Reviews on “How They Made It in America”
The First Reviews …
How They Made it in America is a welcome dose of reality amidst a very worrisome worldwide rise in nationalism and xenophobia. With 40.4 million foreign-born people living in the USA—one in every eight residents—this book is enormously important and timely, providing an inside look at the personal journeys of 18 women from five continents who emigrated to the USA.
The women interviewed represent all socio-economic origins, from some who grew up as daughters of government officials and business leaders, to those born into poverty, and everything in between. Some chose to emigrate; others’ lives depended upon doing so. Each has made her mark in disciplines as diverse as technology, development, business, education, journalism, and the arts; most of them are also philanthropists and community volunteers. The author’s choice of these specific women provides a broad and deep spectrum of experience in the book’s quick-reading 314 pages.
There are over one million foreign-born women business owners in the USA—that’s 13% of all women-owned firms in the country. This book offers an understanding of how starting a new life overseas not only changed these immigrant women themselves, but the economy and community as a whole—locally, nationally, and internationally. One woman’s impact comes from starting a company that has annual revenues of $3 billion, another developed a brand now sold at 10,000 stores in 68 countries, and another is changing the world through her micro-lending organization. We see how some immigrant women struggle to regain the status they had at home, while others begin on the ground floor and work their way up step-by-step.
Interview subjects include such well-known women as Chilean-born Isabel Allende and Ivana Trump, originally from the Czech Republic, to women I’d never heard of like social entrepreneur Alfa Demmellash from Ethiopia or Weili Dai from China, the only female co-founder of a major semiconductor company. By the end of the book most any US American reader will feel blessed to have such talented immigrants in our country!
We learn what these women love about the USA, what brought them in the first place, and what keeps them proudly living there. We gain insight about the effect immigration has on their relationships with those who stayed behind, with the children they birth in their new home, and with their American friends and colleagues. We hear about their struggles—from language, accents, and schoolyard bullying to the professional glass ceiling, assertiveness, and risk taking. Plus, we are privy to their hard-earned advice for others like them.
The author, Fiona Citkin, writes that she and her husband made the decision to immigrate because they wanted their 16-year-old daughter to “grow up in a country where she could fulfill her potential through her own efforts—not because of bribery, conformism, or her parents’ connections” (p. 7). Fiona’s first-hand experience informs the book deeply; she’s an immigrant who has had success as an academic, a corporate employee and executive, and an entrepreneur. “My own struggles in America have helped me understand what skills people need to develop in order to succeed in this U.S.—and the special set of challenges faced by immigrant women” (p. 8).
The book is divided into three parts, with two-thirds of it based on interviews with the women. From these interviews, Fiona distills seven “success values” that are explained in a second section, and the book concludes with an “Achiever’s Handbook” offered as a guidebook for immigrants wanting to succeed in the USA. Included is a Foreword by Cultural Detective extraordinaire George Simons and an Introduction by Carlos Cortés. The author has certainly done her research; the volume includes 15 pages of footnotes for those who wish to learn more.
Of particular interest and value to me was how the various women describe their blended culture experience. I most definitely wish I could share a copy of Cultural Detective Blended Culture with each of these women, individually and as a group! Most of the interviewees came across as “constructive marginals”—a term used to describe multicultural individuals who have integrated the positive aspects of their various cultural backgrounds into their identities.
- “I am an eternal transplant… My roots would have dried up by now had they not been nourished by the rich magma of the past,” states Isabel Allende (Chile).
- Verónica Montes (Mexico) tells us, “I had to reinvent my cultural practices in a different social and cultural context, and in that sense, I have consciously selected those practices that I find more significant and relevant to me. It is like becoming an orphan and needing to make your own cultural framework.” She sees herself as incorporating the best of American traits into Mexican culture, thereby enriching her world.
- Alfa Demmellash (Ethiopia) shares with us a frequent theme among the 18 women: “I consider myself a global citizen residing in America.”
- “Immigrants end up being hybrids with two hearts; two countries they love; two languages; and two cultures” is Ani Palacios McBride (Perú)’s take on the subject.
- Raegan Moya-Jones (Australia) relates, “My children will be culturally richer for having parents from Australia and Chile. Life and work are all becoming more global; this is nothing but a good thing for me personally and for my children.” Her proudest achievement, like mine, is raising “respectful, unbiased, globally-minded children.”
