The Good Immigrant

All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”

Post-Brexit immigrant
Book cover: Autumn

This quote comes from Ali Smith’s latest novel, Autumn. Hailed by the Financial Times as the first serious Brexit novel, it describes a deeply divided England. Elisabeth Demand sits at the bedside of her 101 year old neighbor and friend Daniel Gluck, a German Jew, an immigrant on his deathbed.

The same quotation could be used to describe the United States since the election of Donald Trump. And soon it might very well apply to the Netherlands too if the anti-immigration faction wins later this year. We – wherever we may live – are divided as never before about what is right and wrong. And we – however we may define right and wrong – have never before been so certain about our own right and the wrongness of others.

I struggle to follow my own resolutions: to listen first and then speak. Why does my mother, who emigrated from Hong Kong to the US in 1953, believe that immigrants are the problem in the US today?

Good Immigrants

It is some small consolation to know that I am not the only one. Nikesh Shukla, an award-winning UK writer, also struggled in the aftermath of Brexit. In his Financial Times article “A new dance for Britain’s immigrants,” he asked himself why immigrant members of his own family had voted for Leave.

I’m fascinated that people who are first generation immigrants can’t see themselves in the rhetoric, posters and scare-mongering. They will look at themselves as ‘good’ immigrants, providing a benefit to society, while these posters represent the bad – the rapists, the radicals, the jihadis, the groomers, the Muslims, the not-them.

This level of cognitive dissonance is deeply disturbing to me. Surely, this self-created label good immigrant will be tested by outside forces. What will I need to demonstrate in order to pass that litmus test?

Super Americans
Japanese immigrants
Japanese-Americans from Bainbridge Island boarding trains in Seattle for the internment camp at Manzanar, Ca., in March, 1942. Credit Bettmann/Getty Images

These days, the term immigrant applies to any person of color. Place of birth, citizenship, number of generations in this country: none of it matters. Amanda Sakuma, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, wrote about her family’s internment in Manzanar during WWII.


When I was growing up, my family simply called it ‘camp,’ like the summer retreat I would escape to as a kid.

Following their release after the war, the Sakuma family showed neither anger nor bitterness toward their fellow citizens. Instead, they became what I could call Super Americans.

While they were Americans on paper even before the war, afterward, they were willing to make any sacrifice to prove it.

Sacrifice meant military service, the renouncement of Japanese names in favor of Western ones and, of course, silence about their treatment during the war. It comes, then, as no surprise that members of the Sakuma family voted for Donald Trump.

How to understand and explain these acts taken against one’s own best interest?

Stockholm Syndrome

The term Stockholm Syndrome refers the positive bond formed between the victim of a kidnapping and his captor. The bond can form within a matter of days, as in the case of the eponymous bank robbery in August 1973 during which four employees of Sveriges Kreditbank were held hostage in the bank’s vault for six days.

Stockholm Syndrome
Patty Hearst – Symbionese Liberation Army

The bond can be so strong that the victim will defend her captors. Refuse to testify against them or, as in the case of Patty Hearst, voluntarily do their bidding.

The Stockholm Syndrome has been applied to battered wives and children, cult members and prisoners of war. The will to survive lies at the heart of the Stockholm Syndrome. Every small act of kindness by a captor represents good. Every attack on the captor by the outside world is bad.

Is this why the Sakuma’s, the Shukla’s and the Kao’s side with the aggressor?  Or are the Shukla’s and the Kao’s blind to the possibility that they might not be good immigrants after all? Surely the experience of the Sakuma’s proves that point.

Dance, sister, dance
Indian immigrants
Financial Times 10/11 September 2016 Credit: Annabel Wright

This gorgeous illustration comes from Shukla’s Financial Times article. It’s a depiction of his sister’s wedding two months after the Brexit referendum. And after the Twitter threat Shukla received from someone who wanted to set his “greasy ass on fire”.

The wedding is an opportunity for Shukla to observe and challenge his family and himself, too. He tells us:


Still, I feel safest amongst my own.

Now there’s a Brexit message if ever there was one. Shukla decides to apply for an Overseas Citizens of India card and to teach his daughter his native language of Gujurati. All this so that if she wants or needs to leave England, she can. Are these the actions of a good immigrant or a man with one foot out the door? Is that the same thing?

But the wedding takes precedence over politics. The Shukla’s dance about the room in their sarees and Nehru collars. They laugh at each other and with each other. They sing, “Play that funky music white boy.” They sound like good immigrants to me.