Someone who is dead now once asked my mom, “Why do they even want to come here?” “Here” meant America, and “they” meant immigrants, specifically Mexican immigrants.
The answer is simple, and is our introduction to the game. Why do people come to America?
You can answer this by adding any of America’s usual litany of suffixes. America: land of the free. America: home of the brave. America: land of equal opportunity. America isn’t a country, it’s a promise, a dream—a place of hope and of opportunity, where anything is possible. Why wouldn’t people come to America?
Round 1 of the game is all about establishment. It should be stated right off the bat that no individual or family plays the same game, nor do they have the same struggles or advance at the same rate. It all depends on their individual skills, their backgrounds, their English, their past education, where they ended up in the States, if they already had friends or family here, etc.
For me, Round 1 was fought by my grandparents. My mom’s dad came from Mexico as a small child, and met my grandma (who was born here) somewhere along the way. My dad’s parents both came from the Philippines, also meeting in the States. They rooted down in San Francisco, a city ripe with diversity. Today they can be found in Pacifica, helping out with their daughter’s (my aunt’s) candy shop and taking care of their three grandchildren (my cousins). My mom’s parents were in LA until two years ago, when they moved up to Washington state.
Establishment means that the people who come here must remain here and grow roots. This gets tricky, fast. Immigrants who come to this country face a workforce that automatically relegates them to the jobs with the lowest wages, despite their past occupations or experience. They are exploited for their labor in some of the nation’s the most corrupt pay structures and inhumane working conditions. Besides this, they are met with profound nativist sentiments, epitomized by the phrase, “Go back to your country.”
Three things on this.
- Besides the Native Americans, everyone in this country comes from a different one. Our nation is one made up of immigrants, and we shouldn’t expect anyone to “go back to where they came from.”
- Some who come to this country aren’t simply immigrants, but also refugees, fleeing somewhere out of fear for their lives and safety. Thus they cannot in fact return to their previous homes.
- “Go back to your country” belies a complete disregard for the perspectives and reasons of those who come to this country. The phrase challenges immigrants’ autonomy, belittles their motives, and assumes that uprooting their entire lives and permanently moving is a trivial endeavor.
Despite these three things, the invitation to leave may be enticing. Any number of factors are valid reasons to leave the States, some of which are mentioned previously. Home countries are familiar, and in general people tend towards the familiar, even when it’s at odds with the favorable. Home countries are filled with people who look like you and speak your language; you aren’t an outsider, you’re not irrationally feared, and for all intents and purposes you’re seen and understood as just a normal human being.
However, immigrants are some of the toughest and most resilient people you’ll ever meet, and they aren’t ones to quit, even if they have the option. No, while Americans espouse all of the many promises of their country, the immigrants are hard at work enduring all of the unmentioned oppressions and injustices in order to obtain those promises. To make up for their lost home communities, they form diaspora communities, sticking together and sharing opportunities. They learn the rules of the capitalist game and how to maximize income and profits in an American company. They learn how to become full-fledged, law-abiding, and participatory citizens. They have children and send them to American schools, where they learn more about America than their parents can teach them. It’s indisputable, inevitable, irrefutable: immigrants stay. And thus concludes Round 1.
Round 2 of the game is about assimilation. It’s about learning all the ways American culture is different from your parents’ culture, and often having to choose which one you value more. In different ways, this means choosing between culture and opportunity, belonging or a future, community or financial well-being. This is the round in which the game is about stretching yourself between two irreconcilably different worlds (and it should be noted that this difference is intentional and systematic), both of which you need, and neither of which you can have fully.
Again, no family or individual plays the game the same way, but typically the players of Round 2 are the second generation, the kids of immigrants, many of whom were born in the States and thus are full-fledged American citizens. Round 2 was fought by my parents.
A successful Round 2 finds a “well-adjusted” individual, fully fluent in the norms and standard operating procedures of American life while at the same time proud of their own family’s culture and heritage. Success is navigating two separate and overlapping places called “family” and “society,” letting neither leak over to reveal hints of itself to the other. It’s finding out how to play the American game better than your parents, because they could only help you so far. It’s inventing new strategies, paving new roads, seizing new opportunities. It’s leaving your family behind.
