How to Be an Asshole to Fellow Immigrants

At this conference, I met a couple (a scientist husband and a homemaker wife) who’ve lived in North America for about 40 years. They are originally from a big country in Europe, and are not only very proud of their origins, but maintain ties that are so strong that one wonders why they ever bothered emigrating at all, when they go back to the Old Country every chance they get. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which is typical in showcasing how obnoxious immigrants can be to other immigrants, especially when the way you do immigration deviates from “the one true way,” which is of course their way. (Italics refer to what I am thinking but of course wouldn’t say, because I am a well-socialized adult and don’t have the foot-in-mouth disease.)

Wife: What’s your name?

Me (pointing to my name tag): My name is <How I Pronounce My Name in the US>.

Wife: Oh, you are <How the Name is Spelled>! Your name is not <How I Pronounce My Name in the US>; your name is <How the Name is Spelled>.

My name is what I say my name is. Who the fuck do you think you are to lecture me on what my name is? 

Me, out loud: Actually, I have been in the States for nearly half my life now, and <How I Pronounce My Name in the US> is what my children would say my name is, so that is in fact my name.

Later on, I talked with the husband, as he sat next to me. It is worth noting that the couple both have very thick accents and less-than-perfect grammar in the English language despite having lived in North America as long as they have.

Husband: So do you go back home often?

Me: Well, my kids were born here, so this is really my home.

Husband: No, your kids’ home is where you are.

Go fuck yourself. 

Me: No, I don’t go to Godforsakia often.

Husband: Why? Don’t you have family there?

Me: Some, but after you have been gone a while, things change. People move on.

Husband: But don’t you take your kids there to learn the language?

Me: My kids speak only English.

Husband (eyes open wide, about to fall out of head): But why? It’s so important to learn multiple languages! It helps with brain development!

My kids’ brains are just fine, and it’s perfectly possible to learn foreign languages later in life. Not everything needs to be shoved down kids’ throats starting in infancy. In fact, the native language is critical to one’s identity. I don’t want my kids to think of themselves as anything other than Americans; I don’t want them to think of themselves as Godforsakian-Americans. They don’t need the immigrant bullshit. The immigrant bullshit stops with my husband and me. If the kids wish to learn my native tongue or any other language, I will be happy to help, but I am not forcing anyone to learn a language of a tiny country, which they would have no one to speak with. 

Me, out loud: Mhm.

Husband: Our kids and even our grandkids speak our native tongue! We all go to Old Country whenever we can! We love it there, it’s wonderful! (Follows up with an elaborate description of  a party in his mother’s garden, with kids and pets prancing and speaking in the Old Country tongue.)

So why did you leave then? Seriously, why?  I will never understand the people who emigrated decades ago, but would apparently still rather be in the country of origin than wherever they landed. 

Husband: So have you already been on vacation or are you just going?

This is the US, how much vacation do you think we get? Besides, I like working. One of the things I like about the US, as unhealthy as is may seem, is its workaholism. The US crazy matches my crazy.

Me: We’ll have a weeklong vacation in August. We’re going to <Vacationing Spot>.

Husband: Only a week? My grandkids will be with me for two weeks here and then another two weeks there.

Me: That’s nice.

Husband: So who takes care of your kids in the summer?

Woodland fuckin’ fairies. 

Me: They go to various summer camps.

Husband, clearly disappointed with my childrearing choices: Oh, they go to camps…

Honestly, I would have much rather talked about science and tried to stir the conversation that way a few times, but he only seemed to want to talk about Old Country, my relationship to Godforsakia, or childrearing. Soon I turned to the person on my other side and talked with him instead the rest of the evening.


  1. Haha, they sound like generally obnoxious people more than immigrant obnoxious.

    To play devil’s advocate towards the immigrant mentality — I think there are advantages to maintaining ties to ‘home’ country (learning language/visiting/etc). Then again, I’m thinking of massive home countries so perhaps that makes a difference.

    While I get the weirdness these people living here when they love their home country so much, I’ve also seen the reverse cases which I find just as strange. Behavior liking calling it a hellhole or generally dissing it in spite of (a) all their family still living there (b) getting highly technical education for very cheap and generally getting a lot of advantages from the system and (c) pretty much having only home-country-origin friends. If you want to integrate, great but you don’t get to not-integrate and pretend like you have.

  2. Hmm, large country in Europe…chauvinistic attitude about native language…thinks 4 weeks of summer vacation is completely normal…

    Did you ask them what their favorite neighborhood in Paris is?

  3. What’s wrong with people…!?

    Alex – to be fair she did say a “tiny country” so i doubt its France.

  4. This made my blood pressure go up just reading it! I hate when people, especially men, try to force their life choices onto other, especially me.

  5. Oh, and as the CHILD of immigrants, who was born and raised in this country, I still get this shit. Maybe because I don’t look white and american and people assume I have some other “home country” to “go to”.

