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?”
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.
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.