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Monday, September 17, 2007

10. America the Prejudiced

I have been fortunate in my life to meet and work with people who have immigrated to the United States. These friends and co-workers came from Europe, Central and South America, India, Africa and Asia. Possibly because of the nature of my work and the region of the US in which I live, the greatest majority of those who I have met have been from the Pacific Rim – Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand. Their stories and reasons for coming to this country are different and yet the same. Although some were born into wealthy families, came here for their college education and never returned home, most came looking for opportunity and freedom. Many escaped their home countries risking their lives to do so.

After the fall of South Vietnam and fearing the communist North, many South Vietnamese fled their country. They were the “boat people.” Many women, whose husbands had been arrested and often killed by the North, took their children and what little money they had and left Vietnam by night hoping to someday, somehow reach the United States. In many cases these people were robbed, beaten, cheated out of their money and yet, despite these hardships they arrived in America. They came not speaking English, not knowing our culture and often with no money. They had almost nothing going for them except two things – determination and hope.

In spite of all the reasons that they could have given themselves to fail, they instead succeeded. Once arriving, they must have endured all forms of prejudice. Their language, their culture, their customs and their diet were a curiosity at best and an annoyance at worst to most Americans. One former co-worker of mine told me of how his mother brought him and his seven brothers and sisters to the United States. The oldest child at the time was only 14 years old. Although wealthy in Vietnam, they arrived here penniless. Within this one generation all eight children have graduated from college and now own their own homes, they work as engineers, as small business owners and in medicine.

Don Chang immigrated to the United States from Korea with no money in his pocket. In 1984 he founded the women’s clothing store, “Forever 21” and today has 200 stores with over 7,000 employees. I don’t know Mr. Chang’s personal story but I’m sure he faced bias and prejudice. Instead of wallowing in reasons for failure he chose instead to look at reasons to succeed and succeed he has.

Don Chang’s success is extraordinary for anyone – immigrant or otherwise. But when I look at the accomplishments of the millions of people who have come to this country in just the last 30 years I clearly see America as a land of almost unlimited opportunity. The limits are primarily those which we impose upon ourselves.

The other night at a dinner party I met a twenty-two year old college student. He was nice looking, intelligent, healthy, came from an upper middle class family and was born in America of Asian heritage. His view of the US was one filled with bias and prejudice and his outlook for his future was grim. White men, he told me, are privileged and all others merely struggle as doors are slammed in their faces. Identifying himself as a “victim” he sees his opportunities as limited. Based on his attitude, I have to agree. Compared to Don Chang and many of the immigrants I have worked with, this young man had almost everything possible going for him in life, yet he chooses to look only at the negatives – some real but most merely perceived. Every obstacle he faces in life he will assign to the category of “racism.” It is a rather easy out. It doesn’t require self-reflection, change, effort or education. The world is against me and therefore I will fail.

Bias and prejudice exist in all countries among all people. Yet there is no country in the world which provides so much opportunity for so many people from so many different backgrounds as the United States. Immigrants come to this country and they succeed. They accept and recognize certain limitations, look beyond them and move forward. As I look at myself and the other supposed “privileged white men” I know that we too face obstacles in life. We can, if we choose, give excuses such as I am not good looking enough, I am not tall enough, I am not from the right family, I did not attend the right school, and so forth. But society, fortunately, won’t let us get away with such whining. So many with so much less will accomplish so much more than those that declare themselves “victims” and wallow in that label.

In May 2002, eight months after the 9-11 attack, I was in Munich, Germany about to return to the US. My cab ride to the airport is one I will never forget. My cab driver was Arab and as we pulled away from the hotel he asked me where I was from and I replied, “California.” I regret now that I did not have a video camera because the speech he delivered should have been recorded and shown to every “Blame America First” basher in the US. The passion in his voice could not be denied as he proclaimed the US to be the “greatest country in the world.” At the same time he immigrated to Germany his brother and family immigrated to the US. “When my brother was granted citizenship he was told ‘you are now an American, you now have all the rights of all Americans.’ It didn’t matter that his skin was a different color or that he had an accent or that he struggled with English – he was an American. My brother now owns his own home, he has a great job and his children go to university. I have lived in Germany for over ten years. I will never be granted citizenship, I will never be allowed to own a home, I will never be told that I am German. I will always be a second-class resident of this country. You may not see your country as perfect but to me having lived in both my home country and in Germany I see the United States as the greatest.”