or schools take special notice of them for one reason or another. The attitudes of immigrant enthusiasm described above are too naive to persist in the face of the Internet and prevalence of international media. The policies of most countries are known to the world, and no state is considered above reproach, including the United States. Even when the immigrant comes from a third world country and is grateful for menial work, his euphoria and his hopes on entering the U.S. would not be equal to those of previous newcomers, given the many social and political changes in the world that have occurred in recent decades and that are known to the world public. Today’s immigrant is simply on the other side of history. He is better informed and less naive, although not less needy.
Immigrants’ unknown problems
It is surprising that in this country of immigrants, so little notice is taken of the reactions and feelings of the newcomer upon his or her arrival in unfamiliar surroundings. In most cases immigrants have severed their ties with their native land and disassociated themselves from relatives and friends with whom they had much in common. They now must sink or swim on their own in an alien society.
The average immigrant would be worried about his prospects, unsure of the language (most Americans would be unaware of the difficulty of switching from one language to another), constantly concerned with how he appears to the “natives,” and aware that any positive reputation he might have earned back home is totally unknown in the new milieu. Any unconformity in his speech or behavior may be held against him by the American-born, whose way of thinking, behavior and mannerisms are alien to the newcomer.
Georges Simenon wrote, “He did not ask the people to recognize him as one of themselves. He felt that that was impossible. He behaved with the discretion of a guest and it was as a guest that he saw himself.”
Edward Said put it even more forcefully: “It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home; its essential sadness can never be surmounted.”
Unknown to the American-born, there is a crossroads, a crucial point at which the immigrant must make a decision. Should he reject his life before the emigration, forget his ethnic culture, become a proud member of the ‘melting pot’? Should he, as one Polish immigrant advised his son, try to “think American, speak American, be American”? It often becomes clear to newcomers that, unless their ancestry is Anglo-Saxon (or unless they are members of one of several other less important but still widely recognized ethnic groups), their native culture will have no meaning for the majority of Americans. There will be a pronounced lack of curiosity about the immigrant’s country and its history in the United States.
With the arrival of children, however, such problems take on a new significance. Ought immigrant parents to share family stories, ethnic customs, and remembered cultural festivals with their children? Ought they to inform their children about social or military upheavals in the old country? Should an awareness of the important developments in their country of origin, but which are of no interest here, constitute a part of their children’s upbringing? This imposition of an ethnic heritage could be thought burdensome or counterproductive, a net disadvantage to the children of immigrants. It is certainly not recommended by schools, which have been known to insist that English, even bad English, should reign in immigrant households rather than their native tongue.
Immigrant parents must decide. They could pretend that nothing of significance occurred in their lives before their arrival in the United States and suppress memories close to their hearts. They could, on the other hand, struggle against prevailing norms and try to convey to their children the valuable elements in their ethnic ancestry, and to convey further the notion that inspirational examples of courage, stamina and honor do not belong to American culture exclusively. There will in any case remain the question whether one’s children will be grateful for this new mass of often disturbing information, which is not shared by their friends and may even appear alien and superfluous to them. There may come a moment when the child of immigrants starts to compare his parents with those of his friends, and finds his family different, in a milieu where difference is not appreciated.
Jeremy Rifkin observes the ease with which the children of immigrants discard their ethnicity: “embarrassed by their parents’ ways, [such] children did everything they could to shed their past.” So what can those parents who believe in the value of their ethnic culture do? “If we contrast the conditions at home with those the immigrants generally meet in America, we see that the loss of control over the child is inevitable if the parents do not develop new means (of influence) as substitutes for the old ones. But it requires a higher degree of individual culture, intellectual and moral, than most of the immigrants can manage.”
