5 Reasons Transitioning Into American Culture Is So Difficult (Even for Legal Immigrants!)

When I first started this blog, it was to share my 6-month long break from the corporate world to travel and write. It’s been four years and I have returned neither to corporate life nor to reside in my home country. During that time, I found myself faced with a new adventure I had not expected: the challenge of assimilating into American society.

When I first arrived in the United States, people were fascinated with the fact that I was a foreigner. I use fascination as a polite word to include people who sincerely wanted to learn about my culture and those who fetishised it or watered it down to Bob Marley, bobsledding, and weed.

Over time, even the impolite fascination faded. Within a few months, long before I ever became a permanent resident, I was suddenly expected to become American. My husband would say, “Look, you’re in America now. You have to do it this way.”

One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Have you ever been an immigrant anywhere?” I shot at him. “Who are you to tell me how to adjust? You’ve never even left your country! You have no idea what it’s like to be an outsider in someone else’s.”

He was furious, but when you marry a Jamaican woman you also marry our sharp tongue. And, when we lash you with it, it will hurt and we may not be sorry. I sure wasn’t. I’m still not.

I think a lot of Americans, even well-meaning ones, fail to understand why transitioning into American society is so difficult—even when you’re legal! So, the next time you feel tempted to tell a foreigner to speak English or learn The American Way, I hope you remember this article. Here are five reasons immigrants struggle to assimilate here.

1. Language Barrier

My father is Haitian-American. He was born on American soil as an American citizen, but was raised by Haitian parents. Neither of his parents spoke English when they came to America and they only had a primary school education. Subsequently, he did not learn English until he started school. For the first few years, he struggled to keep up with classes, because he was being taught in a language he did not understand.

When you hear my father speak now, you would never know him as anything but American. He has no Haitian accent unless he speaks in Kreyol. All the same, he never forgot that initial struggle. He has shared stories before of African American children bullying him and the other Haitian students. They were told, “Go back to your country! We don’t want you here.”

He has often told my mother and me, “Jamaicans are lucky when they come here. At least, you guys speak the language. That makes it easier. I was born here and still didn’t speak the language, so I paid for it.”

I’m sure a lot of Mexicans feel the same.

2. Cost of Immigration

Before I cut off my social life to be a childless family woman and save for my next house, I spent a night or two in the city. Some Tuesdays I would head into Midtown to attend a writing get-together. Some Wednesdays, I would head to East Atlanta Village to paint. On one of these evenings, I was being transported by a White American Uber driver.

“I don’t have anything against immigrants,” she told me cheerfully. “All I’m saying is, if you’re here, be legal. And if you got into the country and you decide to stay or whatever, just get your paperwork straight so you can pay taxes.”

I let her finish her little rant before saying, “I’m an immigrant. How much do you think my paperwork cost me?”

She looked at me in the rear view mirror. “You’re not American? Where are you from? Canada?”

“Nope.”

She looked at me again. “England? You do have that kind of ‘properness’ about your English.”

I laughed. “I’m from Jamaica and we learned our English from the British, so that’s to be expected. But, back to the question. How much do you think my immigration paperwork cost me?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. A few hundred dollars, I guess.”

“I’ve paid $3,000 in immigration fees and expenses so far,” I told her. “And, that was what it took to make me legal. Up until I paid that $3,000, it was illegal to work here. Luckily, I was a freelancer, so I didn’t need American employment.

“But for the blue collar Mexican who does roofing for a living, how is he supposed to come up with $3,000 to pay for immigration fees if he’s already here and can’t work? That’s not going to happen overnight.”

This stumped her. She was quiet for the rest of the drive. When she finally rolled to a stop at my drop-off spot, she said, “You’ve given me a lot to think about today.”

As an update, by the end of this month, I will have paid $5,000 in immigration fees since July 28th 2015 when I set foot on American soil for vacation and ended up staying. Immigration is not cheap and I have paid almost every last cent of it myself.

3. Constant Requests for Proof of Status

Can you imagine paying $5,000 for something only to have its validity called into question on a regular basis? This is the experience of immigrants. Here are some of the many times when I have been asked to verify my immigration status:

  • When applying for a credit card, one of which was denied because my credit history was “too new”—an obvious consequence of being new to America
  • When applying for a loan for a tiny home, which was also denied because of my immigration status
  • When applying for a car loan at a credit union, which was yet again denied because of my immigration status
  • When applying for my part-time job as the system would not accept my SSN
  • When applying for health insurance every single year
  • When opening a high-yield savings account
  • When applying for a PayPal account

I am also routinely asked to provide a physical copy of my SSN in instances where Americans can simply type theirs into the slot on a website and be on their way.

