“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, …”
From Emma Lazarus to Donald Trump
Both the progressives and GOP call the new merit-based immigration proposal devastating, because it cuts too much into what we believe to be true for America. In particular, a “merit” requirement that to be naturalized in the US, you must learn English first (i.e., acquire culture-and-language tandem before arrival) downplays Emma Lazarus’ famous line of who may immigrate. There’s more to it than meets the eye. Here’s what I think.
Culture and Success in the US
The success in the US always correlated with integrating into its mainstream culture: the deeper the integration, the more advanced the success of a new immigrant. But what is this mainstream culture about? It’s complicated.
For centuries now, immigration of diverse people to the US resulted in our nation’s bottom line success – along with America becoming a flagship of the free world. American cultural DNA incorporated the values of tough men and women who populated the land, worked hard to sustain their families, and overtime learned to cooperate with people different from themselves, for their better good.
Research shows that the United States has an Anglo majority which is politically and economically dominant. One of the persisting characteristics of the country is its continuing economic and social inequalities based on race. With this background and the mainstream culture described in detail by prominent interculturalists, the U.S. culture at large has significant regional inflections.
Interestingly, cultural variations and new strands of cultural DNA may leave their mark on the nation’s core DNA, a recent study said. We cannot ignore it. How does it relate to success in the US?
Evolving Concept of American Success
The concept of success in America evolved over the years—and became part of its cultural staples. Nobody reflected success code better than Pittsburgh steelmaker Andrew Carnegie who personally epitomized American-style success, believing, like Franklin, that the virtuous struggle for wealth would improve his character and fatten his pocketbook. The reason Carnegie glorified the accumulation of wealth by telling his own story in books was his own experience: born poor in Scotland, Carnegie immigrated in the United States young, and reinvented himself rising from a messenger boy to become the richest man in the world, when he sold Carnegie Steel for $480 million. He eventually gave away much of his fortune, paving the way to modern-day philanthropists; Carnegie concluded, “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced .”
A lot of water went under the bridge since then. The concept of success in the US enjoyed the contributions of Rex Burns (Success in America), Charles Schwab (Ten Commandments of Success), Dale Carnegie (How To Win Friends and Influence People), and most importantly, Ralph Waldo Emerson who rejected the pursuit of money-and-fame as the prime goal, providing a different paradigm of success—that appreciating the subtleties in life can make it more enjoyable. This took root in society at large, but not in media.
Mainstream media continue to brainwash Americans into accepting a money-and-fame-oriented definition of success. Marketers want us to believe that living in a big house, owning the latest car model, fashions, and technology is the key to happiness, and hence, success. Their tactic possesses power to seduce some innocent souls into “overkilling” a pursuit of wealth. Educating our young will help them comprehend that true success requires respect, integrity, and patience—all of which are traits that are difficult to attain—and that can never materialize overnight. There is no elevator to American success – we should take the stairs and deserve it, step by step, along with absorbing the culture!
Cracking the Culture Code
Cracking the culture code is a prerequisite to “cracking the success code.” Why? Because of America’s diverse ethnic and social multi-levelling, we need to know the culture-bound how-to of communication and relationship. So, with respect to people new to America, we speak of first cracking the immigration success code, or a set of complex and mostly unspoken socio-economic rules of the game in the new culture. Language learning comes in parallel with culture, so it’s unreasonable to put the cart before the horse and demand simple language acquisition to be the “merit” preceding immigration/naturalization.
Experience taught me that the best way to motivate people to crack the culture code is by sharing the role models’ success stories. Let’s look at one of those immigrant women who integrated in-depth and became worthy role models to follow.
Paulina Porizkova, from Czechoslovakia: “In America, do as Americans do.”
Paulina Porizkova is a prominent European-turned-American woman I interviewed for my upcoming book. She never wanted to be a model: it just happened that a future celebrated supermodel, actress, director, and writer swiftly rose to become a top model in Paris when barely 16. With her towering height, gorgeous hair, and eyes like blue lakes, her fame spread to the United States after she appeared on the two consecutive covers of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, a rare distinction.
Living in the States, Paulina (pictured) was chosen twice by People as one of the Fifty Most Beautiful People in the world; she graced the covers of over five hundred magazines and starred in sixteen movies and countless TV shows.
After winning the highest-paying six-million-dollar contract for modeling with Estée Lauder, her public image soared to that of European sophisticate. Seeking more self-expression, she went on to write a children’s book, a novel, a respectable number of insightful Huffington Post blogs, and she’s working on her new book. So, Paulina Porizkova isn’t your regular supermodel. How did she make it?
Re-inventing herself at “Balzac age”
If Paulina is a leader in any way, she’s a leader in reinventing herself—because, given her fame for the modeling occupation, it was a challenging thing to accomplish. Not content to live in shadows of her memorable modeling-acting career, Paulina started all over again, using her brains and vision of the world—and I believe her writer’s calling will take off. She’s young – what’s fifties for a beautiful woman? Nothing! Age 50 is a new 30, the new “Balzac age,” so the years of reaching her full potential have just begun.
When the classic French writer Honore de Balzac wrote a novel called A Woman of Thirty, he stated that – contrary to trendy belief of his time – a thirty-year-old woman can hope for a bright, warm Indian summer, when the passion is still quite possible, as are happiness and fulfilment. Had Balzac lived today, in the twenty-first century, he could have called his book “A Woman of Fifty/Sixty .” After all, he was famous for describing reality adequately—and, modern-day women are active and good-looking achievers well into their sixties. They have countless options to be sophisticated beauties at any age—and stay creative, useful, and admired. And Paulina, re-inventing herself, is one of them.