The relationship between immigrant children and their grandparents deserves special attention. Most cultures realize that there exists a special affectionate bond between the two generations, that grandparents, especially grandmothers, have a unique place in the hearts of their grandchildren. World literature is full of stories about the close bond between grandparent and grandchild, and about the role the former plays in the lives of the latter. This relationship can become strained in the adopted land, because of the seniors’ greater attachment to their home country, their more critical attitude toward the new environment, and their generally weak command of English. As John Bukowczyk says, “They (the immigrant women) were more vulnerable than their departed spouses. Most have never ventured far into American society, and therefore perhaps, never learned English. They clung to their independence and continued to live by themselves.” He concludes that many “lived lonely lives.”
Thus, grandparents, instead of providing extra affection and security for the child, become strangers and sometimes even liabilities, totally different from the American grandparents of the child’s school friends. In the mind of a youngster who wants to be like everybody else, foreign grandparents are even more of an embarrassment than foreign parents, given an even greater lack of assimilation. The unique opportunity of knowing more of the world through his family heritage is thus wasted, something that can be demonstrated by reviewing the statistics focusing on the knowledge of foreign cultures in the United States.
The older an immigrant, the more difficult it becomes for him to adjust to his new life in a foreign country. Often, it is only with advancing age that the past comes closer to one’s consciousness and that the years of one’s youth, no matter how difficult, take on a compelling immediacy and significance. But who, in the new country, has the time or the inclination to listen to the elderly immigrant? In a culture that venerates youth and disparages age, respect for the elderly is in any case at a premium. Elderly immigrants are at an even greater disadvantage. Their imperfect English makes communication difficult and frustrating, too much trouble to undertake. Their old-fashioned or foreign ways are alien and potentially embarrassing, as is their helplessness.
“Why doesn’t Grandma go out to enjoy herself? Why doesn’t she have American friends?” The answer to these questions is quite simple, but isn’t always readily grasped. The elderly, be they immigrants or natives, often suffer from loneliness and boredom. The problems that beset young newcomers increase tenfold for the aged. With advancing years, people slowly lose their independence. In case of immigrants, their independence is already badly compromised, not only due to possible physical debilities, but also their linguistic difficulties and nostalgia for their former home, something that tends to increase in old age. Conscious of their “strangeness,” the elderly are reluctant to face a foreign public or to join community and church organizations. They are forced to rely on their busy relatives or on indifferent institutional help. To form friendships in new and strange surroundings is equally difficult for them. Friends, for the most part, are those who share one’s past, or who share at least one’s beliefs and preferences. Common experiences will influence people’s psychological make-up, their beliefs, and their behavior. It is difficult for the elderly immigrant to make friends among people whose youth passed in totally different circumstances, and for whom the immigrants’ past has no meaning.
Heritage as liability
It is perhaps to be expected that some immigrants resort to flattery and exaggerated praise of their adopted country, with a view to furthering their own acceptance and establishing themselves as worthy of being American. There are those who, upon entering a foreign county, give up all the habits and customs acquired at home, and rapidly assimilate their own opinions and desires, even their mode of dress, to those they believe are favored by the majority (or their work associates). Such newcomers believe that total subjugation to prevailing convention is the path to success. What follows is a dedicated and strenuous avoidance of any criticism of American policies, domestic and foreign. This is usually accompanied by a fear of appearing less American, something equated by many newcomers with failure.
Some immigrants, driven by the anxiety to be accepted, even turn to belittling their ethnic cultures. Those cultures appear alien or peculiar in their new surroundings. They are basically unknown and not understood, giving rise at best to disinterest and at worst to xenophobic reactions from natives. In either case, one’s heritage is a liability. So the next step is often a rejection of one’s life experience prior to emigration, coupled with a refusal to appreciate any non-American culture, in order to demonstrate loyalty to one’s new country. Such attitudes are also shared by some non-immigrants, who believe that the appreciation of one country should exclude appreciation of others—that patriotism demands belonging to only one culture, using only one language, and adhering to only one tradition while rejecting all others.
These attitudes breed uncertainty. Some immigrants attempt to convince themselves and the people around them that, by leaving their previous home, so inferior to the present one, they have made the correct and courageous decision. People wish to see themselves as winners rather than losers, and comparisons between former and present experiences can affirm that a correct choice was made, if the present is always judged superior to the past. Driven by innate insecurity, people who reason in this way can turn to belittling their ethnicity and everything that surrounded them before they reached American shores.
