By Todd R. Nelson
It’s a commonplace statement: “We are a nation of immigrants,” each with a family story arc originating elsewhere. Many are several generations away from their actual immigrant experience; some of us new arrivals. We forget how to embrace the strength in that history. After all, just what is an American? A former colleague suggested that American history can be told through two ports of entry: Ellis Island and Angel Island … and the slave ships.
Even schoolchildren will investigate with vigor and clarity. I recommend Margy Burns Knight’s “Who Belongs Here?” the story of a young Cambodian boy refugee. Or, Katherine Applegate’s “Home of the Brave,” about a Sudanese refugee boy named Kek in Minnesota. And Allen Say’s “Grandfather’s Journey.” They are timely, American stories.
Which is to say we shouldn’t stray from the stories every family tells of how we belong here. “Who Am I?” I once asked my students, before presenting these facts.
I was born in Tokyo; my father in North Tonawanda; my mother in Pittsburgh. My great-great grandparents came from Germany and from Glasgow, Scotland. My German great-great grandfather sold flour from a wheelbarrow in Pittsburgh. They all arrived in America by ship in the late 19th century. My other great-great grandparents were already in Moose River, Maine. After the Civil War, they went to Nebraska in a covered wagon. Their ancestors had arrived almost 400 years ago, from England.
My wife was born in London. Her ancestors came from Russia, and from Holland — the Van Valkenburghs, almost 400 years ago. The Russian family name was erased at Ellis Island. They became “Brody,” their town in Ukraine. There would certainly be cousins back in the old country — but for the Holocaust. When they arrived in 1888, David and Anna Brody lived in a tenement on the lower east side of Manhattan, near where the Dutch ancestors had grazed cows. My sister-in-law is English; my brother-in-law is French; my son-in-law Costa Rican. No one in our families speaks the languages of our ancestors any longer. My daughter returned to one of our “old countries” for college. I wonder if she felt like she belonged in Glasgow?
Consider this American story:
My father came from Kenya, Africa. He herded goats as a boy, then won a scholarship to school. My mother came from Kansas. My parents met in Hawaii. I grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii and went to college in California, New York and Massachusetts. My mother’s family includes abolitionists and Revolutionary War veterans. My Kenyan grandmother just got electricity in her house. I have a half-sister who is Indonesian, a brother-in-law who is Chinese-Canadian. My relatives are Christian, Muslim and Jewish. In my extended family, we speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina low country.
“My wife’s ancestors also came to this country from Africa — as slaves. They lived in South Carolina and Alabama, and eventually moved to Chicago. Her grandfather was a World War II veteran. One of my children has a Swahili name. We live in Washington, D.C. Who am I? Former President Obama.
In “The Middle of Everywhere,” Mary Pipher talks about the difficulty of being an immigrant. The smallest details of the daily life we take for granted can be formidable obstacles to finding your way, to belonging, to making a home. Consider a few: using escalators, crossing streets with traffic lights, understanding signs and signals, how to bake a frozen pizza, deal with telephone solicitors, overdue library books, job interviews, asparagus and rhubarb, dry cleaning … the meaning of “homesick.” What are stairs for? How do you drink from a water fountain? From the sublime to the ridiculous. My ridiculous might be your sublime. Kek has never seen snow, which is “like claws on [his] skin.” He misses his cattle back home. Will he ever feel like he belongs here? I hope so — just as my ancestors did.
Kek says, “Things are very different here.” A new immigrant needs “cultural brokers,” and the most important cultural brokers are schoolteachers, Pipher writes. “Schools are the frontline institution for acculturation, where children receive solid information about their new world.” Teachers antidote harsh ads and tweets that claw the skin.
Insofar as all children are emigrating to adulthood and civic engagement, they need to prize their own ancestor stories. This informs a willingness to help others write their stories. Any child must learn to navigate perplexing institutions and social conventions, language barriers; literal and figurative road signs that orient them, slow them down and warn of upcoming hazards. What are those stares for? What’s wrong with “foreign”? Yes, what is an American? Why do I belong and you don’t?
Todd R. Nelson is a retired educator in Penobscot.