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Seeing Immigration through a Subjective Lens
Sitting in a crowded classroom, furiously taking notes, I struggled to process the complexities of American immigration. But when an assignment required me to interview my family members about their immigration experiences, I began to understand the emotional side of this dynamic, large-scale process. I began to feel personally connected to those who came to the United States before me and those who still seek out the "land of the free."
With interview questions in hand, naïvely confident that I already knew my family's history, I asked my mother about her immigration experience. We breezed through the first few questions, my ego growing as I deemed the interview a simple formality to fulfill the assignment's requirements. It was not until I asked, "Why did you move to New York City, and how did you finance the trip?" that her response shattered my apathy and aroused my interest.
I listened intently as my mother revealed that business losses in India drove our family to immigrate. To pay off debts, my father traveled to New York (where he knew a friend) in hopes of earning money. I remember my family as always living together in a small studio apartment in Flushing, so I was surprised to discover that when I was a young child, oceans had divided us for a year.
Knowing this piece of my history helped me understand immigration as a "reaction to the environmental stimuli." I began to see my family's experience in relation to that of other groups, including Jews escaping religious persecution and Italians fleeing a depressed economy. I saw how immigrants have engaged in "a process of progressive network building" by following family and friends abroad in hopes of creating a successful future (Foner 2000, 19).
My mother recalled how she had boarded a jet with little more than the American dream and her two little girls. As the plane left the runway, she assured herself that she would soon return to her country with financial success and a better lifestyle. I had never imagined that my parents had no intentions of settling in America, but instead planned to return to India as soon as it was financially feasible.
Upon arriving in New York, my mother encountered multiple barriers as she searched for employment. Because English was her second language and she lacked work experience, she worked as a waitress in an Indian restaurant. In the restaurant, my mother found herself forced to do more manual labor than her male coworkers and subjected to demeaning treatment. Her experience was not unlike that of earlier immigrants who took jobs that established residents found undesirable.
My mother's situation reminded me of a PBS documentary film on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that my professor, Nancy Foner, had shown my class. The film illuminated the terrible working conditions in the garment workshops of the early 1900s, where accidents and fires were common. The Triangle Factory workers, like my mother, were subjected to long hours with discriminatory pay. They were "not covered by government-mandated provisions," making them vulnerable to exploitation (Foner 2000, 98).
In conditions like these, it is natural for immigrants to feel nostalgic for their homelands. For my mother, this means routinely making phone calls and sending gifts to her family in India. The term "transnational" has been used to describe immigrants like my mother, who "maintain familial, economic, cultural, and political ties across international borders, in effect making the home and host society a single arena for social action" (Foner 2000, 170).
But I think the idea of "transnationalism" applies to people like me as well--those whose ties to "home" are less direct. When I visit India, I am treated like a foreigner; yet New Yorkers view me as "Indian." My experience interviewing my mother helped me understand how I am positioned within and between two worlds, and how larger patterns of immigration have created a transnational America.
Foner, N. 2000. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's two great waves of immigration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.