I lived in China for nine years as an immigrant. I was a fairly well off immigrant, for sure, but I was an immigrant nonetheless. I faced all of the hurdles that immigrants coming to the US face in reverse.
And I returned to the US with my Chinese wife, of course, in the middle of a surreal presidential election that has put immigration on the front page. And it hasn’t been a very pretty picture that has been painted.
As I watch the Rio Olympics, however, and the US domination of the medal count, I have to wonder how powerful we would be on the international sports stage if we had closed our borders to immigration for the last century or so. We have obviously attracted some of the top athletes from around the world to make their home within our borders.
And they, in turn, have helped to cement our reputation around the world as being a strong and powerful nation. People around the world expect us to be at the top of the leader board. If we were perennially fifth or sixth in international athletic competitions I dare say our image would suffer. And with that strong image comes all sorts of direct and indirect benefits. It feeds on itself and whether we know it or not, we all benefit.
The Washington Post recently ran an article profiling Chen Aiwu, 64, and her husband, Wang Dongsheng, 66, two very average Chinese retirees who recently completed a 19-day, 4,850-mile drive around the western United States. (Chinese women never take the husband’s family name in marriage. They retain the family name of their own father.)
Chen and Wang speak little English so their trials and tribulations began even before they landed, when they had to fill out a US Customs form that is only in English. I felt their pain. While speaking a foreign language is challenge enough, reading a foreign language is an even greater challenge. (When taking the exam for a Chinese driver’s license, I was allowed to take the test in English.)
My wife is learning first hand. We live just outside the Motor City so, of course, there is virtually no public transportation. I have yet to even see a taxi on the road. Yet the test required to obtain her learner’s permit is not offered in Chinese or spoken English, despite the fact that according to the 2010 census there were 3.8 million Chinese living in the US and I’m sure the number has doubled since then. You see Chinese people everywhere in Metropolitan Detroit.
And we should be glad they’re here. It is common knowledge that Asian Americans score much higher than their native counterparts on standardized tests used in the public education system. And at least one Asian American professor has attributed this to tough (spelled ‘better’, in her book) Asian parenting.
The reality is, however, that the Asians who are living in America have gone through a double selection process to get here. They aren’t representative of the Asian population as a whole. The children of American ex-patriates living in China would probably score quite high compared to the average Chinese as well. Asian parenting may or may not be superior, but it doesn’t explain the higher test scores.
Not all immigrants are highly educated, of course. My wife recently asked me if Americans were legally prohibited from holding jobs in the landscape and gardening industries, noting that none of the men laying sod or performing landscaping services in our new subdivision appeared to be Caucasian Americans.
That’s not to say that American men and women have not been hurt by immigration and global trade. In the case of the latter, they clearly have. But the real issue, I believe, is not immigration or even trade; it is the fact that large corporations are allowed to treat workers as disposable assets and there is no one (i.e. the government) there to pick these workers up once they are jettisoned in the name of corporate profits.
Overall, however, the experience of helping my Chinese wife immigrate to the US has renewed my faith and pride in America. There are some Americans who are prejudice against the Chinese, just as there are some Chinese who are prejudice against Americans. Overall, however, I have found that despite the confrontational rhetoric displayed in this year’s presidential election, the vast majority of Americans remain polite, cordial, and genuinely kind. (Chen and Wang marveled at this as well.) It is our most redeeming quality and, in my opinion, one of the primary reasons we remain a world leader on so many fronts.
Immigration into any foreign country is a daunting process. It is not for the meek. There are barriers at every turn, often invisible to those who grew up there. Those who succeed deserve our respect and our help, not our contempt.
Let’s hope we have the collective resolve not to let others talk us out of showing the human kindness that defines us as the global leader that we are.
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