Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dispatch from Queens - The Immigrant Lens

We made it to New York, and are awaiting our international flight later today in a somewhat dumpy hotel near JFK. Lucy is tired but unfazed. The kids have settled into their travelling mode, as if that's all they ever do.


I don't drink coffee I take tea my dear
I like my toast done on one side
And you can hear it in my accent when I talk
I'm an Englishman in New York


When I first began thinking and writing about my 20-year experience as a permanent alien in the US, I realized this: For an immigrant, life could be viewed as a series of cultural choices, small and big, on the continuum between assimilation and rejection.

In my case that looks like this: No, I won’t shave my legs all the time, yes I will let my son get a driver’s license at 16 (kicking and screaming, albeit). But I won’t buy him a car. I’ll joyfully eat burgers and Mexican food, but I’ll buy German “brick bread”, never that spongy stuff in plastic bags they call bread here.

I happily lose the antiquated, formal 2nd person pronoun “Sie” (Usted, Vous, Lei) to address people.* I smile at or greet everyone in the street and do my best to learn small talk.

But I continue to be annoyed with the idling SUVs at my children’s elementary school. And I don’t pretend to understand why forced air heating systems, hot water tanks and top loader washers persist....Neanderthal behavior and technology.

I tip all wait staff generously, and refrain from complaining about stuff at the restaurant (and am embarrassed when my visiting parents do, in that stern, unadorned-by-politeness German tone). I proudly serve on the board of a local nonprofit, volunteer at my children’s school, and make donations to charity and to NPR. I just don’t like it when my husband donates to a political campaign. I’ll stand up for the pledge of allegiance at the Rotary Club meeting, I just skip the “under God” part. And I will move around my house naked and insist that my children speak more than one language. And on and on. Choosing where to draw the line, every day.

So why would this stuff matter to anyone but me? While the US undoubtedly is a multi-cultural society, it somehow suffers from cultural and political isolation, and from a lack in diversity of perspectives. Many people are bilingual and bicultural thanks to their ethnic heritage. But that’s not celebrated, let alone leveraged by the schools.

Increasingly, each discussion ends up in a black and white dead-end. You either believe that government should stay out of people’s lives, or you’re a socialist. Really? We have two political parties, currently producing … nothing: A month ago, the US Senate failed to pass a law requiring background checks for gun buyers, even though the majority of the US population supports this middle of the road policy. Despite all the information available to people, political and cultural polarization grows, reinforced by social media - the dipstick of polarized viewpoints.

The immigrant perspective provides a cultural, political and social lens on US society, different for each immigrant, colored by where he or she came from. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read a series of essays by immigrants from all over the world, describing what the US and their life here looks like? And what the view back at their home country looks like now, through each of their changing lenses. You'll hear about that one from me over the coming 12 months.

I’ll provide my very personal and subjective view to the readers of this blog, and hope that it shows some of the very colorful and intricate areas between the black and the white. The readers, I hope, will be provoked into some new thinking, conversation, and productive controversy.

Ultimately we all make our value-based choices every day, immigrant or not. May the immigrant lens make your choices more interesting!


*Losing the "Sie", is actually not a choice, since the informal singular “thou” has been lost to the English language, and the former plural “you”, never took as the polite form as in other languages, and since has become the universal English pronoun.


Uwe Effertz said...

That damn "Sie" is making a comeback though... you`ll see.

Ed Ward said...

Excellent counterpoint to my own blog! I look forward to reading this, and am bookmarking it now.

Nikki Zeuner said...

thanks, Ed!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the immigrant lens can be a magnifying glass that improves our lives..Thanks for the insight Nikki. I like silence and a smile as a language breakthrough. Looking forward to your blog posts. Missing you already.

Pat Bennett said...

I'm soooo excited for you! Marvelous posting as always.