- Rohini Anand (India), tells us of her blended culture experience: “The U.S. is home, not India. I’m comfortable with my cultural mix and can navigate cultures comfortably. I love the sense of the extended Indian community and an associated support structure. If my family were here, it could change the whole dynamic for me.
A couple of the interviewees, however, either shared more deeply and realistically, or perhaps have not yet found a way to make peace with the various facets of their multicultural selves. In the intercultural literature, this is called being an “encapsulated marginal.”
- Irmgard Lafrentz (Germany), like most others, has felt her traditional values change since moving to the U.S. “I feel more American [than German], but as I get older, I long for more belonging somewhere. I am rooted neither here nor in Germany. I am not sure whether it’s possible to become totally integrated, and if it’s an emotional or intellectual issue. There is a social identity that unites all immigrants, regardless of country of origin.”
- Elena Gorokhova (Russia), “My Russian brain does the speaking with my Russian friends and sometimes my daughter. My English brain takes over when it comes to writing. I write only in English. Like a spy, I live with two identities, American and Russian—two selves perpetually crossing swords over the split inside me. There is no bridge between the two lives.” Unlike most of the interviewees who discussed themselves as changing drastically after emigrating, Elena says, “Moving to America failed to make me a different person… Russia, like a virus, has settled in my blood and hitched a ride across the ocean.”
While references to feminism in each of the interviews are interesting, they aren’t very well-connected to anything larger and feel a bit out of place. That said, this is an interesting and remarkable work that offers valuable insight into the creativity and perseverance needed to be a successful woman immigrant in the USA. How They Made it in America would be a terrific holiday gift for friends and family, and for any immigrants you might wish to help. And, of course, the best gift of all would be to combine the book with a subscription to Cultural Detective Online!
Dianne Hofner Saphiere
Founder, “Cultural Detective”
Fiona Citkin has made this book “work” in spite of some inherent challenges. For starters, it’s hard to pin down. Is it a series of inspirational sketches of impressive women? Is it a study of the challenges of being a female immigrant in America? Is it a self-help book for women?
In the end, it is all three, but the elements are presented in a sequence that builds and delivers a real payoff in the final section. The 18 profiles which comprise more than half the book are fascinating and—against all odds—not repetitive. Citkin has chosen her subjects wisely; each is so different you don't feel you're hearing the same story from 18 different people. If you read this book only for their stories, you will not be disappointed. Two of my favorite moments (out of many) are the Croatian Maya Strella-Migotti’s observation that “You plan—and God laughs.” And the story of how Ivana Trump’s father, for fear that her privileged background might rob her of any ambition, sent her to work on the assembly line of a shoe factory.
After the sketches, Citkin goes back and distils the essence of the women’s achievements into the seven success values of the subtitle. This section could easily have been preachy, but the author brings the 18 subjects back for encore appearances, always keeping the women the focus of the book. That’s a very smart choice because people are inherently more interesting than abstract values and rules for success; our keen interest in the women makes it easy to absorb the lessons their stories have to teach.
Part Three is the self-help component of the book, and it’s an almost seamless transition from what has gone before. This section could easily have fallen flat, especially for readers who are just not that interested in helping themselves, thanks anyway. But again Citkin brings the women back to do one final bit of inspiring, and because you like these women, you pay attention.
In the end They Made It in America works because Citkin trusts the voices of her subjects. And are these women ever interesting!
author of Why Travel Matters: A Guide to the Life-Changing Effects of Travel.
At a time when The American Dream seems to be broken and immigrants are a target of abuse, How They Made It in America reminds us that It was immigrants who shaped The American Dream, making it believable and attainable, and they are still at it. The women described in this book, entrepreneurs, artists and corporate high fliers, may serve as visible models of this success, but they are far from being alone. Rather, the book serves to acknowledge and encourage those unsung and those well on their way. The author, an immigrant herself, brings sensitive awareness to the details and nuances of the stories this volume contains.
The book has three parts. First, the stories, the results of the author’s first-hand biographical intimacy with the personalities and achievements of 18 women “who made it.” Then, an exploration of the values that drove them to action and success, and finally, derived from the first two parts, advice on how to follow in their footsteps but with your own direction, stride and pace, encouraged by their examples and know-how.
