Monday, November 22, 2010

Why Do They Come?

I've been trying for several months to form the bits and pieces of a few immigrants' personal stories that I know into a suitable and comprehensible narrative. I don't want to insult them or criticize them nor expose their identities. I have a deep respect for all of the immigrants I personally know and for the small part of their stories that I know. I count all of them among my good friends. But, why did they come to America?

I suspect that what they think of America now, and what they thought of America before they came has changed. I suspect that America is not quite what they thought it was. On Friday, ABC World News ended it's week in China and the image of China that ABC presented was very impressive. High speed, 250 miles per hour Bullet Trains with nearly 6,000 miles of track to major cities in China from border to border, modern buildings that are constructed at astonishing speed, modern highways with more miles added daily, its break-neck pace developing pollution-free vehicles for a billion people and on and on. But, the thing that impressed me most were the opinions of the Chinese, from the grade-school students of ten or eleven years old to the adults, about America and what their hopes were for America and China. They thought America was "technologically advanced," "a great country," "greater than China," "more advanced than China," and a "rich country." They hoped "China and America could be friends," that "we could work together," and more similar expressions. These are the reasons they come and the dreams they have, but, it's more complicated than that.

Before your mind wanders to the things we should fear of China, both imagined and real, know that this story isn't about China or our fears. So, drop it. I can write about that some other time. In fact, this story isn't about China; it's about dreams and, of course, courage. If you haven't thought of it, however, please notice the huge disparity between what the Chinese think and the reality. We don't have 6,000 miles of high-speed rail track or a single high-speed train. In fact, we don't have one mile of high-speed track. We can't build new modern buildings in a few weeks. We're not nearly prepared to provide pollution-free vehicles to a billion people. We don't have an education system that provides college degrees to more people than there are jobs. We are ranked below China and about thirty-five other countries in critical education subjects. In fact and in reality, America is a completely different country than the image in the Chinese minds. Can we say that any of those opinions we heard are true or accurate? No.

Yet, that's the image of America, not only in China, but also for the majority of people in Europe, Africa, India, Mexico and most parts of the world. I suspect that the people of the Middle-East, the Muslim countries, on the whole, have a different image because we've shown a side of America to them that the rest of the world hasn't experienced, except perhaps Vietnam. To those, we've shown war, fear and destruction for the most part, overwhelming an image of generosity, friendship, scientific achievement and knowledge. In those countries our army does the talking and a louder voice, a more familiar voice to those who live there, comes from their culture, our foes and, in some cases, our fickle diplomatic friends such as Karzai. There are only a few who hold a good opinion of America in the Middle-East.

But, they come in spite of the huge obstacles that face them;  fear, I believe, being the first obstacle. Imagine leaving your home country, where all of the things are familiar, your parents, all of your friends and perhaps, for a short period, your wife or husband to strike out in to a completely unknown country based solely on an image and a dream. I find that mind boggling. Well, I left home too, and I lived in Japan for a total of twelve years among its citizens, but I wasn't far from my safety net, the U.S. Navy. So, it's not the same. Take the typical path an immigrant from India has to take. First, an A-1 college education is critical, usually in a science and highly technical, that they obtain in India where colleges provide an education just as good if not better than ours. Second is to connect with a U.S. contractor who will "sponsor" the immigrant's H-1 visa application, guaranteeing employment, usually at such low wages that the person cannot bring a spouse. These contract jobs are located in low-income areas of the states; i.e., Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky or Mississippi. It costs less to live, yet his wages are still too low to bring his wife. He lives in the cheapest studio apartment he can find. Meanwhile, the wife waits at her parent's home, under financial duress, without enough money for more than one 15-minute phone call a month. The contract work lasts around three years at which time the immigrant is "released" from his contract obligation and "allowed" to find another job if he so desires. Finally, he finds a better paying job that pays a salary comparable to an American worker in his field. He saves. He finally sends for his wife, and later his and/or her parents, if they want. They can also begin having children, growing a family because they can finally afford it. The wife is just as educated as the husband. Both work at jobs that pay good salaries. It's only a matter of time and saving before they have their own home and living, finally, reasonably well.

