The Immigrant Advantage, by Claudia Kolker

immigrant-advantageReviewed by Rebecca Hall

With shifts in demographics, uninformed (and often racist) punditry, and the recent introduction of reform, immigration has established itself as one of the most controversial issues facing the United States.  While the immigration debate generally takes on negative overtones, Claudia Kolker, author of The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness, and Hope, focuses on the positive.  Instead of echoing those who call for complete assimilation to life in the US, Kolker, a former international journalist and the daughter of an immigrant, has developed an appreciation of different cultures and their ability to adapt social traditions which help their members thrive—not only in their home countries but also as immigrants living in the United States.

Kolker devotes her book to exploring seven such traditions/practices—saying that "they channeled universal impulses, changing them like wind or water into energy"—and what they reveal about how US citizens can learn from our immigrant neighbors. She starts with a Vietnamese tradition called a hui (pronounced hoi), a money-club that provides both an alternative to costly loans and a social incentive to save money.  From there she goes on to practices such as the cuarentena, a 40-day postpartum ritual in which a new mother is pampered by her family.  Some of the traditions she covers are mixtures of old and new, such as assisted marriage, which blends the family support found in arranged marriage with Western individualism.  Others are the result of increased competition, such as hagwons, Korean after-school programs whose success has helped give rise to the stereotype of Asian intellectual superiority.  Still others have arisen due to necessity, such as the Jamaican practice of intergenerational families living together. Kolker also looks at Mexican and Mexican-American neighborliness and the Vietnamese custom of contracting out for "monthly rice," a cheap but healthy home-cooked meal.

As Kolker herself points out, the success of many of these traditions lies in the fact that they actively address feelings or situations that US citizens have either learned to repress or simply "deal with."  She writes that "we Americans, who are so bent on self-reliance, can get pretty starved for permission."  We expect to be able to tackle life's big challenges—education, finding a mate, parenting, buying a house, etc.—on our own, and we put enormous pressure on ourselves to succeed as individuals.  By contrast, the immigrant communities Kolker interviewed acknowledge both the above needs and the fact that they are challenging—too challenging for one person to tackle without support from family or community.  Instead of continuing to hold up the ideal of rugged individualism, we might benefit from the presence of other cultures whose members have learned to rely not solely on themselves for survival but also on each other.

If the premise of Kolker's book (that US citizens can learn from immigrants) is essentially positive, she may underestimate how difficult it is to put into practice.  In her introduction she states, "I was looking for practices that could be split from their surrounding cultural systems and copied.  Practices that other Americans—like me—could adapt for ourselves."  US culture, however, with its emphasis on self-sufficiency, does not lend itself easily to some of these traditions.  For instance, when the author contacted her own social network, trying to "assist" a friend's search for a partner, she received almost no responses.  Those who did respond wanted to know what was "wrong" with her friend that she had to resort to such measures.  It is naive and over-simplistic to think that any cultural tradition, however beneficial, can be separated from its context.

In arguing her thesis, Kolker also places too much emphasis on the "usefulness" of traditions, rather than admiring cultural practices for their own sakes.  However, in a time when immigrants are stereotyped as needy, culturally deficient foreigners running to the United States for handouts, the message of her book is refreshing. Both culturally and socially, immigrants have a lot to teach us.  Now, are we, as Christians who pay lip service to notions of diversity and difference, ready to learn from them?

(Listen to a PBS interview with the author.)

Rebecca Hall has spent the last six years learning about the dynamics of immigration.  Her education includes time spent volunteering the US/Mexico border, working as a migrant recruiter/advocate in northern New England, interning at a Philadelphia-based immigrants' rights organization, and working as a Sider Scholar and M.Div student at Palmer Theological Seminary in King of Prussia, PA.

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