I have a story to tell. I am an immigrant. I am many other things too, but that is one of my identities. I came to the U.S. not inspired by the American dream, but because my American husband could not stand another minute of living in the U.K. I chose him and my children over the close family interaction that I left behind. My path to citizenship was relatively easy, as I spoke English and was married to a citizen, but there were times when I felt very aware of my outsider status. One of those times was when I was interviewed by the Immigration Service in Boston some months after I had arrived on the Vineyard. I had arrived in the U.S. as a visitor and was now applying to stay legally, and I remember thinking that the aggressive comments being made to me were intended to be funny, and I smiled, a very bad idea.
My interviewer yelled, “This is not funny, and what is this marriage? Just a marriage of convenience.” Now I no longer felt like laughing. The reason for assuming my marriage was one of convenience was because my husband had not attended the interview with me, and he received a call at the West Tisbury School where he was working and was berated by my irate interviewer. Years later, when I took my citizenship test, I was treated with great courtesy and kindness by my interviewer. Like every other group of people, not all interviewers are the same.
There were other times when my cultural misunderstandings were funny, like when I thought that the U.S. mailboxes outside the Post Offices were rubbish containers, and I posted all my candy wrappers in the one outside Alley’s store. I particularly recall the use of the word “really,” which has a very sarcastic connotation in the U.K. and Ireland, but here denotes interest. I remember wondering why people answered me sarcastically, and it took a few years to realize that they were not. One of my first impressions of the U.S. was that everyone I saw seemed to take a lot of medicine bought over the counter, and I found that strange. I had always lived in a country where medicine was socialized, and I was unfamiliar with the huge range of medicines available everywhere.
I was often reminded of my father’s comments about “dosing yourself,” a practice of which he did not approve. Another impression was that the supermarkets were huge palaces for the consumption of food, and I realized for the first time that many of the foods I had known in Europe were, in fact, American. I am a history teacher, so I understand what the Marshall Plan, whereby aid was given to Europe in the austere years after WW II, was, but I realized what it meant when I saw all the food I had never realized was from the U.S. on sale. I had grown up with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Shredded Wheat, never knowing that they were from the U.S. Everything I had known was on sale here, but in bigger sizes than I had ever seen.
My sense is that the culture is much more competitive here than in Europe, but the sense of possibility embedded in the American dream is a reality. Ambition is admired in this environment, as is independence. The culture in which I grew up believed in community, and defined itself by a sense of history and place, and compassion rather than ambition. The U.S. provided opportunities that would not be available in Europe, but it was hard to adjust to the idea that the individual was more important than the group. In Ireland they often say “only in America,” and that reflects the opportunities for the individual that exist here.
It is interesting to talk to other immigrants about their experience, and what I have learned is that the experience is usually felt to be very positive. A friend from Brazil noted, “I love it in America. I work hard and I make money, and have been able to buy two trucks. In Brazil, it is corrupt and I would have no chance. America has been good to me.”
For the people who emigrated to the U.S. as children, it is a more difficult experience because they immediately interact with the new culture, and have to learn a language and a way to understand the differences they encounter. A former student spoke to me of attending school when she arrived from Brazil. “I was so afraid the first day I went to school. I was a big girl of 12 holding my mother’s hand and not understanding anything that anyone said. I missed my home and my grandparents, who had always looked after me. It was hard.”
Another young man spoke of attending school after he arrived from Brazil: “They were saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and I didn’t have a lick of English, so I joined in repeating what I thought they were saying, and everyone was looking at me like I was crazy.”
It is very impressive how those young people learn the language and the culture and become the intermediaries between the world of officialdom and their parents, who have not been educated about the U.S. and its values.
A friend from the U.K. speaks of the U.S. as the land of opportunity. “I have made a good living here, and been able to live a life that would have been impossible at home. I would never want to leave the U.S.”
An Irish artist feels the same: “I love it here. I can live my life on my terms, the way I want to. I can be an artist here and be proud of that. Here in the U.S. you have a chance.”
We gain much from being part of the United States, the world’s greatest experiment in multicultural living. The people who have come here have been proud of the history of their people, and embrace the American dream. The flags of Portugal, Israel, Ireland, and Brazil fly next to the U.S. flag at cultural centers, restaurants, and private houses all over the Vineyard. We bring our own cultures, and learn to meld those with the dominant culture.
The Chinese food eaten in the U.S. does not bear much resemblance to the food eaten in China, but it is inspired by immigrants from China who learned to fry it to appeal to a wider audience.
The Irish do not eat corned beef and cabbage in Ireland, but in the U.S. it is the staple diet on St. Patrick’s Day, to honor the Irish experience. In Ireland the national dish known locally in County Mayo as the “feed” is a boiled bacon joint with cabbage. The cuts of bacon needed for that are not available in the U.S., and so corned beef and cabbage is an approximation of the Irish dish.
On the Vineyard we enjoy Brazilian food, and get to know our neighbors through the sharing of food. We build community through a sharing of what we know and an appreciation of what others know. I learned about the U.S. through my career as a teacher. My students taught me a great deal. From them, I learned what ice fishing was, and how important it was in the Island culture. I learned family histories and how to greet a person in Portuguese, and the daily interactions of U.S. culture were explained to me with tenderness. As part of my education, I attended hockey, football, and soccer games, and I am forever grateful to my teachers.