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What's the real problem?

Fri, 2011/08/05 - 12:37pm -- Teresa Huang

CLPP is participating in National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health's Week of Action around Caminamos: Justice for Immigrant Women.

What’s the real problem behind the scapegoating of immigrant women and families? Immigrants are often portrayed as opportunity-stealing, benefits-taking “bottom-feeders” who refuse to assimilate. Immigrants, as some would have us believe, can “come here and do whatever they want.” The ill-founded ideas that immigrants don’t want to speak English and don’t pay taxes ignore the rules and regulations that are already in place.

This is what I’ve been able to piece together of my immediate family history, which doesn’t reveal itself easily due to language barriers and a thorough sense of private reserve: My parents came to the United States in 1987. They’d met in university in Taipei, gone on a few dates, and were engaged, then married, at the behest of my great-grandparents. My father was here on a student visa; my mother was three months pregnant. And while my father attended graduate school in statistics and operations research, my mother learned to cook and sew and tell stories in a language not her own.

She didn’t eat very well, at first; American food was unfamiliar to her. She had studied English in school, but hadn’t expected to use it. At home, she spoke to us in Mandarin, with occasional jumbled English phrases mixed in, and she could never get her gendered pronouns right. As kids, my brother and I developed grammar-fixing reflexes and jumped on her at every turn. Sometimes she would correct herself, but usually she seemed to ignore our suggestions.

After my father left school, my parents, my younger brother, and I spent a year in Taiwan. During this time, my parents applied for and were granted Canadian permanent residency. What they really wanted was to return to the U.S., but going down that path was much more difficult. Six months into our year-and-a-half stay in Calgary, my father found a job in Massachusetts and was able to enter on a H-1B (non-immigrant) visa. After a year, his company helped him apply for a green card. It took another four years for my parents’ permanent residency to be approved. In between, my mother wasn’t allowed to work, and neither of them could leave the country to see extended family. Ten years went by before we visited Taiwan again.

A layoff scare in 2004 prompted my mother to start working as a cashier at the supermarket . At night, she studied manual product codes—the numbers you enter if scanning a barcode doesn’t work—and she worked so hard during the day she developed a cyst in her wrist. Today, she works in the backroom managing accounts payable, but she still regularly leaves the store at least half an hour after her shift ends. She gets almost no recognition for it, and she’s lamented before that she feels she might not ever advance out of working there.

When I visited her last, my mother took me grocery shopping on her day off. Most people avoid going into the workplace when they don’t have to, but she embraced it. With a sense of charisma I didn’t know she had, she whisked me around the Whole Foods aisles, introducing me to her coworkers and carrying on joyful conversations in perfect English. She had come a long way by herself. She wanted me to see.

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