Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

The Treasured Outsider

January 17, 2009

This is a more sobering post than I’ve usually presented to my audience on this blog. Someone dear to me, who like me is also a first generation immigrant, was wondering about her boss’ remark that she is a source of inspiration to the kids she teaches. My friend, this person, find it hard for to believe that because she sees the massive cultural gap between her and the kids and wonders how that gap can be bridged enough for her words and guidance to be effective.

I too have come to terms with this paradox. As immigrants, we are at once the center of a lot of attention —  entirely of the pleasant sort, luckily for me — but also find ourselves removed from the center of American life almost de facto because we can’t share in the American idiom as easily as those who have been born and achieved adulthood here.
My own journey of discovering my place in the United States has been one of understanding this dichotomy. In the US, I find that immigrants have this special place because of the enduring role that immigrant communities play in defining this nation’s identity. I am a South Asian immigrant, and the story of middle class South Asian like me is, in particular, a curious one within the larger immigrant story. My community is among the few that have come here of their own volition, leaving behind a life that to many native-born Americans seems quite cushy.

This mystery is particularly deepened in the case of my friend and me, because of the active role we play in our communities. We are neither of us the typical South Asian, like the invisible software engineer, or cab driver, or accountant or restaurant owner, the kind of person that you meet in specific, professional, circumstances, but who doesn’t interact with the mainstream of American life outside those circumstances. The traditional story of all immigrant communities, even relatively wealthy and privileged ones like the Jews, various Europeans and the Hispanics, has been one of taking multiple generations to migrate from a ghetto to an existence within the mainstream of American life. Even among Indians, it isn’t until the second generation that you start to see  people stepping into political participation, even at fairly limited, local, levels.

But my friend and I have skipped this step seemingly within a fraction of a lifetime, leave alone across two generations. We are not running for office (yet), but we participate in debates and activities that relate to issues that matter now and right here, to the lives of a broad cross section of American society. To many Americans, especially in California, where we live, which is an immigrant nation within an immigrant nation, no story could possibly be more inspiring.

To think that we would dedicate any part of our skills and life energies to the broader community, rather than, as immigrants tend to do, to the narrower concerns of our own kinsmen, cannot be perceived by those who know you as anything less than a gift. And the grace and humility with which we approach your contributions cannot but help touch hearts around you. Yes, there isn’t much humility in these perceptions that I am laying in front of you, dear Reader, but I know that there is nothing self-aggrandizing in how my friend and I offer our services and social energies to the communities we live in, without being motivated by a desire to find comfort in parochial ties and environs. It’s another post which will examine what the distancing from one’s own community might mean, whether there’s an element of self-hatred, and whether it’s merely exploratory and adventure-seeking behavior that will play itself out in a few more years. What matters right now in understanding who we are as immigrants, and in understanding what the potential of what American society offers to people like us, is accepting the particularly special nature of our relationship.