Book Review: How They Made it in America

Fiona's bookSeven success values and the immigrant women who cultivated them by Fiona Citkin, due to publish in December 2018 by a Simon & Schuster affiliate

How They Made it in America is a welcome dose of reality amidst a very worrisome worldwide rise in nationalism and xenophobia. With 40.4 million foreign-born people living in the USA—one in every eight residents—this book is enormously important and timely, providing an inside look at the personal journeys of 18 women from five continents who emigrated to the USA.

The women interviewed represent all socio-economic origins, from some who grew up as daughters of government officials and business leaders, to those born into poverty, and everything in between. Some chose to emigrate; others’ lives depended upon doing so. Each has made her mark in disciplines as diverse as technology, development, business, education, journalism, and the arts; most of them are also philanthropists and community volunteers. The author’s choice of these specific women provides a broad and deep spectrum of experience in the book’s quick-reading 314 pages.

There are over one million foreign-born women business owners in the USA—that’s 13% of all women-owned firms in the country. This book offers an understanding of how starting a new life overseas not only changed these immigrant women themselves, but the economy and community as a whole—locally, nationally, and internationally. One woman’s impact comes from starting a company that has annual revenues of $3 billion, another developed a brand now sold at 10,000 stores in 68 countries, and another is changing the world through her micro-lending organization. We see how some immigrant women struggle to regain the status they had at home, while others begin on the ground floor and work their way up step-by-step.

Interview subjects include such well-known women as Chilean-born Isabel Allende and Ivana Trump, originally from the Czech Republic, to women I’d never heard of like social entrepreneur Alfa Demmellash from Ethiopia or Weili Dai from China, the only female co-founder of a major semiconductor company. By the end of the book most any US American reader will feel blessed to have such talented immigrants in our country!

We learn what these women love about the USA, what brought them in the first place, and what keeps them proudly living there. We gain insight about the effect immigration has on their relationships with those who stayed behind, with the children they birth in their new home, and with their American friends and colleagues. We hear about their struggles—from language, accents, and schoolyard bullying to the professional glass ceiling, assertiveness, and risk taking. Plus, we are privy to their hard-earned advice for others like them.

The author, Fiona Citkin, writes that she and her husband made the decision to immigrate because they wanted their 16-year-old daughter to “grow up in a country where she could fulfill her potential through her own efforts—not because of bribery, conformism, or her parents’ connections” (p. 7). Fiona’s first-hand experience informs the book deeply; she’s an immigrant who has had success as an academic, a corporate employee and executive, and an entrepreneur. “My own struggles in America have helped me understand what skills people need to develop in order to succeed in this U.S.—and the special set of challenges faced by immigrant women” (p. 8).

The book is divided into three parts, with two-thirds of it comprised of interviews with the women. From these interviews, Fiona distills seven “success values” that are explained in a second section, and the book concludes with an “Achiever’s Handbook” offered as a guidebook for immigrants wanting to succeed in the USA. Included is a Foreword by Cultural Detective extraordinaire George Simons and an Introduction by Carlos Cortés. The author has certainly done her research; the volume includes 15 pages of footnotes for those who wish to learn more.

Of particular interest and value to me was how the various women describe their blended culture experience. I most definitely wish I could share a copy of Cultural Detective Blended Culture with each of these women, individually and as a group! Most of the interviewees came across as “constructive marginals”—a term used to describe multicultural individuals who have integrated the positive aspects of their various cultural backgrounds into their identities.

  • “I am an eternal transplant… My roots would have dried up by now had they not been nourished by the rich magma of the past,” states Isabel Allende (Chile).
  • Verónica Montes (Mexico) tells us, “I had to reinvent my cultural practices in a different social and cultural context, and in that sense, I have consciously selected those practices that I find more significant and relevant to me. It is like becoming an orphan and needing to make your own cultural framework.” She sees herself as incorporating the best of American traits into Mexican culture, thereby enriching her world.
  • Alfa Demmellash (Ethiopia) shares with us a frequent theme among the 18 women: “I consider myself a global citizen residing in America.”
  • “Immigrants end up being hybrids with two hearts; two countries they love; two languages; and two cultures” is Ani Palacios McBride (Perú)’s take on the subject.
  • Raegan Moya-Jones (Australia) relates, “My children will be culturally richer for having parents from Australia and Chile. Life and work are all becoming more global; this is nothing but a good thing for me personally and for my children.” Her proudest achievement, like mine, is raising “respectful, unbiased, globally-minded children.”
  • Rohini Anand (India), tells us of her blended culture experience: “The U.S. is home, not India. I’m comfortable with my cultural mix and can navigate cultures comfortably. I love the sense of the extended Indian community and an associated support structure. If my family were here, it could change the whole dynamic for me.”

A couple of the interviewees, however, either shared more deeply and realistically, or perhaps have not yet found a way to make peace with the various facets of their multicultural selves. In the intercultural literature, this is called being an “encapsulated marginal.”

  • Irmgard Lafrentz (Germany), like most others, has felt her traditional values change since moving to the U.S. “I feel more American [than German], but as I get older, I long for more belonging somewhere. I am rooted neither here nor in Germany. I am not sure whether it’s possible to become totally integrated, and if it’s an emotional or intellectual issue. There is a social identity that unites all immigrants, regardless of country of origin.”
  • Elena Gogokhove (Russia), “My Russian brain does the speaking with my Russian friends and sometimes my daughter. My English brain takes over when it comes to writing. I write only in English. Like a spy, I live with two identities, American and Russian—two selves perpetually crossing swords over the split inside me. There is no bridge between the two lives.” Unlike most of the interviewees who discussed themselves as changing drastically after emigrating, Elena says, “Moving to America failed to make me a different person… Russia, like a virus, has settled in my blood and hitched a ride across the ocean.”