Being a steel magnolia
Throughout her life, Paulina exemplified refined femininity along with uncommon resilience and strong spirit—the properties ascribed in the American South to women known as “steel magnolias.” Paulina’s beauty is undisputed, so let’s focus on her less known traits making her a true steel magnolia.
Her strong spirit showed multiple times, starting at age 10 when she took care of her younger brother and the house chores, helping her mother to complete medical education after the divorce; when living-and-working in Paris from under 16 years of age, managing to preserve her values and not let daily drudgery, envy, and verbal stabs of the modeling industry infect her with its easy-glamor-ways. She later described her disgust to them in the book “A Model Summer.”
Remarkably, resilience of her family values showed when she willingly interrupted her career twice, to take care of her baby sons. In fact, Paulina clarified that the real sacrifice of her modeling career came as soon as she met her husband: “We decided never to be apart for more than 24 hours, and kept this up for at least twenty years. We grew up together rather than apart. This of course meant that both of us had to give up jobs, because we were each other’s priority.” How strong is that!
Her most trying times came after being fired – right on her 44th birthday – from a TV show Dancing With the Stars, which resulted in depression and subsequent use of a doctor-prescribed medication. Paulina immediately began intense therapy: “…which is what I credit with my now better understanding of who I am.” This is a tenacious steel magnolia talking about fighting the life’s odds while exhibiting the spirit matching the American true grits of the past and present!
The Point: Don’t Pretend—Become!
European/Czech at core, Paulina’s ability to fit the American culture – reinventing self professionally and exhibiting true-grit, steel-magnolia tenacity – is admirable. Brought up with deep-seated values and love for books, she keeps branching out into adjacent professional arenas, after semi-retiring from her show-business career .
Paulina is true to her mantra, “In America, do as the Americans do.” She belongs with America, honest, straightforward , and able to stand up for herself. Paulina did crack the American culture code and language-niceties in parallel—and then her immigration success took care of itself. And mind, her ideal is not a shallow money-plus-fame success but the advanced happy-American success including integrity, creativity, respect, love, and patience.
So, this is what we can learn from Paulina: do not pretend to be successful American—become one!
P.S. You are welcome to my other blogs at www.fionacitkin.com – AMA
Cristina R. says
Thank you for producing such an insightful and interesting piece!
Although the examples you provided apply to the US immigration culture, from personal experience I can say that similar resilience and degree of adaptability is necessary when moving to Europe from the US (or in fact other European countries).
Many thanks for the feedback. I quite agree with you about applicability of women-immigrants’ experiences in adaptation and success in a new culture: the world is a small place in many ways. My ultimate goal is to have women-immigrants support and inspire each other. We need that!
Excellent points , Fiona! All the immigrants you mentioned in your article had something in common as you said. They “used their brains” which is most useful for both cracking the culture code and re-inventing themselves. There is always a lesson to learn in your articles.
Your across-the-ocean support is always important to me, Rocsana. Thank you so much indeed!
George F. Simons says
Nicely done, Fiona. I think that honest perception of the wealth and commodification metanarrative of US culture keeps us desiring another deeper form of integrity, which is incumbent on those with a desire for authentic human success in the USA (or elsewhere) whether they make big bucks or not. Being aware of the metanarrative is critical wherever one might choose to migrate or seek refuge. Obviously one’s challenge is different depending on where one originates. Alas, US racism, sexism and anti-immigration bias are an integral corollary of the Anglo-American metanarrative affecting immigrants, whether you were an Irish person in the mid-19th century or are a muslim in the 21st.
Your thinking always stimulates me to go deeper, George. Although my main focus is authentic human success in the US – because of the upcoming book subjects – I understand how metanarratives other than Anglo-American affect immigrants in other countries, whether that strive to make big bucks or not. May my major goal should be to bring immigrants to see they need to learn from the common-denominator experiences of success-under-stress, to up themselves in life sooner rather than later.
Jackie Rollins says
It’s hard for me to imagine the sacrifices so many women immigrants made in starting a new life in the United States: the initial language barrier for many, overcoming or temporarily living in poverty while working and educating themselves and even entire families, and of course the familiar sexist discrimination so many suffered and overcame one way or another. It may be hard for me to imagine, but what I don’t have to imagine and know for a fact is that I am a product of such women, both who came to this country as teenagers and who overcame the odds and enabled me, as the next generation, to reap the benefits of being born in the U.S.A. and the advantages thereof. Thank you Grandmas Sophie and Sophie who shared the same first name!
It is so moving to read your acknowledgement and appreciation of you immigrant grandmothers! Yes, we all make some sacrifices for our children’s sake – but immigrant parents need to sacrifice more, may God bless them! Many thanks for your feedback, Jackie!
Great insight into success of different immigrant women.
Your stamp of approval, Simon, is especially important to me. Thank you so much!
Milagros Phillips says
I liked your article. The truth is that most immigrants come to this country to work, make an honest living and help their families. However, because of the foundations of this country, and its history of inequality toward those who are not European, the experiences are mostly different. For instance, while there is much talk about building a wall to keep Mexicans out, there are vast numbers of undocumented Canadians that don’t get nearly as much attention. Those of us who are foreigners need to learn more about the history of the nation to understand what is really happening and be part of the solution. Thank you for sharing your article. It’s good.
Thank you for your understanding, Milagros!
You are absolutely right: the attitudes to immigrants from diverse countries are far from fair. We need to work more, to bring the in-depth understanding of Who Is Who in America, as well as What the immigrants bring to the all-American table. This will alleviate unfairness.