By Scott Haas
Visitors from another planet, arriving in the United States the past year or so, might easily believe mistakenly, because of harsh, racist rhetoric, that this complex, diverse nation, rich with contradictions, at one time had been great and is now in decline due to the scourge of immigrants.
It’s not quite as bad as the 1930s in Western Europe when a certain group of citizens were singled out as “the misfortune” of seemingly homogeneous nations.
Still, the idea that immigrants are keeping America from, “being great again,” has entered mainstream political thinking, and the sheer dangerousness of this represents unmistakably a familiar ideology.
That this has become public discourse is the real decline, and that those in responsible positions of leadership grant it legitimacy, is one context for day to day life in major American cities between people of diverse backgrounds, many of whom come from immigrant families.
Of course, there are other contexts, and I’m trying modestly to add of my own.
Those Immigrants!: A Psychological Exploration of Achievement is my latest book, and comes about through a five year effort to understand better the challenges, resilience, and unique contributions of thirty prominent Indian-Americans from immigrant backgrounds. It is a limited sample of people, not an academic guide to what’s what, but rather it is meant as an anecdotal contribution to recognizing the skills, strengths, fallacies, and observations of a range of people across the U.S., some of whom are starting out in their careers and others who are at the pinnacle. Both analytical and narrative, the idea is to take a look at private lives and their impact on public life.
So many stereotypes exist about any group, and among those that are applied to immigrant groups that are as successful, in the broadest sense, as Indian-Americans are that most of these individuals are smarter, more insular as a community, and have parents that employ child-rearing practices that provide children with keys to high level achievement. It’s a ruthless set of misconceptions that causes harm and lead to misunderstandings.
Indians of course are not smarter, don’t have hermetic communities, and lack magical parenting approaches which enable their children to soar to the top. Like any people, there is within the overall group one subset after another, diversity of religion, region, gender, so-called race, age, vocation, and social class. Numerous factors contribute to success, and most of these can be well defined.
Initially, through an ongoing series of interviews in Times of India, I tried to get at the realities of what it means to be an immigrant from India, or to grow up in an immigrant household, appreciating the enormous range of people who came to the United States from widely varying backgrounds.
And trained as a clinical psychologist, what I came away with are not abstractions nor caricatures, but individual narratives that provide clues to both the particulars of immigrants as well as what strategies might be applicable to any group, immigrant or not, aiming for success and social integration.
By taking a look at these strategies, we might learn more about what it means to be human. By listening to the individual stories, the humor and poignancy of specific struggles becomes apparent. All this takes place through a wistful combination of taking the ways of one’s original home to a new place and somehow fitting in or at least reconciling the differences.
Integration, too, that means that the communities in which immigrants find themselves are changed through contact with them. That’s what makes America great now, and if the interplanetary visitors stick around long enough to see the disavowal of the racist rhetoric that is so disruptive of the best part of this nation’s narrative, they will experience that greatness.
I learned a great deal from the interviews.
I wanted to know what people brought with them from India. What special attributes might aid in gaining success?
Most of the immigrants from India I spoke to, those who succeeded in the U.S., told of having exceptionally strong and reliable emotional support from a family member. The family member might cajole that person should he or she choose a profession outside of the realm of what they expected, but there wasn’t talk of withdrawing love or cutting that child off. Yes, it often took time, lots of convincing, lots of arguing, but the knowledge that at least one person in the family was there, and that there was some kind of tradition to uphold, adds a lot to social confidence.
There is also the matter of motivation. In many instances, immigrants I spoke to told of coming to the U.S. with a goal, not much money, and no Plan B except to return home like some kind of failure. Even affluent immigrants understood that they were on a mission. There wasn’t the privilege or luxury of an existential or identity crisis. No time for that. Life had purpose due to the expense and dislocation of immigration. (The existential or identity crisis might take place in the second generation of immigrants!)
Critical to most of the people interviewed, too, is the matter of mentorship, which is becoming apparent to people across the social spectrum. Having someone, usually older, who can through kindness and experience teach some basics, brainstorm, listen to gripes, and come up with an organized way to get things done and make progress. With mentors, immigrants get ready for work, prepare for examinations, and learn how to navigate complex social and vocational systems.
Everyone in the immigrant community who achieved phenomenal success told of being able to bounce back. Imagine if resiliency was taught in schools: Learning not to take insults or slurs personally, developing strategies for dealing with oppression in addition to reactive tactics, understanding the power and authority of patience, and learning how to focus on long-term goals that benefit not just the individual, but others as well.
Another factor contributing to success is appreciating the importance and subtleties of hierarchy. People spoke of coming from India, where extremely complicated hierarchical structures exist in everyday life far more than in the U.S., and how that meant for them figuring out quickly who’s in charge, why that person is in charge, who’s next in charge, how fluid the hierarchy is, and what it is based on.