I know several Indian immigrants whose stories are probably similar to the story above. They come in all shapes and sizes with various beliefs and cultural influence, and have various temperament and personalities, but one thing is true of all of them; they are brilliant at what they do. And, they are all generous, kind, friendly and have a love of life and a work ethics that puts many of us to shame. I'm always reminded of the Intel commercial in which the Indian Electrical Engineer, the "Father of the Pentium" Intel processor, walks through a room crowded with his fans and the narrator says, "Our rock stars are not like your rock stars." I guess you could look at only the commercial aspect of the ad, but think about the contribution he made to America and world. When I think about the contribution to America that all of my Indian immigrant friends have made I think of these: I couldn't get a prescription at Kaiser as fast it now takes, only minutes, if a husband of a friend had not designed Kaiser's Pharmaceutical system to be that fast. I couldn't make a safe bank transaction or stock transaction or send an instant email over the Internet at lightning speed if a friend of my friend had not engineered a Cisco router to handle gigabytes of data in nano-seconds. I couldn't use a high speed 4 gigahertz computer if that Indian Electrical Engineer had not designed that Pentium processor. Last, but not least, I would never have learned as much about software programming and the mysteries behind computer systems and processes had it not been for these brilliant immigrants. It's been an interesting magical mystery tour.

You and I have likely used or touched a software application or website or made an Internet transaction that my friends created. We are not so far removed from one another. They are probably Hindu, not Christian. They may be Buddhist or perhaps Muslim. But, I haven't noticed any significant difference in values. I know for a fact they are not extremists or terrorists. And, in spite of the differences between that dream they may have once had and the reality of America, they still love America. I'm glad they came.

Then there is a different circumstance for a young Irishman who, at the age of twenty-one in 1993, decided to visit America with three friends after they graduated from a Dublin university. It was intended to be just a summer visit, not a lifetime. But, I wonder whether he already knew or hoped that he would stay longer than the summer. There is a clue, later, that suggests that he did not intend to return to Ireland. There is also evidence that he kept his plans secret from his parents. The plan, they said, was to go to Kansas City, because it was the center of the country. Imagine that! Of all of the places a group of Irish students would choose, I would never have thought Kansas City would be one of them.

But, he (who I will call Mike - not his real name) and one other came first to New York, the other two to come a week later after they graduated. Mike and his friend attended a week-long "indoctrination" at Columbia University and found themselves at the street curb outside the university, one inside the cab and Mike seconds away from getting in it, when they suddenly had a moment of indecision. One said suddenly, "I'm going to Boston. That's where all Irish go. That's where we can find Irish friends." I can imagine that he was afraid of the unknown and wanted familiar people around him. But, Mike promised. Kansas City was where they were supposed to meet. What would the two following think? Mike closed the cab door and it drove away toward Grand Central Station and a train to Boston. Mike took a second cab to LaGaurdia Airport for a flight to Kansas City and into the unknown. After all, he promised.

All that Mike knew at that point was that he might, I say "might," be able to stay with friend of a friend for a few nights, perhaps long enough to get more permanent lodging. The plane landed in Kansas City and Mike called the friend, once removed, cold-turkey and asked him if he could stay a few nights. Imagine getting a phone call from a guy you didn't know from Adam wanting to use your spare bedroom for a few nights! What gall! What audacity! What absurdity! What courage! They gave him a place to sleep for a few days.

Mike found other lodging, his two friends arrived, he met a local Irishman who apparently ran a small organization that helped new Irish immigrants find their way around Kansas City, he found a job busing or waiting on tables in a restaurant around the river-front area and, to take the edge off of his loneliness and natural needs, he hooked up. That is probably a good, concise summary of his summer in Kansas City. It probably wasn't easy, but it was likely fun. Kansas City's river-front district is a lively place, an area around 8th and 12th Streets and Grand and Baltimore Boulevards, similar in some ways to San Antonio's river-side restaurants and bars. A place where a young and active person could have fun. I suspect he had a few extra dollars, but not much. He would have been conservative, I believe. The surprising clue to his intent, that I learned at this point in his story, was that "my working visa was approved" he said. A working visa?

