Perspective of a Hyphenated Immigrant

Cartoon from Puck, August 9, 1899. Uncle Sam sees hyphenated voters and asks, “Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?”

One of my friends posted an article yesterday called “U.S. – Pakistan Relations: A Hyphenated Perspective”. It is a thoughtful piece written by a woman who was born in Pakistan, but raised by immigrant parents in the south, specifically Texas. Samreen Hooda has spent far more time in the United States than I have and far less time in Pakistan. She loves the dual heritage of both Pakistani and American traditions – her “dual identity”.  She states

“The commitment to community and family, the concern for the good of the whole and the notion of sacrifice and service are embedded within me from both cultures. There are values and traditions that each side can learn from the other to make their own culture even better.”

But Samreen is concerned and articulates that concern in the article. She tells the story of a co-worker apologizing to her for saying ‘they should bomb everyone in Pakistan for hiding Bin Laden” and goes on to say “but it was just a joke. I didn’t mean sane people like you, just the crazies.” She chose to brush off the comment and not take offense but couldn’t shake it during the day. She used it instead as a way to move her to a thoughtful response that could help others. What distinguished her from the ‘crazies’? Samreen recognizes that with her hyphenated status as Pakistani – American she is suspect. Growing up she didn’t even think to be a hyphenated American, she thought she was just American. She has realized in more recent years that what becomes more important to people is not where she was raised, but the fact that her parents immigrated from “a country too close to Bin Laden’s homeland.”

The term ‘Hyphenated American’ was used as a derogatory term and was descriptive of Americans who were born elsewhere and had an allegiance, not only to America but to a “foreign” land. It was used in the late 1800’s on into the early 1900’s and primarily referred to Irish or German Americans. Like many words, it is time to rewrite the meaning of this word and see it in the best sense as those who are truly bi-cultural and able to move between cultures with ease and understanding. The cartoon above was published in 1899 in Puck magazine to poke fun at the hyphenated American and their right to vote. Given the current political debate on immigration and “being American” it feels right to resurrect the picture.

People like Samreen are the bridge builders in our country. Their understanding of both sides of the world and ability to think critically through complex issues, able to articulate a solid analysis void of finger-pointing is a skill and gift. As Pakistan and the U.S. muddle their way through what Samreen calls the ‘winter of their relationship’, it is the hyphenated Americans like Samreen that can bring perspective to the table.

Ironically, and she points this out well toward the end of the article, we are all hyphenated Americans. Boston is full of proud Irish and Italian Americans. My street in Cambridge is full of Greek Americans, proudly Orthodox and growing grape leaves over vines in the summer. African-Americans, Mexican Americans, Hispanic Americans …about the only thing we don’t have is English Americans. If each of us remembered our heritage, it would be easier to come to the table with thoughtful dialogue, willing to hear the other side.

So, what’s your heritage and what do you think? Add to the discussion in the comment section and be sure to read the article linked below. It brings a great perspective to what we know is a complex issue.  

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