Many such persons who reject their heritage live in a world of anxiety. They deprive their children of the possibility of knowing more of the world, and thereby of being more useful to their adopted country than they have imagined possible.
“Successful immigrants,” writes Norman Davies, “tended to cultivate the culture, language and values of their adopted country with enthusiasm, while keeping no more than mythological memory about their countries of origin.” In fact, “some turned their backs with distaste” on the traditions and values of lesser-known countries.
Host Country Perspectives
Looking at immigration from the point of view of natives and residents, one can but wonder about the usefulness of immigrants to a democratic country. Surely, the well-being of any society depends on an informed and stable electorate. Permanently insecure new citizens, distrustful of the principles on which their adopted country was based, would not appeal to many hosts, despite fervent assurances of loyalty. Such characteristics might well instill the suspicion that, given an opportunity, the new citizens might just as readily reject American ties as they did their own ethnic affiliations.
For some non-immigrant observers, American diversity is simply a myth. It has been suggested, for instance, that schools contribute to a general lack of appreciation of foreign cultures in the United States.
According to Norman Davies, “only several West European countries deserve some mention in American schools,” others, including the East European element, are “totally lacking” as they “are struck off from the American syllabus.” He notes that the people who might have been offended because of such neglect “were too committed to the demands of assimilation to notice.” One may add, perhaps, that at least some immigrants feared that their criticism of established institutions would make them less welcome in their new home.
Different Types of Immigrants
The varieties of problems facing an immigrant present an interesting object for psychological and sociological studies. Of course, their difficulties vary according to the reasons for emigration, and according to the abilities and attitudes of the individuals in question. A great deal depends on the conditions that are left behind.
Most Americans believe, correctly, that the providers of shelter and sustenance will win the gratitude of victims of famine and want. The preservation of life itself depends on nourishment. As Marx’s friend Friedrich Engels declared, “food comes before art,” where “art” may be equated with any matter not directly connected with basic survival. An immigrant who is no longer threatened by hunger, homelessness and other dangers that plague the poor, will of course be grateful, but not necessarily satisfied. After establishing himself economically, he may next turn to those “other” matters and find something lacking. Such a person would be grateful, but probably not happy.
To realize the basic loneliness of the average immigrant, one should imagine being placed as he is placed. There are no friends or relatives, no familiar set of customs, no community. Instead, there is constant anxiety, a concerted effort to conceal discomfort or irritation with alien customs, for fear that one may hear “America, love it or leave it.”
The difficulties with the language are especially hard to overcome for the undereducated, and may become an ever-present difficulty. How many Americans understand the fear most immigrants have of misunderstanding important messages, or their concern about the inability to fully convey what it is they wish to communicate? Linguistic competence is a crucial adjunct to survival and immigrants are well aware that they may be evaluated based on the way they speak. Only Americans who travel abroad and try to employ a foreign language they have learned at home understand the frustration and humiliation that come from not being understood, or from not understanding what is being said. It can be devastating for those who, aware of their linguistic shortcomings, find it impossible to make a good impression. Learning proper English is beyond the ability of many with no educational background in the study of language or grammar. Whenever one must convey something more complex or sophisticated to a native speaker, panic sets in, since a mistranslation may cause serious problems in the work place, with police, or in medical emergencies. Worry and humiliation are the constant companions of immigrants who have dared to leave their ethnic home without having learned English and lack the skill or the time to acquire linguistic proficiency.