He returned to Ireland to get his new visa and then came back to Kansas City. At this point, there is no doubt that Mike intended to leave Ireland. I've heard a number of hints over the years that indicate how his decision was made. One time he said, "I just up and left. I told my parents we were on a 'guided tour'," or words to that effect. Another time, more recently, after marriage and as a father of two young sons, he said something like, "can you imagine just up and leaving like that? I hope my children don't do that!" Age, responsibility, love changes a person's perspective. He now understands the impact of his youthful impulsiveness on his parents.

I can't help but think about what, if anything, pushed him toward leaving his home country and the safety and familiarity of his youth to come to a new country. Was it the dream-like image of a great, technically superior, Silicone Valley America, the conditions in Ireland, the urge for adventure, the Protestant-Catholic violence in Ireland, or an unexplainable combination of things? He had no employer sponsor. He had few friends and contacts. He was essentially alone.

It wasn't long before Mike left Kansas City with his girlfriend and they made their way to Tahoe, Nevada. In Tahoe, he got a job at a casino hotel at the check-in/out, reception counter. I probably saw him there! Back in those days, I regularly went to Tahoe four or five times a year. But, if I had known him then, I would have been able to tell you that being a hotel concierge was not Mike's cup of tea, and, in Tahoe, there's not much opportunity for anything else. It didn't take long before Mike, restless and disenchanted with Tahoe, was on the move again, this time to Reno, where he finally landed a job more suitable to his education, although only barely, which I understand to be sort of a dispatcher-computer operator-trouble shooter-clerk/analyst for a trucking company or a delivery company, a one-man shop. I'm sure he had doubts and fears too. I understand that during his Tahoe-Reno period, he found himself alone on a bus returning to Kansas City only to turn around and return to Tahoe. Maybe there was a disagreement in his relationship. Maybe frustration in the moment, of losing sight of a future of better times, or simply homesickness, that caused moments of doubt. If you've ever been away from home, alone in an unknown place, then you know the feeling.

Whatever the case, Mike eventually severed his personal relationship and sometime later met his future wife in Reno. But, Reno too is a casino town, not a center of business. There was not an opportunity to grow in Reno, at least not enough to suit Mike. He move to San Francisco. I can hear him tell it, "just up and moved." I was surprised to learn that he moved before he had a job. Personally, I've never tried moving before I had a job in the vicinity I was moving to. I don't have that much faith. But, Mike did and soon he had a software engineer job in the area noted for software development, the Silicone Valley and surrounding cities. Every business in the Bay Area was in the "dot-com" business in the 1990s. It was a booming business with boom-town like qualities. Ironically, in a year or so, Mike's next job was with a software company based out of the Puget Sound/Seattle area as a Bay Area software systems/installation consultant. Once in his field of study, he advanced from simple programming to installing and customizing complete customer relations systems for an entire company. That's a big jump.

It wasn't long when one of his client companies noticed him and offered him a supervisory job on the spot. It was inevitable. And, in a few years, and about twelve years after leaving his Irish home, Mike moved into a near office as department director, a position held by his predecessor as a Vice President position. I've never understood why the position was downgraded, but Mike will go on to company vice president and president positions, or perhaps his own company, if he wants that. Meanwhile, he has a lovely family, two homes and a great future. It seems to me, even though the truth is likely a lot different than the dream he had, that it was all worth it. And, Mike too has contributed to America. You may be using or touching his systems, his changes and the results of his efforts when you buy from or contact or deal with companies. I hope that those companies serve you better because of Mike's efforts. He was excited and proud the day he went for his naturalization exam and oath. He was excited when he returned, "I did it!" he said. Well, of course he did it. What else would I have expected! I was happy for him.

You might say that these immigrants are different. They're highly educated and needed and they are documented. Well, that's true. But the dream is the same, the image is the same and the courage is the same. I'm reminded of Jose who takes care of my lawn twice a month. He's been here for a long time and probably gained his citizenship through President Reagan's amnesty program. His son, a citizen by birth, is a store owner in Hayward and and a graduate of California Hayward University. He provides jobs, supports the Hayward economy and pays state and federal taxes.

So, I suppose we can be hurtful, hateful, afraid and prejudiced, but it is our loss. We need enlightened immigration laws. This is a great country, made all the greater because they come.


No comments: