»  The Straggler, No. 87

February 22nd, 2010

   Second Childhood

"All those years we thought we were building communism! Actually they've built communism right here in the U.S.A.!"

This gets the biggest laugh of the evening. All seven of us in the room laugh, including me, the only non-Chinese. Someone quotes one of Chairman Mao's tremendous Thoughts, "We should pay close attention to the well-being of the masses …," to more merriment. This is not really cynicism, just bemused acknowledgment of the strange, unpredictable way nations have evolved in the lifetimes of us fifty- and sixty-somethings. Of contradictions, the Chairman would have said.

We are discussing the extravagant welfare benefits on offer to immigrants here in New York, a topic of great fascination to recent Chinese arrivals — and, I suppose, to newcomers from other Third World locations, though I have no direct knowledge beyond the Chinese. Medicaid seems to be especially popular, and strategies for keeping one's recorded income low enough to get on the Medicaid rolls are eagerly exchanged. The magic number right now, known to everyone present, is $800. "Don't let the boss pay you more than eight hundred by check! Over eight hundred — cash only!"

Not that the evening's company is really representative of the masses, huddled or otherwise. Our host is in fact a wealthy man, one of China's new rich. The event is a house-warming party. We are sitting around in the living-room of a luxury apartment he has just bought for his son, a student at a local university. The apartment is high up in one of the grand new developments near Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Thirty years ago our host was a student in the provincial Chinese college where I taught English. Mrs. Straggler was one of his classmates. The third couple present were colleagues of mine, lecturers at the college. They came out in the late 1980s, and are now U.S. citizens. Their daughter, just arrived in the U.S.A. under their sponsorship, is also with us. Children and grandchildren are off in other rooms playing computer games.

This daughter and her husband ran a successful business in China, had a nice apartment and a car — were upper-middle-class by Chinese standards. I was somewhat surprised to learn that they will settle here, and have already bought a small store in one of the outer boroughs. Why leave the good life they had in China? I ask her. Neither speaks much English. Why come to a strange place and struggle with foreign ways? "For the kids," she replies. The kids, I discovered by chatting with them earlier, are fine with it. Education in China is a grueling business — long days, short vacations, intensely competitive. The slack, dumbed-down, unionized schools of New York are a liberation for these kids.

Being an immigrant resembles childhood in many ways. Already irrevocably formed in some key respects, you are thrust into an environment where you must master the language, the customs, and the social graces, and suffer being pushed around by forces you have not learned to master.

You don't have to be Chinese. After 30 years in this country I still can't pronounce "schedule" right, or use "gotten" unselfconsciously. I still don't know why we need so many lawyers, or what the point of the Modern Movement in literature was, or why anyone thinks peanut butter goes with jam — I mean, jelly. A first generation immigrant is a child at any age; that's why it's all much easier for children. The current fad for infantilizing immigrants, as we infantilize all we imagine to be "victim" groups, magnifies the effect; but being an immigrant was sufficiently infantile even before racial guilt and elite condescension cast their sanctimonious blights on the issue.

These thoughts lead off into some worrisome territory. The news from modern research in psychology is that a child's BIPs — behavior, intelligence, personality — can be tugged or pushed in all sorts of ways; but that when we reach adulthood and can select our own environment, inheritance asserts itself, like those mysterious metal alloys that remember their original shape and revert to it when heated. A 30-year-old resembles his parents and siblings more closely than does a 15-year-old. The advice traditionally given to young men seeking a wife — "Get a good look at her Mom" — is sound.

Could the same be true of human groups? When the novelty and pressures of early adjustment have been weathered, do we, and our offspring, revert to ancestral type? Shall I soon begin looking up cricket scores, buying tweed suits, and seeking out pork pies and brown ale? I note with interest that Mrs Straggler, 25 years in the U.S.A. and newly unemployed, is studying for a Civil Service exam — just about the most Chinese thing a human being can do.

Our host's living-room has a big picture window looking down on New York harbor. There is Lady Liberty, her torch aloft and lit. Mother of Exiles. I am, like most first-generation immigrants, immune to immigration sentimentality, and I actually know the history of that statue (whose conception had nothing to do with immigration) and that poem (an afterthought added 17 years later, and to be found inside the plinth). You move from that country to this one and settle in as best you can. Victim? To judge by the glee with which my fellow immigrants set about gaming the welfare system, the principal victim of current immigration policy is the U.S. taxpayer.

That is, of course, a deeply un-American view of things — yet more evidence that I have still, after 30 years, not emerged from that off-the-boat second childhood.