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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

The Good Immigrant

I recently listened to a podcast on NPR entitled, “The Good Immigrant.” The reporter told a story of a Syrian family of refugees who thought they were being welcomed to their new home in Texas when a neighbor’s daughter brought them a bag of skittles, only to find out that this was most certainly not a gesture of goodwill. Donald Trump was running for president at the time, and his son, Donald Trump Jr., had just comparted Syrian refugees to Skittles: “If I had a bowl of Skittles, and I told you only three of them would kill you,” Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter, “would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

Immigrants interviewed on the podcast spoke about their different experiences in coming to America and how they felt they were perceived and treated based on assumptions Americans made about them based on their appearance, dress, and speech. The Syrian woman who shared the Skittles story said her family kept “trying to prove we are normal” which felt to her like “trying to prove we are human.”

As an immigrant myself, I am always curious about other’s immigrants’ stories. I was quite young when my parents left the Netherlands to begin their new life in California, and as a Caucasian who learned to speak English early and without an accent, I seemed to assimilate quickly and easily into this new culture. In other words, I looked and sounded like my new neighbors. Like most immigrants, however, my parents held onto the ways that felt comfortable to them from their homeland, seeking comfort in familiar traditions and foods. Europeans do not bathe as religiously as Americans. My nickname in kindergarden was “stinkpot.” I felt the shame but not the power to do anything about my greasy hair and body odor. I was teased about my lunches, as I brought food my Dutch friends would have found familiar but my new American friends found weird, like hagelslag (literally chocolate sprinkles on buttered bread – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!) I felt the “otherness” of my family when my parents mis-pronounced words or mis-used phrases (like the time my mother announced to the girls in my car pool that the clouds that morning “really turned her on”) or failed to grasp holidays like Halloween (when my father stood guard outside the house with a garden hose which he turned on all of costumed children suddenly descending on our house on the evening of October 31).

This sense of being “other” was one of the things that drew me to my now husband, who emigrated from South Korea at the age of 10. He did not have the same early advantage of looking and sounding like his new neighbors as I did, particularly in the small coastal farming town in Oregon where his family settled and where he regularly had fist fights with the children at school who mercilessly teased him and his younger brothers about their accents, clothing and mannerisms. When we met in college we resonated with each other’s stories about being embarrassed by well-meaning parents who always seemed to wear or say the wrong thing, or the misunderstandings about things seemingly sacred to Americans (hot dogs, which to this day I find revolting; the pledge of Allegiance, right hand over the heart? Left hand? Friday night football – ok, I did try to embrace this when I briefly dated a football player in high school but the rules seemed unnecessarily complicated to me. The best part of the Super Bowl remains the commercials. Especially the Clydesdales). There was a camaraderie in the shared experiences of the cultural clashes of our childhoods.

When we married after college, long time family friends declined to attend our wedding because we were a mixed race couple. We had our first baby in California, where being mixed race was the norm rather than the exception. After moving to Indiana the first year of our daughter’s life, we became the exception. Our new neighbors saw me pushing her in the stroller and asked me, “How long have you had your daughter?” In the confusion that followed the question I realized they assumed she was adopted. It happened regularly in that small mid-western town. When my brother-in-law came to live with us even close friends mis-took him for my husband. I wondered if all Koreans looked alike to them (I did not mistake him for my husband. Ever.)

After five years in Indiana, where we made some delightful friends and yet continued to feel like we had landed on Mars, I basically told my husband, “You need to get us out of here. Now.” He arranged for a transfer to Texas with his company. I had never been to Texas, but I figured it couldn’t be a lonelier experience than Indiana. So with our three young children in tow, we boarded a plane from the Mid West to the South West. Texas, we found, had a culture completely of its own. Since it had briefly achieved the status of being a bona fide country in its own right, the Texas flag could be flown at the same height as the American flag, and it was, pretty much everywhere. We were greeted with cowboy hats, boots and bumper stickers that read, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.”

After several years in Texas, my husband’s company transferred him yet again, this time to the United Kingdom, where we had the unique experience of being considered American expats with international credibility due to our European and Asian origins and bilingual capacity. I felt at home with the British rhythms of afternoon tea, late dinners, and the more unplugged, relaxed pace of life, which closely resembled the pattern of my childhood. We were a bit of a novelty in our small coastal village in the south of England. When I read Scripture for a service at the church we attended, several parishioners came up to me afterwards and gushed, “We could listen to your accent all day long!” I marveled that they thought I had the accent. We discovered that racism exists everywhere in different forms. My son played soccer for a local team and was pushed down and called a “Paki” during his first game by a player on the opposing team. His teammates bristled for a fight and the referee gave the offender a red card. Parents on the sideline surrounded me with concern and sympathy. I told them I didn’t understand what had happened. “What exactly is a ‘Paki’? Why is everyone so upset?” The referee explained that it was a racial slur which meant my son was from Pakistan. I patiently tried to explain that the offender just got the country wrong: my son is half Korean, not Pakistani. Later, one of the soccer moms told me it would be like using the term “nigger” in the United States. I was amazed to realize my son had been insulted without our understanding in the slightest what had just happened. Like the Skittles incident. We are not welcome here.

Our brains are wired to distrust that which is not familiar. This is a protective mechanism meant to keep us safe from harm, whether that danger comes in the form of poisonous berries or strangers who may be our enemies. Unfortunately that also means we are predisposed to reject the unfamiliar, whether that be foods, customs, behaviors, skin color, or belief systems. It is not our natural disposition to embrace those who are different; we have to work to overcome our natural biases to do so. If we fail to challenge ourselves in this way, however; if we shun or judge or avoid those who look or sound or feel “other” we miss the opportunity to enrich and broaden our lives with the vibrant texture and color of the diversity of our planet while also failing to grasp the inherent truth that we are all connected by our common humanity. The differences between us are superficial while the similarities run deep and wide. All humans require and desire similar resources to both survive and thrive: beyond oxygen, clean water, nourishing food and adequate shelter to the safety of a community of connected relationships where we are seen, heard and held.

Galatians 3:28 reminds us: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you all one in Christ Jesus.” America is a nation founded on immigrants who fled their countries of origin to find the freedom to work and worship in safety. I am an immigrant. Who will decide whether I am a good one?

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