  6. That is annoying! Each immigrant has a different way of relating to the country of origin and new country. And it is so personal, you cannot go around judging others.

    I am a European in the US and I fly back frequently to visit my parents. I left my country because academic opportunities sucked big time and just the whole ¨why put any effort if salaries will be cut down, etc etc etc¨ just drained the spirit out of me. I love my work and life in the US, there is such a difference in work ethics! But I still have strong ties to my European country. So I kind of understand where the guy is coming from, but he was being very very judgmental and obnoxious! When supposedly, after immigrating you should have a more open mind. Clearly not his case 😛

  7. I was at a scientific conference where there is usually an Americans vs. World soccer game (which the Americans always lose) – it was very interesting to see who chose to identify as an American for soccer purposes. There were people who’ve been postdocs here two years who played for America, and people who’ve been faculty members here for decades who played for the World.

  8. If I had known it was possible to get “Woodland fuckin’ fairies” to look after the children, I might have thought more about having kids. Do the fairies cat-sit, as well?

  9. I see your annoyance, but I was laughing so hard at this. “Godforsakia.” “Woodland fuckin’ fairies.” Hilarious post & a great way to start the morning.

  10. Ugh. I am your children grown up. I am the child of an immigrant who has only family ties to the country of origin. I don’t speak the native language of the Old Country, and though sometimes I wish I had learned it as a child, when I wanted to learn it to speak with family in my teens/early twenties, I did well enough (though I’ve since forgotten what I knew from disuse). I was raised the way you are raising your kids–as an American. I have no ties at all to Old Country now that my grandparents have passed. My kids have never visited, though they know my parent came from there. From their perspective, it is an interesting historical fact, nothing more.

    In fact, as a child, most of my friends had immigrant parents or grandparents, and many had minimal ties to the Old Country. Few spoke the language of their own Old Countries (though some did). Most of our parents emigrated because they no longer wanted to live in Old Country for a range of reasons, and had no reason to tie their kids to Old Country when we live in the US. We all turned out just fine, with no obvious stunting due to lack of being innately bilingual. I’ve been asked (mostly in in Old Country, but sometimes other places) if I am ashamed that I don’t speak Old Country Language (usually with a tone that says I should be), and I say “no, because I don’t live there”, which is the truth.

    Nosy judgemental people are (unfortunately) found all over the world. If it wasn’t your kids’ language skills, it would be something else. Your immigrant status just gives such people an easy stick to hit you with. It is all too common for me at conferences that people want to discuss non-science things with me, mostly pertaining to things about my family and/or life choices that are none of their business. I feel your pain.

  11. “Woodland fuckin’ fairies” are added to my mental lexicon, thank you.

    I sometimes find it very challenging to talk to people from my original country. They seem to think that our common origin means we must have the same point of view on everything, and if we don’t then it has something to do with national pride. I believe one can be both proud of one’s heritage and successful as an immigrant, but these conversations really exhaust me.

  12. However. I remember you posting recently about your feelings of estrangement in your chosen part of the world, how social interactions with those natives were less than satisfying…Is that a manifestation of “immigrant bullshit”? Or is just your being able to see further because being equipped with another culture?
    You’d like your children to belong there, uncluttering their minds with a different language or a different past. But there is also beauty in being mixed up, a beauty that they will likely grow to admire in you and that, perhaps, they will also end envying one day.

  13. Interesting thoughts both in your post and in the comments. I am in a mixed marriage, living in the (European) country of my husband. We often speak English at home, although I do speak his (local) language. My almost 2 year old kid still does not speak any language, but I do speak to her in my native language. I am not crazy about my country of origin, and do not like socializing with the people from there exactly because of the assumption that we have a same point of view on political/social/kids raising topics, which typically is not the case. However, I do speak the language mainly because my parents do not speak any other language and also it felt more natural to start speaking to my daughter in my native language.

    I find also very interesting and also important your thoughts on how the native language influences your cultural background. We have many colleagues across Europe that not only have two different mother tongues, but also live and work in a country with a third language. I do not know yet how they succeed, but their kids typically speak all three languages without problems at a very early age. In these cases, national pride and immigrant background are not really the reasons why they teach their kids all these languages. There is rather a feeling that the more the languages the more possibilities and different points of views you can acquire. Of course, this is a very small fraction of (typically scientist) persons in Europe. The kids often grow up without sense of belonging to any particular country. I wonder how good/bad that will turn out to be.

    (first comment from another long time lurker)

  14. Minor point, but I can relate on the “Honestly, I would have much rather talked about science…” as it seems a common theme in summer conferences that everything but science is discussed by some people attending.

  15. Fellow immigrant here. My wife and I speak to our children in our native language, for three reasons:

    1) though we’re both proficient English speakers, I would rather use my native language when expressing feelings, frustrations, and philosophical concepts.