The Immigrant as Dissident
A special group of immigrants belong to the so-called émigrés, whose transplant to a foreign country has little to do with their own self betterment, but is undertaken for ideological reasons, in the hope of finding understanding and perhaps assistance in their pursuit of a vision. The Polish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the late 1940s and early 1950s fall into this category (and are the case in point). There have been and are many dissidents from different ethnic groups, who have objected to the ideas and policies of the authorities in their homeland. Most have shared with Poles a trust in the United States’ claim to freedom and opportunity, and in the American tendency to offer aid to political refugees. They hoped to find support for their respective causes. However, dissidents seldom find what they are looking for in the United States, unless the American government and power groups agree with them and their aims. For many, disappointment and frustration follow their arrival in the U.S.
In the case of Poles, the futility of their efforts became apparent soon after the end of the second World War and the Treaty of Yalta, which was disastrous for Poland. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how mature men and women could be so naive as to believe that a treaty signed by three superpowers, the U.S., U.K. and Soviet Union, could be successfully challenged by the remnants of a once-valued ally whose country had been consigned to the gentle care of Stalin. But the desperate grasp at straws, and there should be sympathy for that kind of naïveté on the part of Poles and others. The naïve were on a desperate search for support from a powerful ally with a reputation for objectivity and compassion. “When, on my arrival in the U.S., I saw the Statue of Liberty,” reminisced my friend Janusz, “ I cried, and I was immensely grateful that my fate allowed me to come to such a country. I planned to make Poland’s tragedy known. But the longer I stayed, the less hopeful I became.” What did he find? A relatively friendly people with no curiosity regarding Word War II in Europe, let alone in Poland. He found openings only for blue-collar jobs. He discovered the low social mobility of Polish Americans and their concomitant lack of influence. He discovered a general satisfaction with the world as it was.
I believe that most Americans would be surprised by Janusz’s disappointment. “What on earth did he expect?” they might ask. “Isn’t it enough that he found a job and security here? Isn’t that what counts in life?” True enough, for many, perhaps for most. But immigrants, especially dissidents, are not most people, and it would benefit both sides if the many were to extend understanding and assistance to the few future citizens in their midst. “In the United States,” indicates Edward Said, “academic, intellectual, and aesthetic thought is what it is today because of refugees from fascism, communism, and other regimes given to the oppression and expulsion of dissidents.”
The Immigrant as Scholar
Dissidents usually belong to the educated classes and, for both political and educational reasons, life abroad may be more difficult for them than for the less educated. Although devotion to their native land may exist among all immigrants, those who know more about the cultural achievements of their previous home will be more aware of any ignorance of their culture and heritage on the part of their hosts, an awareness less likely to afflict the uneducated. Financial problems may prevent those who want to pursue higher education in the U.S., and any hope of finding a like-minded friend may be barred by the very “strangeness” of an immigrant’s background.
Still, there are benefits that even an economically afflicted foreign scholar may well find in the new land. The most important is freedom from censorship. Although not perfect, in comparison to states with totalitarian regimes, American freedom of speech is impressive. A joke circulating in Poland (during the communist regime, 1945–1989) illustrates the aforementioned distinction. Two men, an American and a Pole, discuss constitutional matters:
“In the U.S.,” explains the American, “we can say and write whatever we like. Our constitution guarantees the freedom of speech.”
“So does ours,” exclaims the Pole. Seeing the doubtful expression on his friend’s face, the Pole elucidates: “It is true, basically. Our constitution also guarantees freedom of speech. The only thing it does not guarantee is freedom after speech. A small difference.”
Lack of fluency in a language plagues even those who can only speak one language, their own.
For an ambitious immigrant, used to a high level of eloquence in his surroundings at home, language may become a serious impediment to self-fulfillment. Unless she uses predominantly technical jargon as a matter of course, she will sooner or later miss engaging in interesting discussions with ease and gusto and wit. Hindering such interchanges in English are concerns about pronunciation, syntax, and mistranslation or cultural differences that may skew meanings in unexpected ways.
The problems encountered by people who long to communicate with their fellow scholars in the new country, but are excluded from it by the real or imagined linguistic imperfections, can be frequent and frustrating. “How unfair it is,” muses an immigrant, “that I have to slave for years to acquire proficiency in this language, whereas the ‘natives’ have no idea of the difficulties people like me are facing, and have all the time in the world to focus on the subject of their choice in their own language, which they have learned from infancy.”
