I think I’ll share a few personal thoughts on my blog here and there. This post included, obviously.
A recent pleasant exchange on Instagram with a friend from college has me thinking about what it means to be an immigrant or descendant of immigrants in the US. And, of course, we all are descendants of immigrants unless you can claim your ancestors were the Native Americans who lived here before the US was ever even a concept.
I can’t speak for my husband’s family but my ancestors had two vastly different experiences in the US when they arrived.
On my mother’s father’s side it was rather nice actually, I think. When they arrived in the US from England they stayed at the home of a military official in Virginia while they arranged things. Indeed, they bought a thousand acres and built living quarters in a relatively short amount of time after being warmed, fed and probably pleasingly entertained in the home of a prominent man. Aside from the inherent limitations of the 1730’s they had a fairly decent transition to the US it seems. And then they were off and running their successful plantation, etc. without too much trouble. They eventually fought in the Revolutionary War and at some point started a second successful plantation. Anyway, they were very fortunate. But they were and still are the exception to the rule in the US. And by the way, I know all of this about that family because there was a book written about us by one of my mother’s second cousins (maybe second cousin once removed?) after he researched it for about twenty years (securing historical documents, traveling, interviewing all of our relatives, etc., etc.).
Oftentimes when you first arrive here in the US you don’t speak the language well or you have an “undesirable” accent but my English ancestors spoke English with what was likely a “good” accent. Still, my other ancestors all spoke Norwegian. Even though at least some of the Norwegians in my lineage came from fairly well educated “middle class” families in Norway (certainly those on my mother’s side) they certainly weren’t native English speakers by a long shot.
And some of the Norwegians were “young and poor” which is different than just poor of course because it means you’re “starting out” in some way (those on my mother’s side at least)… but there were those who were just flat out poor when they arrived (one family on my father’s side). In that truly poor Norwegian family they had the trials of all of the other Norwegian ancestors who came with a bit more to draw from but with less of a “cushion.” And frankly, the bravery and fortitude of even the “young and poor” Norwegians alone was epic. Really, they all braved a lot…and could have very easily died.
Anyway, my great grand uncle in that genuinely poor family (his sister was my great grandmother) taught himself how to write and read in English and was eventually an editor-in-chief of the largest Norwegian newspaper in the US for many years. And he wrote (and published) quite a few books, one of which was translated into English. In fact he was so truly good and brilliant with his writing and so well recognized that he often was invited to give guest lectures at universities back in Norway on the topic of Norwegian American literature and he was eventually knighted by the King of Norway for his novels and contribution to the understanding of the Norwegian American immigrant experience. He was one of those people who didn’t let the poverty of his childhood keep him entangled and instead he managed to use it to inspire and inform him about the deeper meaning of life.
He was not an ashamed man, I don’t think. Nothing in his life kept him captive. But, he did come from a nurturing and stable family despite their poverty and that does count for almost everything in life regardless of class or immigrant status. And again, he was very gifted and intelligent.
But actually, none of my Norwegian ancestors were ashamed. Truly. But they weren’t hostile or arrogant either. And perhaps that’s the key to making it in the US as an immigrant? You have to keep your head up despite it all. You have to remember who you are as a human being and your healthy, meaningful human connections (like family) aside from being a recent immigrant…
While they did well in the US and mostly all (except for one set of immigrants on my paternal mother’s side) became at least fairly well off in their lifetime (by the 1920’s, 30’s or after) none of my Norwegian ancestors who immigrated would have been considered part of “society” when they first arrived (I don’t think, at least). There was an innate humility to their lives.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about how he had crushes on some of the pretty blond Scandinavian girls in Saint Paul. Those families were likely a part of the same wave from Scandinavia to the Midwest that my ancestors were a part of. He used to drive around an extra block or two on his way home just to see a flash of their hair… But he also states that he never would have considered pursuing his attractions further because none of the Scandinavians had yet raised to the level of social status and prominence he felt he had to be associated with at that time. Of course, he was correct. (that was around the 1910’s or a bit earlier)
Now, my great grand uncle published one of his most famous books in 1915…but…he wasn’t knighted until 1954. And again, the Scandinavians who became part of the upper middle and upper class by at least the middle of the Twentieth Century (or a few decades before) certainly weren’t there yet in the 1910’s… Scandinavians were too new off the boat until a few decades later. (literally)
…But all that to say that it’s important to remember our immigrant history today. And as long as the US continues to be what it was to a reasonably discernible degree…(pause to pray and cross my fingers that we won’t entirely fall apart or the world won’t entirely fall apart)…some of the immigrants of “today” could easily be in a very different place in the world within a few decades or their children will be. That’s an interesting thing to imagine. Isn’t it? Sometimes I wonder if that’s what some naysayers are actually worried about…
Of course, I think what it all boils down to is who we all are on human level. There will always be those who don’t cope well with the American immigrant experience regardless of how welcoming the US was or is. There always have been… And then there are some families or people who manage to do very well and who still will regardless of the current state of things and how hostile it may or may not be for them here… And, I think, love, loyalty, and trust within a family is important but especially when you’re a (newly arrived) immigrant family. Also, wisdom and shrewdness and a realistic but somewhat optimistic perspective coupled with a hope in something innately good outside of your everyday experience and self might be key to “making it” in the US? Very trite but perhaps true?
My great grand uncle would have had a few things to add too (haha). He had a lot of very sharp opinions on what was truly helpful and what was detrimental for new American immigrant communities, families and individual people…
Anyway, when my Norwegian great grandfather on my mother’s side arrived here he was almost tricked and trapped into marrying the farmer’s daughter at a farm where he was working as a hired hand to make enough money to establish his own homestead. The farmer’s daughter thought my great grandfather was a handsome man and wanted to marry him so her father threw my great grandfather’s trunk into a grain bin to hide it and keep him there indefinitely. He had to dig out his trunk and run away with it in the middle of the night to avoid his abusive boss and the daughter.
When my maternal Norwegian great grandmother arrived she was conned by someone promising to help her contact her family to let them know she had arrived safely… She quickly learned to be very careful.
She and my great grandfather (her husband) might not have been seen as terrorists, criminals or spies but they were seen as vulnerable and weak targets. And at times they were profoundly lonely. My great grandfather had to buy a pocket watch from JC Penney to break the silence on his homestead (he eventually started the homestead in 1905) because the quiet was so entirely overwhelming.
And in some cases, as my paternal great grand uncle wrote about, on the Midwestern prairie there were Native American visitors who were friendly and at other times there were Native American visitors who were violent, angry and would kill you. And there were coyotes… And epidemics. And the horrible snowstorms and tornadoes were terrifying (I kid you not, one of my paternal great grandmothers was once thrown by a tornado into a wheat field as a child and miraculously survived)… And I could go on and on with horror stories. But… things went on. And they likely will now too.