Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017
Immigration is one of the main themes of New Jersey's history. Skipping for a moment the reasons and conditions for why global migrations of peoples have shaped our state, let's imagine in a general way the experience of the immigrant. It seems traumatic. First are the reasons one might be motivated to move across the world, usually pretty heavy stuff. Next comes the shock of finding oneself in an entirely unfamiliar society. Then is the need to work hard and make sacrifices to establish oneself and one's family here. Hardship and stress like this does something to people. Observing immigration and its after-effects, it seems like it humbles and limits people, reducing their expectations for comfort and happiness. The immigrant experience and the American work ethic seem closely tied together.
The descendants of the "successful" immigrant can spend many generations shaking off this trauma, in increasingly subtle ways. The trashiness of new money, or the suburban obsession with physical comfort and plenty, can be seen to some extent as the echo of the hardship several generations down the line. More generally it's a difficulty to live a full life as a balanced productive, moral, spiritual individual.
Of course immigrants don't have a monopoly on overcoming hardship in America - there are many other narratives we could tell - but we children of the ethnic suburbs have one such story to relate. Generations deep into bland assimilation, we retain only a tenuous connection to the cultures of our ancestors. On the other hand, the feeling of becoming is not so strong for us as it was for our grandparents. We live in a fog of social affiliations, cultural narratives and ethoses that brush against us or slip out of our grasp.
When our ancestors asked themselves "who am I?" it seems to us that the answer came to them quickly as a hard fact. The question now fills us with uncertainty. The answer is the same as it always was: a person, a child of God, a brother or sister to all human beings. But it can be hard to apply this basic truth to the practical questions of life.
We are vulnerable to pernicious modern American identities. We come to see ourselves as white people, as educated liberal people, as East Coast people, or any number of modifiers. These categories are responses to what we witness every day in terms of profound distinctions between people. They come back to the problem that we may be treated like human beings and given some license to explore the self and the world, but we notice many of the people around us have these rights curtailed in some ways. Here things start getting dark and confusing, if fascinating and hopefully morally significant.
Looking around at the mighty diversity, and woeful inequality, of our state, and trying to figure out where we fit into it and what it all adds up to, we often make use of the narratives that separate and distinguish us from our fellow people. We talk about Jews, Italians, Latinos, Asians, Blacks. We have to remember to take these categories only so far and not be seduced by them.