November 12, 2015

“Where are You From?” Immigration, Identity, and Being a “True American”

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

I winced the second she said it. My 73-year-old cousin asked the server in a Vietnamese restaurant, “Where are you from?” Now, aside from the good chance that the family of a waitress in a Vietnamese restaurant was at one point from Vietnam, I had to interject: “She could be from South Carolina.”

My 73-year-old cousin had good intentions; of course, she is a friendly person who is interested in people. I had to slowly explain effect of being asked, “Where are you from?” repeatedly could have the unintended consequence of alienating someone, rendering someone like our server a “forever foreigner.” 

The question “Where are you from?” can also precede anti-immigrant violence as well.

But first, let’s take a brief trip to Germany. While studying there in 2002 I noticed a series of billboards with a variety of different people on them, with the text stating: “We are all German.” On the face of it, the billboard was making a claim that, in a time of intense anti-Turkish immigrant sentiments, many can make the claim of being German.

 The fact was—and still is—that Germany needs immigrants to stabilize their aging population. Like other industrialized countries in Europe and Asia, Germany is getting older. (For a report on aging in a global context, click here.) As the Washington Post states on the topic: “Demographics are destiny.”

West Germany initially invited Turks as guest workers to fuel their economic boom in the 1970s and 80s. The billboards I saw in 2002 were posted because of a new law that allowed the children of guest workers to gain German citizenship. The Germany story is not just about demographics, but cultural attitudes toward immigrants and the deeply held social construction of nation. It is almost glib to note that Germany has a history of nationalism that is closely tied to ethnic purity, and yet the country now faces the very real conundrum of questioning what it means to be German as the nation’s future rests upon new immigrant groups.

The current Syrian refugee crisis raises the issue of immigration in Germany yet again, as well as the rest of Europe. There have been xenophobic attacks against Syrian refugees, including an arson spree that targeted German refugee centers.

Now, back to the United States. It is equally glib but no less relevant to note everyone in the United States other than First Nations folk are immigrants in spirit, if not by the letter of the law. The U.S., like all countries, is a social construction, what anthropologist Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community.” (And, immigration is an ever-present political issue during our Presidential campaigns.) Despite that ignored history, Americans have always struggled with immigration; at times, a central component of our national identity and, at other times, a threat to that social invention of nation.

 A recent book, Anand Giridharadas’s The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, unpacks the issues of identity, immigration, and nationalism at a critical time in our nation’s history: the days after September 11th, 2001.In this moment, two very different lives intertwine in surprising ways. One life is that of Mark Stroman’s, a white Texan with a chip on his shoulder who never got a fair shake from his family, his schooling, or the law. The other is Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant who left Dhaka for the chance of a better life in the U.S.

 Their lives meet when Stroman’s burning racial hatred is sparked by the September 11th attacks. He went on a murder spree, shooting three men he assumed to be “Arabs.” (They weren’t: they were Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi immigrants.) He asked each of the men, before shooting them:

“Where are you from?”

 Stroman killed two of the three. That the third man survived being shot isn’t the most surprising part of the story. Rais Bhuiyan received national attention for using Muslim law as an argument against the U.S. death penalty in an unsuccessful attempt to save Mark Stroman’s life. National headlines read: “Could you forgive the man who shot you in the face?”

Rais was caught within the historical moment as a victim of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. But then there was Mark Stroman. He too was a victim in a way, although he felt quite intensely that individuals are solely responsible for their actions. On the one hand, Stroman initially believed that his murderous rampage solidified his status as a True American, for “fighting back” against Muslims after 9/11. He wrote a manifesto in prison—he was caught rather quickly—that claimed his supreme nationalist status.

 If you feel that many folks grow up poor and disadvantaged and yet don’t kill someone, Stroman himself would’ve agreed with you. Even in prison, and reflecting upon his life, he felt that whatever a person is given, “it’s up to you as an individual.”

For sociologists, this touches upon the tension between free will and determinism. Later in the book, when Stroman befriends an Israeli former soldier turned filmmaker, Ilan Ziv, who had family members lost in the holocaust and was disillusioned with war following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Ziv wanted to know about the origins and perspectives of those who hate. Both bond over a section from holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

And yet, author Giridharadas details Stroman’s complicated past: being failed by Texas’s legal child services, legal system, school, even his own family. All these systems conspired against Stroman—a man whose mother told him that she was $50 short the day she wanted to abort him. The reader slowly develops a perspective akin to C. Wright Mills’s classic “sociological imagination:” Giridharadas ties Stroman’s individual choices to larger historical issues and deeper structural inequalities.

The book touches on other sociological themes. Dark themes, yes, but also soaring ones that should make us question how our imagined community should be constructed. The book touches upon issues of ethnicity and religion, compassion and punishment, terror and peace/non-violence. It’s a story about immigration and cautionary tale of the imagined communities of nationalism. And we get a window into the rarely acknowledged white, Southern poverty via Stroman’s struggles, it is a picture that is mirrored by the difficulties that a well-educated immigrant like Rais had to contend with.

All said, however, Giridharadas is clever enough to not identify Mark or Rais as the True American. The twinned stories tell two sides of the same identity.

Where are you from? Said differently: where does your identity come from? Most would first think of family, or friends. Perhaps you think about your nationality as a part of your identity, or the historical conditions you were raised in.

I wonder where my cousin thinks she’s from. I think I’m going to let my cousin borrow my copy of The True American.


Context does matter. I ask my GIS students where they are from because, as a geographer, I really want to know — which city, which state, and, yes, which country. It’s part of getting to know them as people, what their experiences are, what projects they might be interested in, and what I might have in common with them.

I understand that such questions can have dangerous consequences in some places, so (as in many social interactions) situational awareness is important, and it’s also important for those of us with no nefarious intent to respect caginess and not push personal boundaries.

But we are world-embracing institutions, and (for the most part) an immigrant-desiring country, and hiding our diversity doesn’t help. Many immigrant communities celebrate their origins as a way to strengthen them. Doing otherwise can marginalize those whose backgrounds are not hidden, and makes it easier for nut jobs to single them out.

More often than not the latter will use skin color as the real differentiator anyway — I’m reminded of Native American Sherman Alexie’s story about being yelled at from a truck after 9/11, “Go back to your own country”!

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I think a person is a true American if he lives in America for decades and follow all of the rules. It doesn't hurt to get some hard working immigrants here. Moreover, if ICE is troubling you, you can also get help from immigration lawyers.

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