New Americans

I’m calling this “New Americans” because I’m not talking about illegal immigration here. That is a whole ‘nother deal. But for the record, I’m not in favor of it.

Here’s what’s on my mind. I’ve heard people say – and I’ve said this myself – if I moved to a foreign country, I would not expect to be catered to with government forms and pre-recorded phone messages and even signs for the aisles in hardware stores in my native language. I would expect to adopt the language, customs, food and dress of my new country as my own. Really? Would I? Totally??

In some countries it’s a requirement of the government that if you want to live there you must learn the language, such as Austria, where you’ve got six months to get on it and start learning German if you don’t already speak it. I don’t think we make folks do that in the US. Typically, the first generation of an immigrant family will learn at least enough of the new language to get around. The second generation will be bi-lingual and the third will only speak English unless they have made a special effort to learn their ancestors’ language.

I’ve also heard – although this doesn’t bother me at all – that some folks are upset by people who come here from other countries who bring their cultural celebrations with them. I wonder what America would be without our melding of customs for holidays like Christmas and Easter? And everyone celebrates St. Patrick’s Day whether they are Irish or only wish they were for a day.

Speaking of Irish, a few weeks ago my brother handed me a book that he was really excited about. He urged me to read it and I am. The name of the book is “‘Tis” and it is the memoirs of Frank McCourt. He came to New York City from Ireland in 1949 when he was about 18 years old. Eventually, he became a teacher but could not get a job at anything other than a technical high school because of his Irish brogue. He wasn’t welcome to teach the children of middle class New Yorkers. I read in this book that some businesses had signs in the windows that said “No Irish Need Apply.” Can you imagine? And other Irish immigrants told him to stay with his own kind. Don’t mix with the Italians or the Greeks. Or, even with the Protestants or Jews. Frank McCourt complained about all the hyphenated Americans just as we do today. He wondered why we couldn’t just all be plain American?

What I read in this book reminded me of what I read in “Don’t Know Much About History” by Kenneth C. Davis. In the late 1800s when unions were first trying to organize they ran into some problems. The workers “did not all speak the same language and were suspicious of one another. The Irish hated the Italians. The Germans hated the Irish. They all hated the Chinese. And, of course, blacks were beyond the pale to most white workers.” This is unthinkable to most of us now. Except concerning new immigrants.

Where I live there is an Irish Club and a Scottish Club. There is also a monument to the Italians who settled in this town. And a nearby town is known to be settled by Dutch folks and has attractions that tell their history. We have the India Cultural Center and LULAC, which is for Latin/Spanish folks. Who knows what else is here? I know we have Black folks, Greeks, Jews, Cajuns, Vietnamese and lots of other fairly new Americans from the Far East and the Middle East. And if there are any Lutheran Churches where you live, you have probably seen Oktober Fest celebrations.

I’d like to ask folks who get upset by people that they think aren’t assimilating where their ancestors came from? Do you know? How many generations of your family have been here? My great-grandpa came here from Germany. And in his German accent that he surely had, he told the census taker he was born in Texas. I have a copy of his work card that proves otherwise. It was 1910 when he spoke with the census taker and not a good time to be German in America.

I think we need to chill and don’t worry about our new citizens not becoming “American.” We ought to welcome them, learn what we can from each other and enjoy the variety. As we all adopt each others’ customs it makes our own lives more interesting. And by the way, I told a friend once, who happens to be fully Italian but totally American, that I am Heinz 57 because I am such a mixture, and he said in the kindest sense of the word, I’m a “mutt.”

The following is an email that I wrote to a friend 6 months after writing the above. I told my friend that what happened in my neighborhood reminded me of “New Americans” :

I wrote this back in November for my MySpace blog. I thought of it because of what I just watched this evening among neighbors. I was sitting at the computer and I heard BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM over and over. All metal and no brakes. I knew that couldn’t be good! It was coming from around the corner from where I live. I couldn’t figure out if a bunch of vehicles all collided – big ones, going fast – or if someone knocked a building down or maybe hit a building with a vehicle and took it down. My son thought it sounded like they may have rolled several times. After a few minutes I heard a bunch of sirens so I put my shoes on and went to see what on earth had happened.

A pickup truck had hit a vehicle, took down a stop sign that is in the street between the ‘go straight’ lane and the ‘turn right only’ lane, kept going, veered off to the right and went through a fence, ran through and over rose bushes, flowers and fruit trees, through the fence on the side of that yard, across a small front yard, hit the corner of a house and was spun around facing the opposite direction, leaving the house with the entire front wall of a bedroom knocked down and front porch supports scattered in the yard.

Someone told me the driver said she didn’t want to go to the hospital. I am amazed the driver could say anything! The fire department said she had a sugar episode and blacked out.

The reason this reminded me of the blog is that it was an interesting group of folks gathered to see what happened. Some white, some black, some hispanic. I really found the whole thing – not the wreck, but the onlookers – to be entertaining in a way. I watched black people who didn’t know each other talk like they had known each other for years when they were telling each other what happened with such gusto and expression. White folks don’t do that. We are usually pretty reserved with strangers unless drunk or high.

My dad wanted to talk with the lady whose fence and fauna were destroyed. I went with him into her yard. Well, that was another deal. She is hispanic and she was on the phone speaking in Spanish to someone telling them about the truck that ran through her yard and hit the house. I speak just enough Spanish to have the man at the bakery misunderstand me when I mispronounced a word and he thought I wanted him to be my Sweet Daddy but what I wanted was a Sweet Potato Empanada. Boy, did I embarrass us both! But I know enough to know what the lady was talking about. When she got off the phone my dad spoke to her but she didn’t seem to be able to answer him. I think she understood but couldn’t speak much English. Kinda like me with Spanish. I knew enough to be able to tell her I was sorry about her trees and flowers but it was fractured. About like her yard. But no weird misunderstandings.

After I got home I thought about how she probably wouldn’t have spoken to my dad much anyway, even if she did speak enough English to carry on a conversation. There’s a cultural thing there where men and women don’t really chat a lot if they don’t know each other. I’ve been very careful with my neighbor, especially the first couple years he was here, because for me to talk freely to him could mislead him. Kinda’ like the poor man at the bakery.

Well, as is typical of second generation immigrants, the lady’s son is bilingual and he spoke to her in Spanish and spoke with my dad and me in perfect English.