For the record, I’m a conditional permanent resident. I petitioned Uncle Sam to remove the conditions in July 2018. It’s been almost a year and no response. So, this month, I will be applying for my citizenship. I imagine Sammy dearest will be equally prompt with a response.

4. New Credit History Penalisation

As I mentioned before, when you’re an immigrant, your credit history will be new because, well, you just got here. There is no getting around this. If you have a family member who can add you to their credit card to benefit from their good credit history, this is helpful, but it won’t solve all your problems.

Subsequently, you could be 50 years old, have an excellent credit history in your home country, and find it impossible to:

  • Purchase a car
  • Get a mortgage
  • Rent an apartment
  • Get your first American credit card

I have a friend from Britain who invested $100,000 in America to enter the country on an investor’s visa. I remember his tales of frustration just trying to purchase a car when he first came here.

Not only was there a problem with purchasing the car, but his license and insurance were also an issue. The insurance company completely disregarded his insurance history in England, so he is paying new drivers’ insurance for a BMW in his 50s.

I don’t think I have to explain how trouble getting a car or a home can create an economic setback for immigrants. It also makes it more difficult to be independent if we didn’t come here with some extra pennies in our pockets.

5. Otherism

All of these combine with other factors to create a culture of Otherism. In America, there are Americans and then everyone else is an Other. Most times, these Others are to be feared, distrusted, or hated.

  • West Indians and Africans are from shit hole countries.
  • Mexicans are murderers and rapists.
  • Asians are overachievers.
  • Muslims are terrorists.

Even my middle and upper-middle class White European friends here complain about the Otherism. They may not share one generalised form of slander the way the rest of us do, but the Otherism is still there. The only ones I know who don’t have this problem are the ones who have chosen to suck it up and assimilate.

So, will I assimilate when I finally have my American passport in my hands and can have a say in American politics? Absolutely not. I have a far better solution.

One of the things I love about Jamaica is the uniformity of our culture. We are all individuals, but we take the pieces of ourselves from one shared culture that we can all relate to.

Strangely enough, the thing I love most about America is the exact opposite. America is a divided nation, and while this creates serious problems that needs addressing, there is one clear benefit. If you don’t like America where you are, move to another part of it. There really is no such thing as The American Way. American Ways change everywhere you go.

There’s a state (and town) for everyone—even me. And, having travelled to 24 of them so far, I already have a pretty good idea of where I’ll end up. More on that later this year.

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47 thoughts on “5 Reasons Transitioning Into American Culture Is So Difficult (Even for Legal Immigrants!)

  1. It all seems very harsh and unfairly expensive, but I’ve just heard only this morning from a good friend of mine that she was thinking about going to live with her son in Australia until she learned she would need $400,000 (Australian) to back her up! My in-laws, who have lived in France for 13 years, had to prove they had an annual income of at least €30,000 if they wished to remain in France after Brexit! All these people are over 80 years old and long retired. Being an immigrant has never been easy and the language is the least of your worries!!!

    1. The language is certainly the least of mine, but it may be difficult for others. My mom had to prove she had an income of over USD $30k to file for me too. My husband wasn’t employed, so she had to be my sponsor. Canada used to be CA $11k to sponsor yourself. I’m not sure if they raised it.

      Countries want to know if you remain in their country you can fend for and support yourself without using up their resources. It sucks, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. I think that’s fair. What I hate is actually having to hand over the money, like my friend who didn’t just need to show he had $100k but actually had to spend it here.

      1. Yes, it was. We were just talking about it a few days ago actually. The investment had to be in business and he recently told me he wasn’t allowed to claim it back on taxes. He said it was the easiest way to move though and he was deadset on coming to the United States from the UK.

  2. I’ve been helping out with my parents who have lingering health issues and a lot of it has been eye opening and frightening. So I just sort of stopped writing for a while.
    I agree that it’s not just a “White people problem” and I have not lived the immigrant experience in America so my perspective is more critical as an African American male.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your parents. That’s one of the most frightening scenarios to deal with. I hope they pull through soon!

