An Immigrant's Story
By David Henderson
I greatly enjoyed Russ Roberts’s masterful interview of Roya Hakakian and her story of immigrating from Iran to the United States when she was 19, and her appreciation of the United States. I also found an interesting a comment on the EconTalk site by Todd Mora.
And, I think that’s a very important fundamental fact that almost everybody misses about immigrants and immigration: Nobody wants to leave their birthplaces voluntarily. Nobody wants to be forced out. Nobody wants to be transplanted out of not having another choice.
I would bet that she’s right that no one wants to be forced out. But as Todd Mora pointed out, many people come here completely voluntarily. It doesn’t mean that they don’t miss where they came from. But many of us immigrants came here because we shared at least some of the values that Hakakian talks about.
I was at a Hoover retreat about 8 years ago, listening to a speaker who decried the fact that many Americans who grow up here don’t learn in schools an appreciation of this society. He listed ways that we could fill that gap. I’ve forgotten what they were but I noticed one major omission. So I got up and said that as an immigrant, I picked up an appreciation of America by working.
Afterwards someone came up to me and said, “Your English is so good; where do you come from?” “Canada,” I replied, and the person said words to the effect “Big deal; that doesn’t count.” In the next couple of hours 3 or 4 people came up and asked the same question, in some cases preceded by variations of “your English is so good,” and similarly showed disappointment at my answer.
I had a chance to think through those reactions before it was my turn to give a talk in the afternoon. I decided to address it at the start. I told the audience about the reaction I got when I said I was from Canada and then I said, “Is coming from Canada not a big deal simply because I was able to read my deportation notice in my native language?”
That deportation notice was the bad part of being an immigrant. But I saw so many good parts so quickly. Obviously, the differences between Iranian society and American society are huge compared to the differences between Canadian society and American society. Nevertheless I noticed important differences right away. I’ll mention two. One is mixed, and the other is wholly positive.
First, the mixed one. Americans respect authority less than Canadians do. That can be bad or good, depending on the kind of authority. I wrote about it at length on EconLog back in 2013 and, rather than repeat it here, I’ll refer you to my earlier post, “Respect for Authority: The Case of Canada.” Do read the comments also because they are unusually good, especially the one by “yet another David” that challenges my claim that Canadians respect government more than Americans do. Although right now, with Ontario’s Premier blocking the border with Manitoba on the west and Quebec on the east, and not letting people through unless they have one of a small list of reasons, I think the United States is winning. (I can only imagine what my Winnipeg friends, one couple in particular who love Minaki even more than I do, must be going through.)
Now the wholly positive one. I noticed it within a week of arriving in Los Angeles in September 1973. Americans are much more likely to ask for what they want. Many of us Canadians grew up being told that it was wrong to ask for what we want or even to say “yes, I want it” when asked if we wanted it.
One case stands out from when I lived in Canada and was visiting “the States.” My friend and mentor, Clancy Smith, and I were visiting his Aunt Harriett in Philadelphia. One day she made us wonderful hoagies for lunch. “Do you want a Coke with that?” she asked. “No, I’m fine with water,” I answered.
Halfway through the delicious hoagie, I said, “A Coke sure would be nice right now.” “But I offered you one,” she said, “and you said no.”
“I know,” I said.
“Why did you say no?” she asked.
“Because I was brought up to say no when people offered you something,” I answered.
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Aunt Harriett.
“It doesn’t, does it?” I said. I then enjoyed the Coke.
But I didn’t change until I had lived here for a few months.