The Immigrant as Terrorist
In recent decades, there has emerged another type of immigrant, or an American born into an immigrant family, for whom the adopted country is not only unworthy of loyalty, but instead becomes an object of anger and resentment. In such cases, American foreign policy, the popular media, or perhaps his own experience, are the principal causes of estrangement. Many factors are potentially implicated: The feeling of being alone in a foreign culture; awareness that one’s ethnic ties may be represented negatively in the media; academic disparagement of such ties as having no value; and ridicule of one’s heritage. All may issue in resentment and alienation, particularly in the consciousness of first generation Americans coming from lesser known ethnic groups.
A certain sequence of events has become more and more common. A young person of the marginalized ethnicity visits the country of his ancestors, and becomes, as he would consider it, “enlightened.” He may find wonders in the land abandoned by his parents completely unknown in the U.S., and hear stories of oppression and heroism never heard before. He may experience a genuine sense of community for the first time, a complete absence of the alienation that was so constant as to become unremarkable. Such a visit, and perhaps a prescribed course of study, may become a powerful engine for the vindication of his resentment. In such circumstances, there may also be individuals eager to convince him of the deleterious effects of U.S. policy on his ancestral country and people, reminding him of the blood bond he shares with the victims of the aforesaid policy.
Home grown terrorists, who in latter decades have acquired a permanent place in the media, are people who are often believed to be seeking personal aggrandizement, wishing to achieve the requisite fifteen minutes of fame by attracting attention in any available way. This description may apply to a few, but need not apply to all. Many individuals so described are fanatically devoted to ideals of justice or redress. They identify with ethnicities or religions that have, in their estimation, been victimized or vilified. Humiliation, anger, and a desire for revenge may awaken in a young person convinced of the martyrdom of his or her ethnic brothers and sisters. In such a case the ideas behind what is called the American Dream seem trivial and superficial in comparison to the struggle for justice and honor.
History is full of extraordinary behavior prompted by compassion for the real or perceived victims of oppression, by intelligent, eager, passionate young people of sometimes insufficient maturity. The question arises whether potential terrorists could be turned away from violence to a more productive way of satisfying their concerns—whether they could be convinced that many of their values are also shared (or at least respected) by their adopted country. This may become quite a challenge for schools and politicians.
Does the United States government know how to deal with this relatively new phenomenon? In his essay entitled “The Great Super-terrorism Scare,” Ehud Sprinzak notes that “enhanced conventional terrorism and the limited risk of escalation to super-terrorism call for a reexamination of the existing US deterrence doctrine.” He also recommends “better intelligence,” complaining that “the most neglected means of countering…terrorism is psycho-political research.
The War Refugee as Immigrant
This class of people who find themselves abroad due to war, whose presence in the host country is due to circumstances connected with war, could be called involuntary exiles (although dire poverty at home would not, unlike war, be a factor in emigration). War refugees include all kinds of people. There may be members of the previous political elite, people deported by the new regime due to their real or perceived hostility, and also people who fled the horrors brought by the war itself. All of them have been separated from their early home, all of them will experience nostalgia, and all of them must get adjusted to new conditions.
“Once abroad,” writes Norman Davies, “political exiles, economic migrants and refugees of all kinds tend to coalesce into a distinct community…whose very existence, irrespective of their origins, exerts a powerful influence on the parent nation back home,” as well, we might add, as influence on their adopted country. As President Obama indicated, immigrants have a lot to offer. Perhaps we could exploit their usefulness more effectively.
Anna R. Dadlez, PhD, is a professor of history and political science at Saginaw Valley State University. She is author of In Time of War. Growing up During the Nazi Occupation and its Aftermath, as well as other books chronicling the European experience post World War II. An immigrant from Poland, Dr. Dadlez uses her personal experiences as inspiration for her work highlighting the challenges faced by those immigrating to America today.