Foreigners as Immigrants under the Skin

Back in the day, probably no country ever was as good at incorporating immigrants and making them feel welcome (or at least not un-welcome) as the US (though Canada or Australia might be contenders and Brazil and Argentina had their moments). Most Americans by birth are generally comfortable with immigrants (or soon become so) and there are informal protocols for helping newer arrivals adapt.

This was reinforced in the media, especially TV where immigrants as upstanding figures or first generation Americans with immigrant parents or immigrants who want to assimilate are all established figures with established tropes.

One downside of this is that Americans tend to view temporary visitors to the US as immigrants and interact with them in largely the same way. I knew a student who worked as a waitress at a US country club over the summer*. Toward the end of her stay the managers told her she “didn’t have to” return to Poland they’d be happy to sponsor her as an immigrant. She thanked them but said she didn’t want to stay in the US and relations got very frosty….

Another downside of all of this is that Americans tend to view all non-Americans as potential immigrants and many see interactions with them at least in part as preparing them for life in the US.

The TV trope of immigrants who are eager to assimilate (from Latka in Taxi, through Balki in Perfect Strangers to Raj in Big Bang Theory) convinces many Americans that many or most non-Americans aspire to American values. The modern age is inundated by popular media and people absorb attitudes and ideas about the world from media far more effectively than from traditional sources.

This is one reason that American foreign policy tends to be so misguided as it often operates under the assumption that the rest of the world is hungering for American values and they tend to force interpretations of what goes on in other countries through this very unhelpful sieve.


*there are a number of companies that facilitate working summer holiday trips to the US

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6 Responses to Foreigners as Immigrants under the Skin

  1. Clarissa says:

    Is there anything dumber than “they envy us our freedoms” when said freedoms is precisely what much of the world abhors?

    • cliff arroyo says:

      Precisely, though I’d probably substitute “values” for freedoms.

      For much of the world, being able to prioritize one’s own self-actualization over traditional social obligations (one of the values behind feminism and gay rights and many other social movements in the US) is not “freedom” it is repugnant decadence at best and immoral betrayal of one’s society at worst. I don’t agree with that view – I’m self-actualization uber alles – but I don’t assume everyone else prioritizes things the same way I do.

  2. Pingback: When Free Means “Like Me” | The Worked Shoot

  3. old summer sandal forgotten in the closet says:

    This attitude seems to contrast with the one expressed here, where I commented.

    Here, it’s the reverse — people assume someone who doesn’t want to “return” is planning to do so.
    I wonder what accounts for this conflicting trope? Is it a generational thing?

    • cliff arroyo says:

      But usually that ‘return’ is a visit and not resettlement, although my experience of the US has only been through media for the last (mumble mumble) years.
      People often ask me here if I’m planning on visiting or returning to the US and are a bit surprised at my indifference to the idea…. I was recently on a working trip in Austria and some there at the meeting asked me the same thing when they found out I’m American – I think it’s largely just a conversation gambit and too much shouldn’t be read into it.

  4. old summer sandal forgotten in the closet says:

    “But usually that ‘return’ is a visit and not resettlement”

    Good point. It seems a lot of Americans (of varying degrees of remove from migrant ancestors, from Irish Americans and Ireland to even African Americans and the “back to Africa” roots-seeking trend) tend to view “visiting the old country/continent” through the frame of “roots tourism”.

    Visiting the old country is seen as a voluntary choice for sentimental, symbolic reasons (e.g. wow, it’s cool to see that rustic village great grandma once milked her cattle in, even kids of relatively recent immigrants act this way, once they’ve fully assimilated on trips “back”). Sometimes I feel the assumption is once you’ve made it in the US, any visits “back” are optional, just for fun etc.

    Not the duty- or obligation-related reasons many temporary migrants or even immigrants who’ve even settled down very well still have for visiting “the old country”, if their link to the old place involves living, breathing, people (e.g. still owe grandma a visit or they’ll guilt trip you, still talk to cousins on WhatsApp on the other side of the ocean about so-and-so getting married etc.).

    It’s also interesting how this frame of reference survives even with situations like working holidays or international students where it’s clear the person in question has just been stateside a year or two, and whose family may not be around them at all.

    I wonder if things are changing in perception at all — perhaps only slowly, if much at all. Probably people are aware that exchange students, people on working holidays etc. might return but I still feel people assume someone in the US residing past a certain amount of years is an immigrant. Maybe someone staying 1 or 2 years at a college dorm still gets asked “if they’ll return” but say even a 10-year-resident on a temporary permit gets the assumption that they’ve decided to stay in the US already (for instance, Americans who have foreign friends they’ve known for several years acting shocked when they realize they’re not in the country any more the last time they check).

    For instance, in some circles, I hear about how the rise of China is luring many Chinese-Americans “back to China”. I don’t know if there is any real evidence for a high number of Chinese Americans (Americans of Chinese descent already born American or naturalized) doing this, or if it’s just conflating the situation with say temporary foreign workers choosing not to naturalize at all, or things like Chinese international students (who used to mostly stay in the US post-graduation) having higher rates of returning post-graduation but because we’re so used to the assumption of staying by contrast this feels like “many people are going back to the old country” narrative. Lots of people choosing not to naturalize can seem like “immigrants giving up and returning home” if you don’t know they never intended to stay to begin with.

    I think also interacting with the “assume foreigners will stay in the US” is the (much newer idea) of avoiding offending people with assumptions of foreign-ness. “Go back to where you came from!” or “Go home! we don’t want you here”, “America, love it or leave it” was (is) such a popular taunt to even American-born people that many people probably have developed a reactive-ness to this attitude so that I wonder if there’s some over-correcting of fearing of offending even a temporary visitor with “when are you going back”? or “are you going back” for fear of sounding unwelcoming or xenophobic.

    I guess that could be one piece of the puzzle (though not likely the whole story). Many Americans (probably especially some who think of themselves as progressive) might treat foreigners as immigrants under the skin precisely as overreaction to others who treat immigrants as unassimilatable foreigners under the skin..

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