I have taught about the Immigration Period in America for several years now. I know what the push and pull factors are as to why people immigrate, and I know the various stages that they and their later generations experience after immigration. In fact, I have not only taught this, I have researched this. Last month, however, was the beginning of my first-hand experience. I mean I lived in Thailand before, but it was temporary, and I was only responsible for myself. This is a HUGE jump from that.
Exactly one hundred years ago, from the same month I immigrated, my then seventeen year-old Great-grandmother and her mother boarded the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse with a hundreds of other Bohemians fleeing ethnic cleansing, and took the14 day trip from Bremen, Germany to Ellis Island. She moved to Cleveland because her step-father was here, as was a very large Slovak-Catholic community. She knew eight languages, but English wasn’t one of them. One-hundred years later, I boarded a plane with my two very young daughters, and flew 26 hours to Bangkok and then moved on to Khon Kaen, because I had a teaching position at a university waiting, and friends all around –even in the same city.
I find it so interesting what Americans think of immigration, and how they truly don’t understand it. I find it interesting that they get mad that immigrants are there, that they don’t speak English, that they “take our jobs” (that one always makes me laugh), that they aren’t Christian, and that they wear their clothes and eat their food. I think so many forget that they are products of immigrants.
I had always read that immigrants are the brave risk-takers. That is who almost all of us are descendants of –brave risk-takers. What happened to that? When did we not become accepting of that, and why? It’s not easy to learn another language. Most second generation and third generations Americans don’t know more than one language. Studying 2 years in high school doesn’t count, because you don’t use it daily; you don’t dream in it; it’s not the same.
I picked Thailand because I used to be fluent in Thai. Notice, I said “used to be.” I used to have entire 3-day workshops, in Thai. But after ten years, I find myself asking students, “What the word for ‘see’ again?” No one here gets mad or frustrated with me when I can’t speak Thai. No one says, “Wait, you live and work here, why don’t you speak Thai?” In fact, if I say “hello” or some other phrase, I get praised for what I know. When I taught in America, a lot of my students, who were studying English full-time, would get bothered and harassed for not knowing English.
As far as taking jobs, I can guarantee that no Mexican fruit picker, no Chinese scientist and no Indian doctor is taking any jobs from any Americans. In fact, in the professional world, they have to jump through hoops to have the privilege of working in the U.S. On the other hand, in Asia, being a native-speaker, almost assures you of a teaching position. I don’t know any Americans who come to Asia to be doctors, scientist, or manual laborers. If they did, they would probably get that position easily too. Accountants –maybe not.
Which leads me to an even bigger point. So many Americans want to put these big walls up. Place military and police around our borders to stop people from coming in, and yet, they have become blind to people who are leaving. Foreigners know about the “brain drain.” I had never heard of it. I thought I had this brilliant idea on how to take care of my family. Turns out, 16 of my friends had this idea first. They are all teachers.
So why are so many teachers fleeing to Asia and the Middle-East for jobs? Well, you can live on what you make. As a single mother, and as a highly-evaluated teacher with 20 years experience, I still qualified for government assistance. It’s understood that teachers certainly don’t get into to the field for the money. They don’t expect to drive BMWs, or eat steak everyday. They do expect, and should expect to be able to feed their families and own a car. They shouldn’t have to make a choice between paying for that used car or buying groceries. I’ve had friends with higher qualifications than me, working part time so they could stay in the system, because if they got out of the system, they would have to make those choices. When you need daycare until a child is 12, and 50% of your income goes to that, how do you survive? By the way, contrary to popular belief, it is most often not the single mother’s fault she is a single mother. She is the responsible one trying to take care of her kids and doing what she has to do. Just a reminder there.
But also, in the rest of the world, teachers are highly-respected. I don’t know how or when teachers became the bad guys in America in the past few decades, and specifically in the past year, but that alone is not worth the very little pay you receive. Yes, there are bad teachers. There are bad EVERYTHING. People often forget that. There are bad doctors, engineers, mothers, politicians. There are amazing teachers too. If you close your eyes right now, you can think of that one teacher who just really changed your life. Maybe they showed you something you didn’t think was possible, maybe they explained things in a way you could finally understand, maybe they prompted an epiphany, maybe they inspired you to do something you hadn’t even thought of. You know right now who that teacher is. In fact, you might have more than one. What other profession has that effect on people –that is why the rest of the world respects them so much, as they would their own parents. Oh, wait, we have a problem with that too. Ahh, now I see the connection.
But as for immigrants not “Becoming American,” eating our food, dressing the same, and all of that, many first-generations do. And to a much greater extent than an American would. If I want to find an American here, all I have to do is go to the nearest KFC. They are the ones who ordered mashed potatoes with their chicken. I won’t find them at the corner noodle stand. If I go to their house, I might find soy sauce, but probably not fish sauce. Their eggs will be in the refrigerator with the bread, and the rice cooker will be put away in a cupboard to be used once in a while. (I say this because in Asia, people leave their eggs out, they don’t often eat bread, and the rice cooker is always out and on). And yet the host country residents are usually very interested in what we are eating, how we made it, and can they try.
Nor will I find foreigners wearing silk on Tuesday, denim on Friday, or padded bras on any day. Children will wear uniforms, but foreign children are not expected to have uniform hair cuts like the nationals. In fact, there are a lot of “rules” we just don’t have to follow. There are other “rules” we have to be constantly aware of, so I guess it balances out.
And then Christmas comes around, and you think, “What do you mean I have to work on Christmas?” Christmas is not a holiday in a Buddhist country, just like Eid and Chinese New Years are not holidays in our country. It was a process for our forefathers to create our holidays, and an even bigger process for our mass media outlets to blow them completely out of proportion. America is made up of Eastern Europeans, who, as a culture, think 3 Kings Day is just as important as Christmas, and people from the UK who like Boxing day even more than Christmas. How did those two days get left out? And then when you think that there are more Irish in America than in Ireland, why do they not know that Saint Patrick’s day is quiet saints day that involves going to church and having dinner with your family, not drinking green beer at 5am?
I think the biggest difference is communication. Yes, the world is becoming more globalized and therefore much smaller. But also, with the internet, skype, and cell phones, we can talk to our loved ones anytime. There are no letters that take weeks anymore, there are no final good-byes. My great-grandmother got to go back and visit her home village 62 years after she immigrated. Who was even left? The whole world is becoming Western. Maybe it’s not so bad to try to hold on to your culture a bit before the KFCs take over the world. And maybe it’s not so bad if I try to have the most American house in Khon Kaen.