Finally, immigrants with the greatest success told of the need to keep changing and adapting. If an approach to solving a problem isn’t working, how they would try something new. There is a general love of improvisation. In a culture as (potentially) fluid as the U.S., being able to shift identity adds to the probability of success.
While each person I spoke with had highly specific viewpoints, I also found certain things many had in common. In addition to what many people identified as keys to their success, due to being immigrants or growing up in an immigrant household, I wanted to know what people found to be positive features within American culture which contributed to their achievement.
Here are a few, and they are worth pondering as each of us wonders what it might mean to be an American—on a good day!
People interviewed talked about feeling creative freedom. Not just in Brooklyn, Berkeley, Cambridge, Ann Arbor, or Austin, but throughout the country, in schools, at work, and in their communities. There are chances to do things differently, and not to have to conform to a narrow set of cultural norms and expectations. While families did indeed make it clear that advanced academic degrees and traditional professions, such as medicine and law and engineering, are ideal, there is often a natural flexibility to move beyond the anticipations of family.
Further, through interactions with others outside of the principal immigrant group, new ideas hatch, and become springboards for a synthesis of disparate fields. The core immigrant experience has added to it the world around, and that world is changed through contact with immigrants. Many things become new.
As a result, building coalitions with people whose affiliations are based on ideas, rather than religion or community, make creativity a broader based possibility. Ideas come from a range of sources rather than within traditional sets of affiliation and self-identification.
Young immigrants expressed delight in an undergraduate system of education that doesn’t require students to choose a profession at the age of eighteen. There is, overall, more flexibility in careers as well, and a chance to follow through on subjects about which one has intellectual curiosity. Subsequent to this, solutions to problems are not necessarily tried and true. The American reputation for expressing opinions in formal settings, such as school or work, was embraced by people who were interviewed. People spoke of a sense of liberation at being able to participate in discussions, not strictly based on hierarchy, and not through rote repetition or accepted truth, but by saying what they think or feel without fear of personal criticism.
Ironically, immigrants also made note of the power and responsibility of idealism in the sense that they wanted to see it. Not just hear it. It could not remain elusive, some civics lesson, and if the U.S. was really a place of political freedom, at its best, then this had to be evident in daily life. The notion that America is “the land of the free” is just about part of breakfast in the U.S., and as the country continues to exist on paper rather than in reality, immigrants demand some kind of reckoning. New to the cynicism, lies, and alienation from political process, immigrants don’t shrug.
Assimilation also came up quite a lot in conversation. The older generation, people who came here between thirty to fifty years ago, didn’t share the same need to fit in—most certainly did not have anywhere near the opportunities to do so like those who came here more recently. But younger immigrants and people who were born into immigrant families here want to enjoy the cultural benefits of home as well as country. They often want to create a new identity as well, one that is not as specific as that of their parents or non-Indian colleagues or neighbors. A new identity that subtly combines features of a range of experiences.
Another subject that is of importance is of course that of entrepreneurship. Starting a new business, website, project, building coalitions, having one’s ideas debated is refreshing. Banks, too, on a good day, loan large sums of money with little collateral put up, and who someone is (their background) matters far less than whether others are convinced that they can make money from that person’s ideas. It’s one big reason why people from all over the world come to the States: Easier to get investors.
Finally, a number of people said that they felt that the U.S. was the least tribal place they had ever lived. I guess everything’s relative! When I brought up, in our conversations, the horror of racial conflict in America, it was acknowledged that, yes, that’s true, but compared to a country where, one’s community, class, religion, gender, region, or race can be a barrier to employment and most forms of social progress, where meritocracy is limited, it’s better here.
I wonder what the visitors from another planet would have to say about that.
Scott Haas recently completed, Those Immigrants!, a book on prominent Indian-Americans published in May, 2016 by Fingerprint! Publishing. He is also the author of Back of the House, a book about the psychology of being a chef and working in restaurants (Berkley/Penguin). He wrote: Hearing Voices (Dutton) and Are We There Yet? (Plume); he is co-author of The Da Silvano Cookbook (Bloomsbury). He won a James Beard award for hosting nationally on air for public radio. His work appears in a host of publications, including Saveur, The Boston Globe, Wine Enthusiast, Travel + Leisure (North America and Southeast Asia), Robb Report, Islands, Sewasdee, and Gastronomica. He writes a lot about Japan. He has a doctorate in clinical psychology and maintains an active consultative practice emphasizing diagnostic work in psychiatric hospitals and urban communities of color.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘In the Shadow of the Larger Faiths: The Minor Faiths of South Asia’, edited by Prof. Sipra Mukherjee, West Bengal State University, Kolkata, India.