Outsiders Everywhere

"Why do you stay in the U.S., then?" I asked the German-born historian whose last professional job in Germany ended two years ago. Since then, she has been doing piecemeal work and relying on a much thinner social safety net in the U.S. than she would have in her country of origin. There, she'd have her family, health care, lower housing costs, and other social and economic guarantees. She had just told me how much Germany had come to life since her youth: instead of "don't walk on the grass" signs, there's a lively public culture; instead of beige houses, there's an explosion of color; instead of the grim and clenched authoritarian culture for which Germany was once famous, there's playfulness. So why stay in the U.S.?

I wasn't challenging her; I was genuinely curious. It takes a certain kind of person to leave your culture behind and be unfamiliar with everything forever after. No matter how long she's been here, she can never be part of certain shared cultural conversations, which we refer to by particular markers: the Brady Bunch, or Seinfeld, or what Ellen's "puppy episode" meant to lesbians at the time. I'm frankly in awe of immigrants who, as my great-grandparents did, take on the great adventure of never quite belonging in order to better their lives. I once moved from the Midwest to the East Coast; learning to understand the Boston accent was quite enough of a transition for me.

She had two answers, both which interested me. The first was that, having been an expat for more than a decade, she would never again be fully at home in Germany; she was Americanized now, to some degree, and would be out of place there. I've heard that before from Americans who've lived abroad for some extended period. My friend Lady Borton has spent her adult life going back and forth between Vietnam and Appalachian Ohio. (She's written two books and held service positions of various kinds for decades; as a young woman, she led Seymour Hersh to My Lai.) She has told me about being a foreigner, now, wherever she goes, half-American and half-Vietnamese, dreaming in both languages. As long as I've mentioned Lady (her real name), here's a snippet of her penetrating writing:

Later that afternoon, I swung by the American army compound to pick up the mail, entering the base as the Vietnamese cleaning women left it. I'd often chatted with these women and knew that many of them lived near the My Lai Road. The maids flirted unabashedly as the M.P.s checked their empty baskets for contraband. What fools those M.P.s are, I thought. Doesn't it occur to the them that the contraband these women carry is information hidden inside their heads? Don't the M.P.s realize that their flirtatious cleaning maids probably pace off warehouse measurements while they sweep, memorize shipments they unload, and note details of any unusual activity? In the years since, I've checked out my guesses, and learned that I was right. Women formed the core of the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong spy, liaison, and distribution networks. Basket by yoked basket, women slipped supplies into locations dangerously close to American bases. Mental picture by mental picture, overheard conversation by overheard conversation, they absorbed information about the enemy and carried it away.

So I wasn't surprised by the historian's answer. But why would that keep her here? Because, she explained, here her accent marks her as foreign; it reveals her reason for being a little different, a little unfamiliar with ordinary cultural habits. But in Germany, where she is unmarked as a foreigner, her different-ness irritates people. Aha! That made sense. 

But there's a second reason she likes the U.S., and it surprised me: Because of our famous "can do" attitude. She used the phrase with the air quotes, of course—but she meant it. She can't stand it, she said, that Germans whine all the time. They complain about what the government isn't doing. Americans, she said, just fix it. Even the whiners do something about whatever it is they dislike. 

Of course that's a gross generalization about Americans, and just one person's observation about her country of origin. I am not taking this as an accurate depiction of Germans or Germany. I'm relating it because it interested me as one person's confirmation with one American myth. 

Of course, there are limits to the "can do" attitude. Jason DeParle of The New York Times reported last week that the U.S. is now less economically mobile than our developed-nation counterparts:

“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” said Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that."

Despite frequent references to the United States being a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

What that means: If you're born poor, you will probably stay poor. Low-paying jobs are bad jobs. With them come no paid sick days, no paid family leave, no automatic firing for being late if, say, you have to take your child to the doctor; your parents will have a harder time keeping their jobs than their middle-class counterparts, as will you. Because they're poor, you're more likely to get lousy food and lousy health care and less safe housing, all of which will hold back your ability to learn. And if your parents weren't educated, they can't pass on the understanding of how to learn that middle- and upper-middle class parents teach their own children. They won't have the time or ability to go school shopping for the best schools or advocate for you with your teachers the way middle-class parents do. If they don't have time or ability or inclination to be reading Fox in Socks (and its kin) to you at bedtime each night, you arrive at pre-K behind, and fall further behind each year. If your dad went to prison (faster than such a thing would have happened to a richer white guy) for some drug-related charge, you're more handicapped still, poorer economically and socially, with a more restricted view of what's possible for you. You will be an outsider if you try to climb classes, just as much as my German friend is an outsider wherever she goes. Which means, paradoxically, that the ascent of the "meritocracy" has clamped down on social mobility, keeping children more firmly ensconced in the class in which they were born.

So there are limits to the "can-do" attitude. But it was fascinating to hear someone who leans seriously leftward talk about American strengths. Could we possibly apply that "can-do" approach to ensuring that everyone has a better shot at success?

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