We Are All Immigrants

by B.J. Stolbov


“What makes Americans American?”

As an American living overseas and teaching English in high schools and universities in the Philippines, my students often ask me, “What makes Americans American?”

As the American people seem to have become more fragmented, alienated, and estranged from each other, and as the United States of America seems to have become increasingly divided, less tolerant, and more inhospitable, it is difficult for me to answer that question.  It is hard for me to describe what all Americans are, what American culture is, and what all Americans have in common.

Some of us are intelligent; some of us are not.  Some of us are good-looking; some of us are not.  Some of us are tall or short, fat or thin, young or old.  Americans come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  So, “What makes Americans American?”

The one definite answer I have been able to tell my students is that all Americans are descendants of immigrants.  In every American’s past, there is someone who packed his or her suitcase or bag, said goodbye to family, friends, neighbors, village, or city, and left, got on a boat or, more recently, a plane, and came to America.

(I am including Native Americans who, as immigrants, came here thousands of years ago.  I am also including those Africans and Chinese who came as unwilling immigrants to our country, and today there are millions of descendants of these immigrants.)

All these people, who immigrated to our country, had in common was their courage, strength, persistence, ambitions, hopes, dreams, and heart.

In my case, that person was my great-grandfather, who left Czarist Russia around 1900 because the Russian government and the Czar’s Army were trying to kill him.  Whether he was a legal or an illegal immigrant, I do not know.  He came to his new country with no money, no family that I know of, few friends, only his ability to read and write.  He became a teacher, teaching other people and their children.  The teacher’s son, my grandfather, became a tailor who worked in a small shop.  The tailor’s son, my father, became a dentist who owned his own business.  The dentist’s son, me, became a freelance writer and an itinerant teacher who, like his great-grandfather, traveled halfway around the world.  We do not know and can never know who these descendants of immigrants will become.

Every American is a combination American -- a hyphenated-American.  We are all “something-Americans.”  There are Filipino-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Arab-Americans, African-Americans, English, Irish, French, German, Italian, and people from every other country.  I am a Russian-American.

As with Americans, all Filipinos came from somewhere else.  Except for the few Aetas (native Filipinos), every Filipino came from either the south, Malaysia, or from the north, China or Japan or Korea, or from the west, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, or Arabia, or from the east, Mexico and, of course, Spain.  For all Filipinos, there was an ancestor (ang ninunò) who, a long, long time ago, packed his or her suitcase or bag, said goodbye to family, friends, neighbors, village, or city, and left, probably by boat, and came to the Philippines.

And all of their ancestors (mga ninunò), too, had courage (tapang), strength (lakás), persistence (pagpupursige), ambitions (adhikâ), hopes (pag-asa), dreams (pangarap), and heart (pusò).  All Filipinos are descendents of immigrants.

Besides these foreign peoples who came to the Philippines, there are indigenous ethnic tribes of the Philippines, which means that there are also combination Filipinos, hyphenated-Filipinos.  Tagalog-Filipinos are the most populous group in the Philippines.  Ilocano-Filipinos are the most prevalent Filipinos in the U.S.  Ifugao-Filipinos live up in the mountains and no foreigners, Spanish, Japanese, or Americans, have ever conquered them.  There are Cebuano, Bicolano, Palawan, Mindoroan, Mindanaoan, and many, many more ethnic tribes.  They, too, are all hyphenated-Filipinos, but they are all Filipinos.

When I first came to the Philippines, I would often be told that all Tagalogs are arrogant (mapagmataás).  But I found out that the people who told me that were wrong.  All Tagalogs are not arrogant; many are very humble (mababang-loób).  I was often told that all Ilocanos are stingy (kuripot).  But I found out that the people who told me that were wrong.  All Ilocanos are not kuripot; many are generous (mapagkaloób).

Now, from the U.S., I often hear about the threat posed by Mexican immigrants: they are all murderers, thieves, drug dealers, and rapists.  But I do not hear about the Mexican immigrants who are farmers (we need farmers in the U.S.), farm workers, construction workers, housekeepers, nannies, cooks, dishwashers, and writers, poets, artists, dancers, musicians, and mathematicians.

When I was living in the U.S., I worked as the Director of Food Services for a senior living health care facility.  As you may know, most of the staff of these facilities are foreigners: doctors from Pakistan, nurses from the Philippines, cooks and dishwashers from Mexico.  Emmanuel was a dishwasher.  He was 19 years old.  Whether he was a legal or an illegal immigrant, I do not know.  One Friday, he asked me, in his broken English, if he could have Monday off.  I asked him, “Why?”  He told me that he had a final at the Junior College.  I asked him, “What’s the final in?”  He told me that it was in calculus.  (He passed.)

Emmanuel could fix any of my computer problems in minutes.  He could also fix any piece of machinery in the kitchen.  I told Emmanuel that when he finished his mathematics course, I wanted him to study English, and then, “Get the hell out of my kitchen!”  I left shortly thereafter to teach English overseas.  I do not know if he took my advice.  Today, I hope, Emmanuel is not a dishwasher; I hope he is a mathematician, an engineer, or a computer scientist.

Immigrants, like our ancestral immigrants, come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and intelligences.  It is wrong to lump all immigrants, to say that all immigrants are . . . anything.  Our ancestral immigrants were also lumped together by the racists of their day (using many denigrating racist epithets).  They referred, with disdain, to all Jews, Catholics, Irish, Italians, French, Germans, Polish, Russians, or, from the other side of the world, all Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos.  None of these “all’s” are correct.

All people are everything!  All Americans are everything.  All everyone, everywhere, are everything.  There are no correct stereotypes, especially the derogatory kind.  We can, and we will find people who are not what we expect them to be.

We, in the United States of America, are all descendants of immigrants.  I find it disgusting, discouraging, and sadly disheartening that the descendants of immigrants want to close the door of opportunity after them and to lock the door of hope behind them.


B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, travel writer, and technical writer/editor.  He is the author of the novel Last Fall (Doubleday) and the poetry collection Walks (Foot Print Press).  B.J. served in the U.S. Peace Corps, and taught English and writing in elementary schools, high schools, and universities in Northern Luzon in the Philippines.  He travels and explores in Asia, lives and works in the Philippines as a freelance writer and an aspiring farmer.  His stories, poems, and articles on travel, farming, and life are available for publication.  Please feel free to contact him at BJStolbov@gmail.com.

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