John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

When I was a small boy, I knew an old lady who was a close family friend.

Many years later, returning home for a visit, my mother noted she was in a nursing home and had asked about me. I had an amazing visit with her. She grew up in Serbia and in 1912, when she was 15, her parents packed everything she owned in a small cardboard suitcase and sent her alone on a train on the first leg of a journey to America.

She missed the boat in Cherbourg. The boat was the Titanic. I was stunned. She would have been in steerage and most probably would have drowned. Families in America have many such stories. What motivates people to abandon their ancestral homes and come to a strange land?

As the holiday season approaches, it is appropriate to reflect on the gifts that this great nation makes available to its citizens and immigrants. This theme is easy to strike by telling the story of a recent immigrant.

A couple years ago, I was asked to provide some coaching to a student who came to this area to attend one of our many fine institutions of higher education. Hope (pseudo name), a young Chinese woman, made an interesting journey to our shores. An only child, she and her parents have worked diligently to propel her to America. Hope is a personable young woman who is interested in working in customer service, human resources or some other area that requires high people skills.

Unfortunately, many Chinese students are seeking admission to American higher education and preference is given to those who are moving toward a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) career, so she was not admitted. Hope applied for and was granted a year’s study in a STEM area in Japan. She used that experience to again apply to an Eastern Iowa school and was admitted to a STEM graduate program.

Hope was in the United States and enrolled in a doctoral program in an area she really wasn’t interested in pursuing. While completing her master’s degree, she began to look for a job with a green card. This was when I started to work with Hope, mainly to improve her employability by helping sharpen her verbal skills and cultural knowledge of America.

During this time, I also helped connect Hope to people who might assist in her quest for a job. I was repeatedly advised that she had little chance of obtaining a green card.

Hope began applying for jobs in small information technology companies across America. She was tenacious in her search and eventually interviewed for and obtained a job at a tech company on the East Coast. This came with a green card and set her on a possible course for citizenship. I believe her strategy is to become a citizen and bring her parents to this country to join her permanently.

This journey involved several years of difficult efforts and was without guaranteed success. Why would a young woman with extraordinary talent go through such a struggle to become an American? As our relationship grew, I eventually asked her what about China motivated her to leave? Hope cited three major reasons in order of priority. Each provided a contrast with the U.S. I was surprised by the topics and the priorities assigned to each.

Hope noted that every day in China, hundreds of people die from every type of pollution imaginable. Chinese cannot trust the quality of the water, the air, the food and the medicines. At the time, there was a controversy in the U.S. about imported drywall material containing dangerous chemicals. She noted this is the status quo in China.

Hope’s next reason surprised me even more. She said the middle class in China is shrinking. Her parents are professional people, who, of course, work for the government. Apparently, unless professional people are members of the communist party, there is little opportunity for professional advancement. Keep in mind that her parents have had firsthand experience with Chairman Mao’s great cultural revolution (1966 – 1978), a time of chaos in the country.

Finally, Hope noted in a very Chinese manner, “you know, we have a rather hierarchical government.” Most of us who have read some history are aware of the effects of totalitarian regimes on the lives of most of the people.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”