Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
Late Summer of 1996, a tired lemon laden with starving grad students was trundling from Ithaca to New York City. There were five inside, three men at the back, yours truly included, and two women up front. All but the driver were foreign students at Cornell, and each was very thankful for the exceedingly generous offer of a ride for the shared cost of gas, only.
That was before she started apologizing.
I remember waking up to a cacophony of voices. One of which, the driver was accepting blame for everything, real and imagined, her people – the West, Europe, US – had done to the world and continued to do in her rendering of events. Others in the car were at pains explaining that reality was much different, a claim vindicated by their presence in the country despite everything they had to do to get there. Towards the very end, after almost five hours of self-flagellation, she turned against us. As privileged students in an Ivy, she opined, we had forgotten our brothers and sisters back home and that we were beholden to the glitter of a good life that was hollow when viewed against the richness of experiences we’d left behind.
That was the time I decided to write an Immigrant’s Manifesto someday. My thoughts in these Op-eds are colored by my experiences – “A Foreign Hand” is what I call myself. It is fun to review headline issues from an outside-inside perspective, and, for me, they serve as the first draft of chapters of the Manifesto I wanted to write. Past few years have also highlighted how poorly the majority of immigrants are understood, sometimes by choice but mostly with good intentions. Time for an intervention.
Two issues hog an immigrant’s worldview – identity and opportunity. In these pages (Beware the Ides of Identity) I have argued that a person’s identity is a curated set of history, stories, attributes and chronologies. A person does not have carte blanche on defining the set, but she definitely owns most of it. Moreover, a person can have multiple identities, and she has the final say as to which identity she brings to play at any particular moment. I have also argued (Who’s Afraid of the American Dream?) that the idea of pursuit of happiness (nee opportunity) remains the same today as ever in history for this country. Opportunity is a two-way street; if the US did not open up immigration as it did in 1965, the current GDP would have been no more than today’s China – a fact the “Americans First” crowd need to live with without rancor, if not embrace wholeheartedly.
What confuses most observers is a third dimension is especially true for immigrants in the US – a lack of rancor. Recently a mechanic I know of Armenian origin referred to a Turkish tow-truck driver as his brother from another mother, both lost forefathers in disputes filled with vitriol and bloodshed. In NYC at a particularly low point of my life I was given free room by a professor whose father happened to be a senior Pakistani diplomat known widely for caustic diatribes against India at the United Nations. I know of a Palestinian man from the West Bank who married a Jewish woman from Israel after meeting her in the States, the woman served in military intelligence for a couple of years. There are stories of Iraqi / Syrian / Afghan youngsters dreaming of making a life in the US after (possibly US-made) bombs just upended their lives in conflicts that served US interests more than theirs. Within communities, you will see sectarian differences more easily overlooked than they’d be back in home countries. [There are counterexamples of how domestic politics sometimes incite US residents, but I’ll leave it for another day]. The list goes on.
COVID times highlighted a fourth dimension – the absolute longing for normalcy, even if normalcy was never a walk in the park. Pandemic lockdown saw an unprecedented surge in home remodeling, presumably because now people are forced to spend more hours, especially working hours, at home, thereby bringing a desire for comfort. The biggest beneficiary, at least in SoCal, have been the immigrant communities who saw demand for their expertise hit the roof. Long before there was any vaccine I could not but notice a certain acceptance of the possible disease from working in conditions where prevailing guidelines were difficult, if not totally unrealistic, to observe. Disease and two weeks of loss of wages is an acceptable tradeoff if they could earn wages in rest of the weeks. I have heard that refrain time and again amongst tradesmen (and women) of all sorts – roofers, plumbers, truckers, janitors. It is not that they had easy jobs but they had dignity of earning a living wage through their labor – that was normalcy they needed more than anything else, especially more than an escape from a pandemic that was impossible to begin with.
Trump Presidency has brought forth a fifth dimension – a certain nonchalance to spoken words. Trump’s vitriol against selected members of the immigrant community is a matter of public record, so it was a surprise that 2020 election saw his vote share increase in precisely the same communities. Some tried to explain it by pointing out that vitriols were not against citizens who can vote. That is a wrong takeaway because most recent citizens have non-citizens in their families, not to mention dozens at a stone’s throw from their homes, places of worship and community gathering. What you saw was more fundamental – a distrust that non-immigrants are truly as embracing in their deepest private existence; I have seen this distrust especially amongst people outside of cloistered academic existence. It is nearly impossible to shake that off in the generation that lands here, subsequent generations fare better. What immigrants are asking for a fair shake – a chance to use whatever tools and trades they have for a living wage, safety in their workplace and homes, and a chance for their kids to learn English and quality education. We really do not care what you think of us in private if you do not deny us opportunities, safety and freedom to pursue our dreams.
I am not puzzled by these dimensions and neither will you be if you remembered what brought immigrants here in the first place. Their presence is a matter of personal choice defined by opportunities, and the US is still a country where opportunism is not sneered in opprobrium. You do not have to be Musk/Page/Pichai to embody this spirit, a fifty-year-old cleaner with little English but two college graduate children embodies the spirit far better. You will confuse her if explain “intersectionality” of interests, she’ll never accept somebody else understands her interests as well as she does. You will deny her month’s compensation if you insist she cannot visit your home for weeks after you have survived COVID, and she will not be happy. You will make her daily routine more miserable – she does not drive and insists on walking miles to your home from a train / bus stop – if you block her route with protests ostensibly for her interests. She feels the burden of her privilege to stay here, unnoticed but unencumbered, free to go about work and little pleasures of life and she will cling to the life she earned for herself, even in the shadows, in preference to whatever she left behind. She probably held people of the different provinces in contempt back home, but such trivialities are of no consequence here, particularly when she sees others facing the same obstacle course with the same burden on their back. She does not need you to be her friend, she will choose her circles, but she does need you to pay a fair wage and not deny her the opportunities.
What has been going on in cloistered academic circles is a shameful attempt at imposition by people who either grew up in comfort or are in the midst of a settled existence with little downside or excitement, no matter where they come from originally. More than anything else, it confuses, worries and infuriates the immigrants the most. We are here and we are here to stay for your benefit and for ours. We are here to be viewed on our terms, in our own faculties even if it is not always in our favor, and never without risk. An immigrant is a strange creature but the trait that defines them more than anything else is their embrace of uncertainty for the hope of a better life. The first step in understanding them is to accept that at face value. If it makes easier for us to accept or reject certain traits of our previous lives, we will do that in a heartbeat – that is why the craving for normalcy, their lack of rancor, and, preference for hard work for a living wage without harassment and without security issues over spoken words of solidarity. If certain attributes have no bearing to their economics, they will cling to the ways of the old – religion being the top on the list.
We like just the way we are, no matter what you say. And nobody can make us believe otherwise.
[Photo Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/]