Round 2 is about hearing the words, “Go back to your country,” and responding, “What, you mean my parents’ country? I never belonged there; I was born here,” yet not knowing how to belong here. It’s leaving your household each day as a child with a confused understanding of what “America” is, of what “American” means, struggling with basic definitions that come naturally to others.
Round 3 is about education. This is where the lines blur and my history gets tricky. Both of my parents went to college, so basically they already took care of rounds 2 and 3 for me. When I say education, I mean a couple distinct things. First, I mean a degree, be it a GED or a BA or a PhD. This is something that gets you somewhere, a piece of paper that says, “I am a competent learner.” Education is a diploma and the paycheck you get because of it.
Second, education is words. Thousands of students across the country go to college still believing that America is a perfect meritocracy. That is, if you work hard and work smart, you can achieve just as much as anyone else, and just as fast. Immigrants have no such delusions. However, they may lack the vocabulary and historical knowledge with which to articulate their viewpoints. Education provides this, along with a plethora of critical thinking skills which enable them to advocate for themselves and convey their perspectives.
The third part of education is what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the receipts.” These receipts are historical, well-evidenced examples of systematic discrimination and oppression of any number of groups throughout American history. These receipts, from redlining to housing segregation to Jim Crow to Japanese Internment to critical race theory, help us to understand the dynamics and the realities of systematic oppression and all the forms of bigotry that have existed and continue to exist in our country.
It should be noted that these receipts and their acquisition aren’t a form of hatred or disrespect towards the nation. Instead, they are perhaps the most important part of our roles as informed and enfranchised citizens, enabling us to look critically at our nation and what can be improved, because there is always, always room for improvement. Amendment, revision, and constant change are woven into our national fabric. We are and should be a nation designed to look intelligently forward towards a “more perfect” future rather than nostalgically backward towards a corrupt yet convenient past.
Specific to the game, the receipts allow us to understand sentiments such as, “Go back to your country,” not as esoteric, contextless outbursts but rather as parts of larger historical trends. Yes, the receipts are often small comfort, but they also enable unique knowledge about vectors to look out for and ways to avoid propagating oppression against others.
Why is there a fourth round? you may ask. After education, it seems like you’ve made it. You’re successful, by the terms of the game. You’ve met your objectives – financial stability, a degree of cushion from oppression, potential for a happy family and a successful career. What could possibly be next?
Round 4 is called memory. Memory is the world after the story, rich with the lessons of the past and the trajectory of the future. You’ll find it from your elders, the people who have lived a little longer than you and have seen more of the world.
I forget what I initially asked my dad, if it was something about money or success or diaspora communities, or if it was anything at all. We were walking through downtown Seattle, from one place to the next, not particularly pressed for time, yet jumping “Walk” signs and weaving through slow tourist groups nonetheless, how my dad taught me to walk through cities. He began to talk about families, about how the generations build off of one another, how each is faced with different sets of challenges that enable the success of each successive generation. He talked about learning the rules and how to play, how to navigate the complex terrains and intricacies of America. “So it’s like a game,” I said. “Yeah, like a game.”
He stressed to me that, for the most part, first, second, or even third-generation immigrants worked not for themselves, but for the next generation, and so on and so forth, each passing a new level of hard-earned progress onto the next person carrying the family name. Thus it’s important to not forget all of the hard work that was done just to get an individual to a certain level of opportunity. Basically, his central thesis to me was, “Don’t blow it.”
Not only is memory important for this reason; it’s also important to ensure we don’t lose empathy and understanding for other, newer immigrant families. I’d argue that the only reason nativism and xenophobia continue to exist in this country is, well, white supremacy, but also the sheer separation that individuals have from their family’s previous struggles as immigrants. Too often, we forget that we are all immigrants, and thus fail to understand individuals who are playing the same game that we play, just working through earlier rounds.