We listen to quite a few podcasts in our house, well, actually, in our truck. I regret not starting sooner, as they have brought so much interesting conversation into our life. Even Geshem loves listening to podcasts and talking about what we learned. We listen to Thai podcasts too, which takes learning to a whole new level. Recently we listened to This American Life, episode #600. Part of this program looks at some of the sentiment towards immigration. I understand that immigration reform is complex subject, and regardless of your perspective, there are ways immigration can be improved in the US. I don’t want to talk about particular policies in this post, but want to look at something that was highlighted in the podcasts, namely people’s fear of immigrants.
There are many people very fearful of what the immigrants will do to America. They are concerned about Islam taking over. They are concerned about resources being dried up. They are concerned with jobs being taken. There are many concerns, and the concerns are real. The fear is strong. In the podcast, these voices were heard. There was this idea that it is important for immigrants to assimilate. The lack of perceived assimilation was cited as source of concern for many people. I would like to talk a bit about this.
I have been living overseas in a completely different culture for more than four years. I, along with my family, have been relentlessly trying to assimilate. We have immersed ourselves in language, we live in a normal Thai house, our kids learn in schools where Thai is the method of instruction. We eat a lot of Thai food, we shop in the market, we listen to Thai podcasts. We continually seek out Thai friends. You get the idea: we work hard at assimilation. After four years, I can’t say that I have “become Thai,” in fact, the deeper I get into culture, the more challenging it becomes. The more I understand language, the more questions I have. In many ways, we have become more Thai, but we are not Thai. Assimilation is hard. Adaptation is draining, it is exhausting, it can wear you out.
Now, we come from a pretty considerate degree of privilege. Tracy and I went to great schools. I am college educated. We have amazing people standing behind us, supporting, cheering us on as we work to make a difference here. We are provided for. Thai people mostly look at us as valuable, or at least non threatening. Most people are happy to see a white face trying to integrate, trying to learn Thai, trying to serve.
Refugees…immigrants….not so much. Even here, non white immigrants are frowned upon, left to the bottom rung of society. Even fully qualified near native speakers of English who have dark skin and come from a non white country can barely get a teaching job, even when vacancies abound.
In the US, the refugees and immigrants (I assume legal, I don’t want to write about ‘illegal’ in this post) do not come to the US with the same advantages that I came to Thailand with. I imagine that they feel what I feel, and it is amplified by 1000. I imagine that ever challenge I face, they face, but even more. The odds are stacked against them, yet they press on. My point in this is: assimilation is very hard, especially for refugees.
Now, some may argue we should not take them. I disagree. I believe that receiving refugees is one of the things that makes America great. I believe that refugees could become one of the greatest assets to America. They have grit like you cannot believe. They have creative solutions to problems, they have insight and perspective that is untapped. They are a human resource waiting to be cultivated into something great.
Immigrants and refugees can teach America many things. They can teach about community, about serving one another, about meal sharing, about simple joys, about hope, about strength in the face of intense difficulty, about dreams. Are you willing to learn?
Many people are afraid of the Muslim refugees. If you believe Jesus, you can be prepared to show them the love that you have discovered. You can be like Jesus with the woman at the well, and be unafraid to talk, despite cultural barriers, despite fears. You can be like the good Samaritan and serve the one lying broken on the road. You can allow fear to spiral into suspicion, or you can reach out and discover a depth of love in yourself that you did not know existed.
Sitting with refugees and immigrants can be very challenging. Americans have to step out of their comfort zone and into a new world, one that is right at their doorstep. It is not easy, but it is worth it. I want to encourage my readers to take the time to talk to a refugee or immigrant. Ask questions, learn their story, help them understand America. Go to their house and join them for a meal. I think America can be great if Americans open their doors and their hearts and seek to learn from the least of these. If you take a chance and give it a try, send me a note, I would love to hear how it went.