      I haven’t lived the African American male perspective, so only you can speak to that one.

  3. This excellent post is so timely. America is the very antithesis of a “melting pot”. Assimilation is code for conforming to a white supremacist culture. It is a country that continues to celebrate its slave owning forefathers while stigmatizing nonwhites and immigrants whose ancestors are responsible for the generational wealth that give the descendants of wypipo the opportunities and access to the so-called “American Dream”. White violence is what founded this nation and,
    unfortunately, it is violence that will shape its future.

    1. Thanks! I haven’t seen you around lately! Neither here nor Twitter. Where have you been?

      I actually removed a line during editing about the melting pot theory. It said, “Jamaica is a melting pot. America is a buffet table”. I’ve said it before in a few blog posts, so I decided to take it out.

      White culture is predominant in America, and I agree that African Americans are under a lot of pressure to assimilate to White values, but that’s not necessarily the case for immigrants.

      For instance, in my Dad’s case, it wasn’t the White kids who antagonised him. It was African American kids who told him to go back to his country.

      In my mom’s experience, it was also African Americans who made her life here hell initially. It was a White woman who helped her out, and me when I came to visit. That woman’s husband was an ignorant closet racist though. There was another Black lady who helped her out too, but I don’t remember if she’s American or West Indian.

      In my experience, the pressure to assimilate was mostly to do things the way they are done in the Eastern or Southeastern US, regardless of race. I was glad when I went out west and saw that people had better sense out there.

      I can’t say even my husband or his family ever tried to pressure me into any kind of White assimilation. If anything, he tried to push me into African American culture, which is where he hangs out. He grew up in a Black neighbourhood from preteen/early teen years, so that’s his crowd. It’s not mine.

      I think it’s very easy to point fingers to Whites every time there’s a mishap, but there’s a joke among West Indians that African Americans are the White people of the Black Diaspora. America as a whole needs to make a change and be better at inclusion. I don’t think it’s just a White people problem.

  4. And when it comes to jobs, you just can’t win no matter what you do. If a new immigrant doesn’t have a job, they’re considered a “parasite” draining the American economy. If they do get a job, they’re told they’re stealing jobs from Americans. Some people just want to hate immigrants. Good luck as you move forward!

    1. You’re right about that. My mom experienced that, but I didn’t. Her boss actually fired her out of spite after she got her permanent green card here.

      I was lucky to have my freelance business and my parents had high enough positions at their jobs by the time I moved that I could go in and help out if I wanted extra money but didn’t need to have a 9 to 5 shift. That’s not a privilege many other immigrants have, especially if they come here without their family or everyone moves at the same time. I moved about 11 years after mom did so she was settled by the time I came.

      And, thank you!

  5. Well stated!! My daughter immigrated to another country (she left the USA). I was an expat in England for three years…. people here think everything is so easy. It is not. The struggle is real and costly. I hope you are able to become a citizen if that is what you want! Welcome!!

    1. Uncle Sam hasn’t really given me a choice about citizenship. It’s a do or die situation, really. Under Obama, residents had the same rights as citizens except we couldn’t vote and wouldn’t get an SS pension. Now, those rights are lost. I can either live in constant fear as a resident or become a citizen and only live in occasional fear that it may one day be revoked for some ridiculous reason. Those are our options.

      Aside from that though, I do want to vote. And, once I had my eyes set on moving and thinking of myself as a resident out west, my whole concept and perspective of being American changed. Western American is a wonderful life! When I think if myself as a Southeastern American, I cringe.

      How did you enjoy being an expat in the UK? Were they welcoming? Americans are often viewed as vulgar overseas, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the irony was Americans weren’t very much liked as immigrants in other countries either. My European friends complained about Americans in their countries quite a bit. Not so much that they were there, but the kind of arrogance and disregard for other people’s cultures.

      One of my family members also works in immigration in Jamaica and she says the Americans that give her the least amount of trouble are the hippies. They never want to respond to questions and their go to response is “Hello, I’M AMERICAN.” One woman threw her passport at her (literally) during the entry interview. My family member threw it back at her and told her to pick it up. The woman was shocked out of her wits. This is the way they treat “immigrants” on their own soil. Can you imagine? She says Europeans are usually no trouble. Go figure!

