Monday, December 16, 2002

There is something almost sweet about this article from the Washington Post (via aldaily). It purports to tell the story of how Amy Nguyen of Atlanta, daughter of Vietnamese refugees, is being pushed hard by her parents who want her to go to medical school, but ends up giving a nice portrait of just how it is that poor immigrants turn into Americans in a generation or two. It also gives a nice demonstation of how Asian immigrants are moving away from the west coast and into the American heartland (due to the lower cost of housing, and due to business opportunities that exist in parts of the heartland that no longer to on the coast - in short essentially the same reasons why previous generations of immigrants have moved inland.

The situation in which parents from a poor country work extremely hard at relatively menial jobs and drive their children to go to medical school is a very common one. I have seen it in Australia as well as in the US. It's always medical school. This is a high status profession everywhere. Parents understand it, and they understand that it is an option open to their children if they study hard, wheras it would never have been available back in the country they came from, in a way they do not necessarily understand that wider and more amorphous range of opportunities that exist in developed countries today. On the other hand, the thing the parents do understand is that by studying hard, their children can properly enter the middle class. Studying hard is not the only way to succeed, but it is one way, and it is one that is open to you even if you are poor yourself.

Often this sort of pressure works: you end up with serious, intense doctors who are often very good at their jobs technically but sometimes are a little lacking in bedside manner, and have no idea how to have any kind of fun, but they themselves are members of the middle class, and their children end up fairly normal, well adjusted Americans. This takes two generations.

Sometimes, though, you find that parents push children who don't quite have the necessary ability. Sometimes this means that the children are driven to an early nervous breakdown. Sometimes, the relationship between the parents and the children gets a little strained. Sometimes the dream doesn't quite work, but the children turn out okay anyway. (That seems to be how it is going for our Amy. She seems rather well adjusted in the circumstances: a good kid). Sometimes, though, for whatever reason the medical dream doesn't quite work out and the drive ends up going somewhere else, and the child ends up going in some slightly different direction, to the parents' initial disappointment and ultimate amazement. (Isaac Asimov was the child of poor Russian Jews living in Brooklyn, and he was driven by his parents to go to medical school in the 1930s. However, he didn't get accepted due to the combination of an abrasive personality and quotas on Jews in medical schools at the time. Instead he got a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Columbia, and became a science fiction and non-fiction writer, became wealthy, rich, and ultimately famous, and ended up inspiring everybody from Paul Krugman and Newt Gingrich to Master Asahara and (perhaps) Osama bin Laden (Hmm, what is my point here, precisely?).

The thing that comes out of the story, though, is that these people are becoming Americans, and good citizens at that. Many countries are keen on getting foreigners to come and do work that natives don't want to do. Sometimes this is exploitation. But in situations where the children of the immigrants are given citizenship, and are given opportunities to succeed in the same way as are natives, and to be accepted as full members of society, it really isn't. It's a two way thing, and America generally gets this, in a way that many other places don't. (I think Australians generally get this reasonably well, too). Some coutries are less accepting than others. Many countries mix up nationality and ethnic identity. It is much harder to become a German than to become an American, and I think Germany is the poorer for this.

In Australia, the humanitarian component of our immigration program has declined in size in recent years. This saddens me, for simple humanitarian reasons, and also because on past evidence I think that refugees and similar immigrants are often the ones who make the most of the opportunities given them, and who try the hardest to become succesful members of society. In the long run, they and their families seem to me to become many of our best citizens.

And there is this. At a wedding:

Later that night, the reception is held at Happy Valley Seafood Restaurant, a Chinese banquet hall with gold dragons on the red velvety walls. All the Vietnamese wedding receptions are held at Happy Valley because the parents like it. Many of their children would rather be in a hotel ballroom in Buckhead. But it's here on Buford Highway they always come. Amy sits near the entrance, signing in the 370 guests, including her parents.

Happy Valley is jubilant bedlam. Waiters crashing into each other with platters of jellyfish soup and chicken feet. Guests taking to the stage to sing Vietnamese karaoke. Old men clinking Heineken bottles, their hands stamped with tattoos from the reeducation camps.

That's the other nice thing about this story: the actual Vietnamese immigrants themselves, despite lives of long hard work, actually seem to have found better lives for themselves.

No comments:

Blog Archive