The New Americans

I have a grave admission to make. One that will probably surprise a lot people who know me. And it’s one that may have something to do with my languishing funk. I’ve been watching a lot of prime time television lately. It starts innocently enough, with The News Hour, so I can recap all the suffering in the world that I’ve already listened to all day via WNYC. But then I’ve been moving on to reality shows, inane sitcoms, and relentless reruns of Law and Order SVU on USA network. Let it be noted I don’t have cable except for sporadic appearances by USA, VH1, and The Superstation). I’ve been particularly riveted by The Apprentice. In a comic twist, at the end of every episode my dad, without fail, telephones from LA, and I, without fail have to say, “Dad I have to call you back – someone’s getting fired.”

But last night I stumbled on two of the most moving hours of television in memory, The New Americans. It followed several newly immigrated families as they navigated the strangeness and difficulty of American life. I particularly loved the Palestinian Grandmother (who bears an uncanny likeness to Rudy Guiliani). She was visiting Chicago for a year for her daughter’s wedding. As she watched TV she opined how old people sit inside and do nothing all day here. And then there was the hilarious part when she was criticizing all her daughter’s wedding dresses, and her older daughter pleaded with her mother in embarrassed whispers, “Mom, why are you doing this to us?” Granny said something like, “God spit on me for opening my mouth ever.” (Has someone ever thought of just getting the Palestinian and Jewish grandmothers togther to draw up a peace plan?)

The show also follows 2 families of Nigerian refugees, a Mexican family whose father works in a slaughterhouse in Kansas, two Dominican teenagers playing baseball in Montana, and next week an Indian technology worker in Silicon Valley.

I felt myself relating to some of the alienation inherent in being in a place you are not from. And the constant fear that someone will find out you’ll get exposed for the infiltrator you are. Though I assimilated and Americanized at lightening speed, there stayed with me for a very long time the fear that I was always donning an identity that wasn’t mine. I remember as a child in Southern California hearing right-wing politicians opine on the evils of immigration (since it was southern California they were either directly or indirectly attacking Mexican immigrants). I remember the scared feeling at the pit of my stomach, that I was the one (at age 8) stealing jobs and money and sunshine from the more deserving Jennifers and Brians of my classroom. And that somebody would find out and throw me into a damp and dirty jail where I belonged. I have another memory of hearing a similar speech in the lounge of my college dorm. I remember thinking the white-haired head onscreen was an asshole, but I no longer took it personally. There was no fear in the pit of my stomach. My papers were legit. I no longer had to wake up at 4am to stand in lines with my mother that wrapped around a dingy immigration building, praying that none of my friends would drive by on their way to soccer practice and see me with the huddling masses.

But what was most striking about the show was how all the stories are simply stories about family. Though I related to some of it by way of being an immigrant myself, most of it was far from my experience. We weren’t poor, we weren’t refugees, and I was too young to feel much attachment to my native culture. They are just good stories about people trying to get by. I’d like to say I laughed, I cried, I learned. I did do all three – but it sounds so lame and unironic. It’s hard to believe that television like this gets made. Try to check it out – you won’t be sorry.

Comments are closed.