      1. We were treated ok because we are not the “typical” American. The English is different. Lol. England is similar to the USA in many ways, yet in others, not at all. We were there during the 2016 campaign. Most people we talked to could not believe that America would let someone like that become a candidate. I also extolled the virtues of nhs. That surprised them and they cannot fathom the pathetic health care system we have.

      2. I also cannot fathom the health care system or the birth control red tape. 😅 And yes, we always do make exceptions. But you know what they say about exceptions confirming the rule!

        I have Americans who travel often tell me they usually tell people they are Canadian when they travel to avoid the embarrassment. Apparently Canadians are considered more well-behaved!😂 We certainly do get along well with them in Jamaica. We’ve been friends with Canada for a long time.

      3. Yes! People were cautious when asking where we were from because Canadians would get insulted being confused as Americans!
        I hope our country survives this cycle of craziness!

      4. Poor Canadians! I always think of countries as people. So can you imagine, Canada is the sweet little softie who minds his own business, but his twin brother America is the jock. And now everywhere little softie goes, people keep mistaking him for his brother and all he can do is roll his eyes and go, BUT GUYS! IT’S NOT MEEE! 😂

      5. That’s what my friends described to me as well about travelling. That’s why they started going undercover as Canadians! Some did have dual citizenship, so they would claim the other citizenship instead.

      6. Yes… every country we visited. Bus rides, restaurants…. some promised me it wouldn’t happen. Only one old man started praising him (on the bus). I was glad when the bus came to my stop.
        Funny… I would wonder why they would ask me. I always forgot that my accent gave me away! 😂😂😂

  6. Cheesus Christmas, Alexis, I get so angry when I read about how awfully people who aren’t white murican men get treated. It’s just cruel and immoral to be so hateful to people. I went to university with a lady from Puerto Rico, who had wound up in the continental US because her husband’s job took them to Ohio. Being Puerto Rican, Spanish was her native tongue; she also came here knowing no English. She said she got called ‘wetback’ and treated with that otherism you spoke of here. FFS, she was an AMERICAN CITIZEN and got treated like that. Welcome to the u.s., my friend. I am so very glad you’re here!

    1. I’m not surprised by her story at all. Sounds similar to my Dad, except he was born here and lived her all his life. I think he’s only been to Haiti once and that was as a child. I’ve never been.

      I don’t understand why people can be so hateful and it really doesn’t surprise me that Ohio was where it happened of all places. By the way, I’ve booked my tickets to check out that spot I mentioned in Cali. 🙃

      1. Indeed! I’m so excited! I’m letting the company foot the flight and accomodations bill because when I move it moves too 😂 I’ll handle the Maldives.

  7. FYI, it sucks to be an immigrant anywhere. My friend isn’t even an immigrant but a student funded by her government and she has to return to serve upon completion yet White people behaved like assholes. As long as the money never went into their own pocket but the government, they assumed they are entitled to be rude and projected their jealousy on others. Period!

    1. Being an immigrant doesn’t suck anywhere/everywhere.

      In Jamaica, we’ve welcomed immigrants from the lows of Haiti and the highs of Europe. Many of us didn’t like that the government gave them “free money” while Jamaicans were living in poverty, but as a people, we didn’t have a problem with the immigrants themselves. I never heard of anyone telling them to go back to their country or making it difficult for them to adjust. We’re naturally curious about foreigners. If anything, we were too nosy, as always.

      Being an immigrant in First World and/or racist countries is tough because of xenophobia and racism. I have friends struggling in Japan, Canada, Ireland etc. But even they have admitted, it’s nothing compared to what’s going on in the United States, especially in red states.

    1. I think I have! I booked my tickets for October to go check it out. The move is in progress. Atlanta is not the one 😂🤧

  8. Interesting post! If I were to go back to the US now, I’d have the same problems with credit history as I don’t have recent credit history in the US.

    1. Thank you! How long have you been away? It might take some time to reboot your credit, but your old accounts remain on your credit history even after you close them.

      1. Goodness! They might have forgotten you were ever American by now 😅 Are they double-taxing you?

      2. I’ve heard you guys still have to pay into SS even while abroad. Has that changed?

      3. I hope you don’t have to anymore then! I read that way back in 2011 during an international human resources class in university.

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