The stories in Part 1 offer many insights into the process of acculturation that tell not just what happened, but why and how crossing over from one culture to another is wrestled with and integrated into one’s identity. There are insights into overcoming obstacles such as language learning and racism, as well as examples of confronting boundaries on personal and female identity that come from the discourse of one’s native culture. Success does not lie in the repudiation of one’s past, but by openness to the synergy offered by using one’s existing cultural resources in adapting to a new cultural setting. In many of the stories, work-life balance, the often-hard-won integration of feminism and motherhood, is an essential theme of fulfillment and career success.
While the biographical pages of How They Made It in America could be a textbook in making cultural transitions, in Part 2 the author goes on to explicitly highlight for readers seven dynamics of success, quite specific to the US-American context, where individual self-development, leading to a staunch character, are prerequisites. Thus, this tome (yes, it is substantial) becomes a vade mecum on acculturation to the US environment, illustrated and reinforced with further short narratives related to the women whose stories are found in Part 1. There is good reason for men to explore these pages as seeing them from women’s perspectives is likely to bring clarity to what are often unexamined male assumptions about success.
Part 3 of Fiona Citkin’s work focuses on practical advice for readers, again seven brief pieces of insight and encouragement articulating the import and pointing to the pathway implicit what has been explored in earlier pages. To conclude this part, the author offers a simple self-assessment scale, an instrument which measures not only one’s progress on the path to success but elicits the confidence and courage that one needs to recognize, accept, and enjoy that progress.
Not everyone needs to be lush, famous and internationally acclaimed, but each of us can better marshal our resources, both within ourselves and in our environment, to live a rich and satisfying life of benefit to self and others in the cultural context in which we find ourselves. Realization of The American Dream does not have to be measured in dollars and headlines, but the abundance found in a good life and solid reputation may live in a variety of ways in our hearts, homes and workplaces.
Dr. George F. Simons, creator of Diversophy®
“ . . . for many of us it’s not just about the destination, but the very journey that takes us there.” In those targeted words, Fiona Citkin frames her approach to the idea of success, the focus of her new book, How They Made It in America: Seven Success Values and the Immigrant Women Who Cultivated Them.”
To make her case, Citkin examines the lives of eighteen immigrant women, whom she refers to as The Achievers. From their unique and illustrative experiences, stories enriched by revealing personal interviews, Citkin deftly teases out numerous provocative insights. But rather than stopping there, she also treats those mini-biographies as a composite source of collective wisdom from which she extracts guidance and inspiration for others, immigrants and U.S.-born alike.
Citkin presents her challenge in the book’s PROLOGUE: in order for immigrants to achieve, they “must learn how to crack the immigration success code - a set of complex and mostly unspoken cultural and socio-economic rules.” The keys to that success project are two: the ability to adapt to U.S. culture; and the capacity for both personal and professional self-reinvention.
Citkin speaks from experience, a personal odyssey that she gracefully shares. A child of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and former English Department chair at Uzhgorod National University, Citkin came to the United States on a Fulbright grant and stayed when her husband obtained a job in New York City. Moving from academia to private business, she worked for a number of organizations before forming her own intercultural consulting firm. Citkin quickly developed a love for the United States as well as an appreciation of the opportunities it offered, while also recognizing the special challenges faced by immigrants, particularly immigrant women.
This autobiographical section reverberated with me not as an immigrant (I was born in Oakland, California), but as the grandson of three immigrants (from Mexico, Austria, and Citkin’s Ukraine, although my meagerly-educated grandfather came from the working class). I was raised with stories of my family’s immigrant dreams, immigrant struggles, and immigrant successes. Citkin’s book afforded me new frames for reconsidering my family’s story.
By examining the lives of women from around the world –- Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, and Bermuda –- Citkin provides multiple group and individual cultural perspectives on success, an idea that can be illusive, even confounding. Moreover, by focusing on the experiences of women, she explores the influence of the intersectionality of socio-cultural categories. In this way she succeeds in illuminating the unique challenges and opportunities that arise when gender intersects with immigrant ethnicity.
Today we live in an era in which immigration as a historical phenomenon and immigrants both as individuals and as a collective have become a source of heated public conflict and societal polarization. We can all benefit from the fact that Fiona Citkin has shed new light on the specialness of the immigrant experience and the many contributions that immigrants, particularly immigrant women, have made to our nation.
Carlos E. Cortés
Professor Emeritus of History
University of California, Riverside
Author, Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time
Editor, Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia