Tales from the melting pot

What does it mean to be American? Members of Salon.com's reader community, Table Talk, share their versions of the American dream this week.

By Salon Staff
Published January 26, 2007 11:31AM (EST)

White House

A nation of immigrants: America the diverse

Rosella - 07:34 am Pacific Time - Jan 22, 2007 - #24 of 110

I am an immigrant, but since I am a native English speaker I don't experience the awful problems that many people do because of their lack of English, and their differing abilities to learn to speak it. There are several people in my husband's family (he is American-born) who are very anti-immigrant and very outspoken in front of me about this. When I have protested, I have been told "oh, you're different". Presumably I am different because I speak English, although with a "funny" accent, and look sufficiently like them to be acceptable. They aren't smart or perceptive enough to see how very different I am!

I work a lot with immigrants. I teach a class in citizenship for those who are trying to be naturalized, I participate in several conversation groups: one for English practice, another for Spanish/English practice. In the citizenship and English conversation groups, there are people from almost every conceivable country -- I have met people from Ukraine, Pakistan, Egypt, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Somalia, Congo, Laos, China, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and every Latin American country you can name. In the citizenship class they are all "legal", but in the other groups I don't know and being legal is not a requirement to join.

Last week in the English conversation group, we were talking about how one chooses a career. In my own life, I have never chosen any job, they have simply happened to me, but many of the group had professions in their old countries which they are now unable to practise because their English skills aren't good enough. One was a lawyer, another an accountant, another a technician at a fish-farming organization, and still another an acupuncturist. The latter can't get a licence here, although he was an acupuncturist for 30 years in China, because of his English. Now they are working at such jobs as waiter, church janitor, housekeeper. They are all very matter-of-fact about this, and obviously they are all trying to improve. It is simply a part of the whole experience for them, and although life is hard sometimes, they say that on the whole it's better here. People help one another, they say, and so far for them the future is bright.

My own country has many, many immigrants -- at last count, one in every four people living there was born elsewhere -- and has many of the same problems of assimilation that the U.S. is experiencing. But I think that for both countries the richness of texture brought by the mingling of cultures is going to make the future bright for all of us. I don't pretend to know how to solve the problem of illegal immigrants, and I don't care to take a position on it, but I strongly defend the rights of immigrants to be a part of our society and enjoy the rights and privileges of it along with the rest of us whose ancestors were part of the earlier waves of arrival.

Nancy Richardson - 08:24 am Pacific Time - Jan 22, 2007 - #27 of 110

I really feel enormously privileged to live in a country where many nationalities are able to live out their own version of the American Dream.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1961, I was a Marine Corps brat, and something of a bumpkin. But on my first day at Emerson Jr. High, I met a girl named Jenny Kupper who was also starting there mid-year as well. She came from South Africa, and later I found out that her family had been banned ... exiled ... because of her father's opposition to apartheid. On the bus I took to school, I was befriended by Gita, who had a dot on her forehead, and whose father was here from India to teach at UCLA. The closest thing to a best friend I had was Tessa Von Gruenbaum, whose family had fled Vienna in the '30s because her mother was Jewish. Her father was one of the country's leading authorities on Islamic Culture. The year was 1961.

My own family had both long-standing roots in this country, while on my mother's side, my grandfather was a German immigrant, while her own grandmother had married an English doctor, and emigrated to Australia, while settling finally in Hawaii at the turn of the last century.

I also married an English bloke, working class, an immigrant who retains his British citizenship.

I have Jewish friends who are third-generation Americans, whose grandparents never really learned English, but whose own parents only spoke Yiddish so the kids wouldn't understand what they are talking about.

My son lives with a Korean girl who was adopted my an Italian American family in New Jersey, who thinks of herself as culturally Italian.

My best friend's husband is a biracial Korean-black man who was adopted by a black family, and considers himself black ... but also feels like an outsider in that culture.

The artist who colors my hair is Armenian, with plenty of family back there, who her family here supports.

When I encounter hostility to immigrants, whether it is couched as only opposing illegal immigration, or not ... this attitude is alien to me, because these people, many of whom never encounter people unlike themselves ... or who make judgments based on the stupidest stereotypes.

Our country is better, stronger and just more fun when we have waves of immigration, which adds to our variety ... and strengthens the fabric of our communities.

What makes this country truly special are its differences ... and nothing makes that hit home like when one attends a mass naturalization ceremony ... where I get the opportunity to register Democratic voters.

And what is really cool is the number of men and women in uniform at these events, along with their families.

I am as American as apple pie, satay, creme brulee, flan, trifle and bean cakes!

And it is our immigrants who make me recognize what a lovely accident of birth gave me the chance to meet all these interesting and different people.

Helen Wheels - 09:02 am Pacific Time - Jan 23, 2007 - #35 of 109

One of my friends is a beneficiary of Reagan's immigrant amnesty program.

Her parents left her and her brother with their grandmother in Mexico, while they came to the U.S. to find work. There was none in their village, and the family was slowly starving.

Teresa told me of the heartache and feelings of abandonment she felt while separated from her parents for five years, with no visits. The money they sent was crucial in the kids in Mexico getting an education, clothing, and enough to eat.

After the first year, her parents had another child, thinking that they could use their baby's citizenship to sponsor the whole family. Then amnesty happened, and they were able to at last bring their oldest children to be with them. Grandma joined them a year later. All became citizens.

When Teresa was a senior in high school and working two part-time jobs to save for college, her eyesight started going bad. They think it was due to long-term exposure to environmental toxins when she lived in Mexico. By the time she got her Bachelor degree and was accepted into law school, she was legally blind and had quite a bit of debt. She realized that if she was ever going to get the surgery she needed to restore her sight, she was going to have to work very hard and get a very good job.

By the time she graduated near the top of her law school class, she had racked up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. But she did manage to land a good corporate lawyer position, thanks to her impeccable English and Castillan Spanish (a quite different, more formal form than the Mexican Spanish she grew up with) skills.

She finally got her eye surgery, which restored enough of her sight that she was able to work on an enhanced computer, and was finally able to drive.

I talked to her about her immigrant experiences just before the 2004 election. After all those years since their naturalization, her parents were going to vote for the first time. They were terrified! They were afraid that they didn't know enough to be worthy of voting, and had never seen a voting machine. Her mother was shaking so hard that she was barely able to walk as she approached the machine for the first time. Teresa literally had to hold her up!

Teresa also told me something very touching. She said, "People who hate immigrants or make fun of them have no idea how greatly some people have suffered so they could become Americans. I still suffer today from the effects of my parents' abandonment to make a better life for us. My mother is still overwhelmed every time she sees me, because it reminds her of how long her heart ached because we were separated."

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