While references to feminism in each of the interviews are interesting, they aren’t very well-connected to anything larger and feel a bit out of place. That said, this is an interesting and remarkable work that offers valuable insight into the creativity and perseverance needed to be a successful woman immigrant in the USA. How They Made it in America would be a terrific holiday gift for friends and family, and for any immigrants you might wish to help. And, of course, the best gift of all would be to combine the book with a subscription to Cultural Detective Online!

Miracles Happen

IMG_1539I grew up in small town Wisconsin USA surrounded by Catholics of German ancestry. While I moved when I was eleven, I remember the town as having a wonderful community spirit—a volunteer ambulance way back before small US towns had such things. I remember a town that was lily white, the men barrel-chested; hard-working people who weren’t very emotionally expressive. The biggest cultural differences, and they were huge, were between town folk and farmers.

Today I have tears in my eyes as I have witnessed a most beautiful blessing. I heard there would be an outdoor Mass in my hometown, Burlington, in the park where I ice skated as a kid. I love outdoor spiritual celebrations. It’s a beautiful day, and I was excited to attend.

IMG_1537When I showed up at Echo Park there were several large tents set up and an altar ready in the pergola. Parking was at a premium. This was to be a tri-parish Mass: St. Mary’s and St. Charles from Burlinton, and St. Joseph’s from Lyons. There were three choirs and three priests.

 

As I walked into the celebration space, much to my surprise, the choir was singing a song in Spanish! I got out my cell phone to record a snippet. How very cool. I knew there is a Spanish language Mass each Sunday at St. Charles; I’ve attended it several times. Would this outdoor Mass be in Spanish? That would be cool and unexpected.

I love that my birthplace, founded by immigrants, once again has such a large immigrant community. When we are up here visiting family in the summer, I travel to nearby Burlington to buy jamaica (hibiscus) leaves for tea, Mexican cuts of meat for cooking, and a few other Latino savories. There seems to be a strong local Latino community. Last weekend we attended a very popular new Mole Fest in Elkhorn.

But when I attend Spanish-language Mass I see mainly Latinos there; the larger parish doesn’t seem very involved. There seems a definite segregation or separateness, though Mole Fest did have lots of every sort of people. I know that over one out of every five rural priests in small town USA are foreign-born, as there is a shortage of priests in the USA. Thankfully, many of them receive training using Cultural Detective materials.

 

The opening prayer celebrated diversity and unity. I beamed. The next song was in English. I noticed people around me, hundreds of them, and mostly the blonde-haired, blue-eyed variety that live in these parts, were reading along as they sung. I went over to grab the bulletin for today’s service. It was written in both English and Spanish! Not just one or the other, but an integrated, bilingual bulletin!

Really? In my small, what I perceive as insular town? I know and love these local Catholics. They send out mission trips every year to help the needy in the USA and abroad. They pray for peace and harmony, the cessation of war and violence, that the homeless, immigrants and refugees can find home. But, I also believe that some if not many of these parishioners have a hard time praying this latter petition. Many of them voted for Trump, after all.

 

This morning’s miracle got better and better. The second reading was in Spanish, by a native-speaking man. It felt so good. The response to the reading was in Spanish, and that response didn’t just come from the Spanish-speaking choir, but from voices here and there, scattered among the hundreds of people gathered in the shade of the tents. Wow! How cool!

The sermon was in English, given by the priest who was not the main celebrant. That was nice; they wanted to include the priests from all three parishes in the celebration. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear but, the Colombian priest giving a sermon, too! And he gave it in Spanish! He said the same things the first priest had said, but in Latino style, with much more passion. And of course with more references to the Virgin. I looked around. These German-Americans that I’d grown up with listened politely. I assume most of them didn’t understand. But I heard them join in the Latin-sounding “Ah-men,” vs. their normal “Ey-men.” Things have obviously been changing around here while I’ve been gone. And, then again, they haven’t. I heard the ladies behind me remark after the Colombian’s sermon, “He sure gave a short homily. Maybe we should check out his Mass.” 😉

 

The songs during Mass rotated between Spanish and English, with a few of them bilingual: one verse English, one Spanish. I was thrilled to hear that those around me singing along to the Spanish lyrics. The accent wasn’t pretty, but they were trying! This was, truly, an inclusive, integrated service.

Time for Prayers of the People. A gringa lady got up, and she read the prayers in both languages. She struggled with the Spanish, but she read it respectfully. We responded first in English, and to the Spanish ones in Spanish. I couldn’t imagine this Mass getting much better. Today encouraged me so much about my birth town’s people and community.

 

Communion was interesting. Most of the US Americans took the host in their hands, as is the custom here, while most of the Latinos received communion on their tongues, as is the custom for them. It was nice to see both.

 

At the conclusion of Mass, I thanked the celebrant, telling him I’d been born in Burlington and never would have dreamed that we’d be celebrating a bilingual Mass; that it was such a blessing. He thanked me for letting him know; I had the feeling he was happy to hear it, as perhaps he hears the opposite as well. I then thanked the Colombian priest. He gave me a big abrazo/hug, and thanked me also. Then a large portion of those attending, rather than hurry home as I’m so used to up here, wandered up to the picnic area to share coffee, orange juice, lemonade, and the always-present Wisconsin milk and kringle.

Viva diversity and integration on a clear sunny day in the Heartland of America! Today my stereotypes of my beloved birth town were updated, and for that I am eternally grateful.