|Reflections of an Immigrant|
Issue 05 (December 2005)
Now that I review these miscellaneous thoughts I realize I’ve been writing for English and European audiences. Not unlike Alastair Cooke’s “Letter From America.” That’s OK, I can still invite my American friends to peer over my shoulder and see themselves. And see me.
I came to San Francisco in January 1967 as a computer systems engineer. 1967 was about the end of the hippie era. Everyone at work spoke English, nevertheless I was mystified by many common expressions. The phrase “Hate Ashbury” for example was a genuine puzzle to me. Who was this man Ashbury and why did everyone hate him? His name kept coming up. When I finally learned it was the intersection of the streets Haight and Ashbury I hastened over there to see what was so special. Not a lot.
Among the graffiti on a brick wall, in crude white letters a foot high was the exhortation ‘IMPEACH EARL WARREN’. Well, I knew that the locals were upset with the English aristocracy back in the 1770’s but I had no idea they’d hold a grudge that long.
Whilst initially staying in a rooming house on Pine Ave., apartment hunting brought fresh confusion. I was advised to keep away from this or that part of San Francisco because of the preponderance of “minorities”. An interesting oxymoron. I hastened to point out that coming from the Isle of Man I myself definitely qualified as a minority group. There are only about forty Manx people in all of California.. My auditors smiled at my innocence, dispensed with the euphemisms and brought the ‘n’ word back out of the closet.
Wetbacks too. So what? I myself am the descendant of wetbacks. Nine hundred and thirty two years ago my Norman ancestors crossed the Channel looking for a better life. Boy, did WE ever have trouble with Customs and Immigration.
Every single day I heard the word ‘paranoia’. Fellow workers would casually describe themselves as being paranoid. Such words had not hitherto been part of my active vocabulary and I surreptitiously began to re-examine my co-workers. In search of guidance I bought a book on mental health and read it on the S. P. commuter train going in to the city from San Mateo. In it the author described an experiment whereby someone had given lie detector tests to the inmates of a lunatic asylum. One man had been confined for years under the delusion he was Napoleon. When asked if he was in fact Napoleon he replied “No” and the machine recorded that he was lying.
If you want to attract undue attention to yourself, burst out laughing in a club car crowded with commuters wearing gray suits, all deeply engrossed in the “Wall Street Journal”. Fifty pairs of eyes swivelled and skewered me. I shrank down in my seat and buried my nose in my book. I suddenly felt paranoid.What in England is called an Alsatian dog is known here as a German shepherd. One morning driving north on highway 101 I heard on the radio that motorists should be careful: there was a German shepherd on the freeway. For me this immediately conjured up the startling image of a flock of sheep occupying all four lanes under the care of a rustic gentleman wearing lederhosen, a Tyrolean hat, and carrying an alpenstock.
The word ‘freedom’ was another curiosity. It still is. One hears the word at least once a day, almost as a talisman. For people brought up to revere it rather than take it for granted, deprivation of freedom must be more than doubly painful. I can’t help trying to relate this to the fact that the U. S. has the world’s highest prison population.
Why do people here say ‘utilize’ rather than ‘use’? ‘Burglarize’ instead of ‘burgle’? ‘Impact’ instead of either ‘affect’ or ‘effect’? I shudder whenever I hear “rather unique”. It’s like being slightly pregnant. On the other hand I can’t complain when Americans say ‘erbs’ and I aspirate ‘herbs’. ‘Gotten’: another perfectly acceptable word. I’m the one who’s wrong. The English have moved away from these two in the last couple of hundred years. I still hang onto ‘cheque’ however, having documented many payroll systems with their internal error checks. And prefer ‘petrol’ to ‘gas’.
So, after thirty odd years of acclimatisation, what do I think now? I think America is an amazing country, conducting itself according to Christian principles I only ever previously heard of in Sunday School, rarely in practise. Take the Thanksgiving Holiday for example. It’s infinitely more meaningful than Christmas and there’s neither commercialism nor religious involvement. Where else does an entire country devote a long weekend to giving thanks? Who else makes a special effort to get out there, feed the needy, and give them warm coats? When Americans ask me if we celebrate Thanksgiving in England I don’t go into details about dull Harvest Festival services in churches festooned with sheaves of wheat. I say “Of course we do! We give thanks every year that we got rid of those damn Puritans.” It never fails to raise a laugh. But I say it with inward self-deprecating irony. The rest of the world has no equivalent.
A few years ago farmers in Texas and neighbouring states suffered devastating drought, cattle were dying for lack of feed. Who helped? Mid-Western farmers began loading freight cars with bales of hay and shipped them to their brethren down south. Who organized all this? There was certainly no government agency involved.
A winter or three later when northern and mid-western farmers were buried in blizzards, Southern farmers began shipping back feed. I don’t know whose helicopters delivered those bales to the starving cattle. National Guard maybe?
During his seven visits to this country my widowed father kept commenting on the cleanliness of the place. Disneyland and downtown Salt Lake are extreme examples but look around you: by and large the streets are clean. Busy freeways are not always kept neat and tidy by people in orange jump suits; volunteers get out there and pick up trash. Up where I live adults and children all turn out in droves to clean up river banks.
How about “Habitat for Humanity” whereby a hardworking renter can get to own his own home with an affordable mortgage and add stability to his community?
Saturday October 25th last year was designated as “Make a Difference Day”. That’s when Americans look around for somebody to help. The little old lady whose house needs painting. She can’t do it herself and she can’t afford to pay somebody. The neighbours get together and do it. Get enough neighbours together and the job is done in one day.
The neighbourhood kids have nowhere to play? Up go swings, jungle gyms and all kinds of play equipment in no time at all. I sometimes hear psycho-babble to the effect that such altruistic behaviour is a self-serving attempt to alleviate guilt feelings. I doubt if armchair psychologists ever attend any of the above events.
It’s so easy to complain about America. We live under a daily bombardment of news describing and illustrating horrifying tragedies, disasters, and malfeasance in high places. That’s a side effect of freedom of the press but the crime rate really is going down and there are far worse places to live. On one of his visits here my father turned to me and said “you did the right thing to come and live in this country.”I completely agree.
Paul is one of those wonderful story-tellers who has a vast range of personal experiences that he draws upon for his humorous vignettes about his life. He and his wife Madeleine lived in Placerville until his death in 2006.