    2) we have tons of relatives who don’t speak English. If our children want to maintain a relationship with them, they better learn the language. For example, they love their grandparents, and skype with them almost every day. We visit our native country yearly, and spend wonderful vacations there.

    3) why not? It’s always good to know more rather than less. In my experience, there is no downside to learning multiple languages, and research supports the idea that there might be benefits.

    In general, I feel that if one moves to another country for work, it doesn’t mean that s/he has to be in awe of the new culture and get completely assimilated. I am happy to work at a top US research institution, but would be equally happy working in another country, if conditions were similar.

    My children are being raised as little Americans, but I hope they’ll be first and foremost good citizens of the world, curious about other places, and ready to experience whatever each country and culture has to offer.

  16. As someone said above, people emigrate for different reasons. For someone like me, emigration meant leaving forever, cutting ties to Old Country, and planting roots firmly in the new one; I believe that in my particular case (which includes what I do, where I come from, family dynamics, etc., and what I wanted to achieve) this was absolutely the right thing to do. On the other end, there are people like a or lucy above who have strong emotional/family/friend ties with Old Country and are in the US primarily for work, and would perhaps be fine working elsewhere. I personally admit it’s hard for me to understand this setup for a number of reasons (also really hard to imagine talking/Skyping with my parents daily… Or even monthly).

    My main issue is that, in person, I would *never* badger someone who immigrated while keeping very close ties with Old Country, even though I might not really understand their choices; in contrast, there is no shortage of people IRL who do keep close ties to Old Country but who feel it’s important to let me know in person that I am doing immigration wrong and am messing up my children by not teaching them the language and whatnot.

    I think we need a support group for people who emigrated and are not looking back (do not want to teach kids the language, do not travel back often etc.); having to justify my choices to well-meaning (“But being bilingual helps with brain development!”) people is exhausting.

  17. YMMV, but my grandparents emigrated from Italy to a neighbouring country and always used only the neighbouring conutry’s language to speak to my parent and later to me and my siblings. They said that they left Italy behind, like you left your country and only used Italian as their secret language when they wanted to discuss things the others should not understand.

    I then had to learn Italian in school, starting from scratch. And I always resented that they didn’t give me the opportunity to learn it directly from them as a baby/toddler.

    So to throw out a slightly controversial opinion, even though you don’t want your children to be multilingual, which is understandable from your point of view, in the future some of them might actually think of it as a lost opportunity.

  18. Also, I didn’t mean this to come across as judgemental if it does so, just pointing out a potential situation, to which I don’t have the answer. I understand why my grandparents didn’t want anything to have to do with Italy, where they were treated badly, to put it mildly. But this was before WWII, so I wish that by the time me and my siblings came along 30-40 years later, they could have seen the potential of openning borders and multilinguality.

  19. anonP, people can learn any language they want later; not everything has to be done in infancy. You resented not learning Italian, but if they had made you learn it, you might have resented that, too. For example, I have many Chinese colleagues who go all out trying to teach their kids Mandarin (a large Chinese community; Sunday school in Mandarin; all family friends are Chinese immigrants; nothing but Mandarin spoken in the home; visiting China every year) and then they tell me that their kids speak Mandarin only with them, because they insist, but speak only English with their siblings and all their friends; kids don’t care about achieving proficiency in writing (which is apparently quite complicated); kids stop using Mandarin altogether once they leave for college. Language is not just the spoken word — it’s spelling, grammar, history, poetry, prose, popular music, jokes, puns, the whole culture. A native language is closely tied to one’s identity. Unless we are talking about very large populations like Hispanic-Americans, I think it takes incredible dedication on the part of both parents and child in order for a child of immigrants to be truly bilingual and able to pass as native in both cultures. And if we’re not talking about expecting to be fully bilingual/bicultural, then I don’t see why it’s such a big deal to learn a second or third language later in life.

  20. An immigrant here, who does look back… We have two languages (lang2, lang3) at home, besides English (lang1). Our teenager ended up highly proficient in lang2, and a decent speaker in lang3. He has a good accent in all, and is excelling studying lang4 at school. Other kid ended up with a decent knowledge of lang2, but zero knowledge of lang3…
    I definitely see how my son’s knowledge allows him to immerse himself in different cultures. He is very curious to study more on all four languages (country, history, traditions,…) On the other hand, I do not push into bilingualism. I believe one needs a very solid base. I saw kids struggling academically very badly- as they missed deep language skills – in any language.

  21. That sounds very familiar… My name happens to be easy enough to pronounce, but I witnessed others being lectured on what their name really is.
    I’m also often badgered about my child rearing practices and connections to Old Country by random people from Godforsakia and a few neighboring countries where people habitualy mind your business. Some total stranger’s grandmother on the playground once scolded me for using English in front of my kids, and added that they should have hats on in this weather. Every person from my Old Country seems to believe that it is not only their right, but obligation, to set me straight in whatever it is that I am doing wrong. I just ignore them and note to avoid talking to them if I should ever run into them again.

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