When I start writing a new book, I become immersed in the subject. I get to the point where I live the story with the characters, and I’m merely the scribe who writes down their thoughts, feelings and conversations. So, as you might imagine, with my latest book being about Italian immigrants living in New York in the 1900s, I’m focused on the immigrant experience. . .going through Ellis Island, living in a large city after coming from farm areas, constantly hearing the sound of a language different from their language, having to live in tenements, being paid less than other workers doing the same work. It must have been hell.
When a friend of my made a not-so-nice joke about people from India or Pakistan owning/running gas stations in the area, it wasn’t funny to me. My retort was, “No matter where immigrants come from, they work damn hard for very little.” My friend stayed silent until she finally agreed with me several minutes later.
I’ve often thought about what my Italian grandfather went through as a young man of 16. I don’t think I have the courage to face the hardships he must have faced. Once I was in Germany for only a few days and after hearing a different language that I didn’t understand all that time, I couldn’t wait until I landed back at O’Hare Field. I remember the flight attendant saying, “auf Wiedersehen” and I turned around and looked at her with a stern face and said, “It’s goodbye, here!” I think of myself as a very tolerant person, but I proved I wasn’t as tolerant as I thought as my cheeky comment left my lips.
Immigrants can’t hide their accents any more than a Midwestern can hide her accent in Brooklyn. The instant someone different speaks, the outsider is recognized. Believe me, there’s nothing more isolating than not being able to understand the people around you. No wonder “Little Italy” communities grew up in cities. These places were safe and friendly because the immigrants didn’t have to work so hard to be understood by someone else.
And think about how different we live in America compared to much of the world. Social rules aren’t written down, but the minute a new person makes a mistake, they are either shunned or laughed at. I remember going to New York a number of years ago and being overwhelmed by the culture shock. People who live in there do everything FASTER than people from the Midwest. It’s noisy there and the streets are jammed with SO MANY people. Can you imagine trying to build a new life in New York after traveling 20 days in steerage and coming from a place where farming was all you knew? Throughout our history, many millions of people have done just that. It’s amazing they survived!
The challenges that all new immigrants face are tremendous, even if they come from countries that speak English. I admire their courage to put up with the selfish, uncaring, and impatient side of Americans. Let’s face it, everyone in this country (with the exception of Native Americans) has descended from people who came from somewhere else with the courage to want a better life for themselves and their families. We’ve all benefited from their sacrifices and fortitude. So the next time you meet an immigrant, for goodness sake, welcome them.