Friday, May 14, 2010

Family History is Immigrant History

We are a country of immigrants. The only difference between “New Americans” and “Old Americans” is time. Even descendants of the indigenous native North American population would probably find their ancestors came from somewhere else, if only the records went back far enough. Putting aside for the moment the question of who is legally and not legally here, we are all Americans.

For this reason, I was disappointed with Sarah Jessica Parker’s reaction near the end of her “Who Do You Think You Are” episode on NBC-TV this spring. When the WDYTYA folks led her back to her early American ancestors, she said something to the effect of, “I so glad to find out I’m really American.” Well, of course, she’s American! And, so are millions of more recent immigrants.

I am interested in genealogy and family history in part because it helps me understand how I came to be part of the American fabric. My most recent immigrant ancestor came from Sweden more than 100 years ago. My earliest immigrant ancestor came in 1834. I can not claim ties to New England Yankees or colonial Virginia, but my people have been here long enough that I have no first-hand experience with what it meant to be an immigrant immersed in a foreign culture and language.

Because we are aware of our roots, I would expect that most genealogists are less xenophobic that the population at large. If you haven’t thought much about the immigrant experience recently, you might want to pick up one of three books that I have recently read.

In The Late Homecomer (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2008), Hmong immigrant Kao Kalia Yang shares the experiences and emotions of a Hmong family uprooted in the jungles of Laos, warehoused in a Thai refugee camp, and transplanted in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Hmong are among the newest Americans, and have faced adjustments almost beyond the comprehension of we “old Americans.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali reminds us that Europe is also an immigrant community. Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007) recounts her life amidst the antagonisms of Islam, Christianity and a secular West. From a childhood in Somalia, fate takes Ali to Saudi Arabia, Kenya and eventually to the Netherlands, where she was elected to Parliament.

M. G. Vasanji takes us even farther afield in The In-betweenWorld of Vikram Lall (New York: Vintage Books, 2004). This book is enjoyable fiction, but it opens a window on the immigrant experience of an Asian Hindu living in a African nation during and after the British colonial era. Immigration is a global phenomenon.

These books won’t help you do genealogy, but they will help you appreciate family history. Happy reading.