How To Not Be An Asshole To Immigrants

Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the suburban Midwest is weird. I was often the only person my classmates knew who had been born in another country, who didn’t have American citizenship, who spoke a language other than English or Spanish fluently, who wasn’t a Christian. I think people often unintentionally treated me as the Official Ambassador of Israel/Russia/Communism/Judaism to the City of Beavercreek, Ohio.

I was lucky in that I was very rarely bullied or harassed outright (and when I was, it usually wasn’t directed at my various ethnic/religious/national statuses, so I couldn’t really tell if that was motivating the extra attention or not).

However, my status as an immigrant played a huge role in my childhood and adolescence–probably bigger than any other part of my identity. It was what people noticed the most and latched onto, and also what people conveniently ignored when they wanted to hold me accountable for failing to follow their norms.

Because of that, how we treat immigrants has been something I’ve thought about literally since I was old enough to think about things like that, which is why I wanted to write about how we can be better at it.

Note: As immigrants go I am extremely privileged. I’m white/European, able-bodied, and middle-class, and my parents are both highly educated (which played a huge part in the fact that we were able to immigrate in the first place). I also immigrated at a pretty young age–old enough to understand what was happening and miss my home country like hell, but young enough to adjust sort of well and learn the language quickly. I am also an immigrant to the United States.

This means that my experience as an immigrant is very different from many other people’s experiences as immigrants, and the content of this post reflects that. I’m not going to try and write about immigrant experiences that are not my own, but you should definitely share yours in the comments if they address issues that I’m unable to speak about (well, and even if they don’t).

Second note: Yeah, this is mostly a post of “don’ts” and not of “do’s.” There are two possible reasons for this that you can pick from: 1) I’m a nasty and negative person, or 2) including lots of “do’s” on this list is kind of silly, because the “do’s” of how to treat someone who’s an immigrant are basically the same as the do’s of how to treat anyone else: be kind and honest, assume good intentions, respect boundaries.

So here we go.

1. Don’t make fun of their pronunciation or be an asshole about how you correct it.

For most of my childhood, I heard the following sort of thing on a regular basis: “HAHA did you just say SAL-mon? Don’t you know it’s pronounced SAAAAAAAA-mon? DUH.”

There are basically three appropriate responses when someone mispronounces something. One is to politely say something like, “Hey, just so you know, that’s pronounced SAH-mon.” Another is to say nothing but use the word yourself and pronounce it correctly. The third is to realize that you do, in fact, have the option of just letting it slide and not playing English Police. They’ll learn eventually; you don’t need to be their personal savior.

This sort of thing got much better once I was no longer a child (suggestion: talk about this with your kids!) but you’d be surprised how many adults likewise don’t understand that this sort of thing is extremely rude.

2. Don’t make fun of them for not getting your cultural references.

There’s an xkcd that makes this point really well:
Saying 'what kind of an idiot doesn't know about the Yellowstone supervolcano' is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time.

I love this because it shows how silly and small-minded it is to make fun of someone for not knowing something you think they should know. It’s especially true with pop culture stuff.

Even if someone immigrates to the U.S. as a child, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be very aware of (or necessarily interested in) American pop culture. I wasn’t until late adolescence, partially because I always sort of did my own thing and partially because my parents didn’t expose me to it at home. They showed me the Russian cartoons they loved as children and played the Russian music they’d listened to their whole lives. The food we ate was mostly Russian and Israeli; the movies we watched were older foreign films of all sorts.

So when I express ignorance about some piece of American culture and my friends are all like “AHAHAHAHAHA you don’t know who KURT COBAIN IS/what the PRINCESS DIARIES ARE were you born under a rock or what?!”, that is unhelpful. No, I wasn’t born under a rock. Just in another country.

This, unlike the pronunciation thing, hasn’t really gotten much better as I’ve gotten older. Maybe people assume that because I did spend most of my childhood here, I somehow developed a taste for this stuff, I don’t know. Or they assume that I’m somehow “required” to learn about famous American TV shows/movies/musicians by virtue of living here. But I haven’t and I’m not.

3. Don’t act all amazed at how good their English is.

Yeah, yeah, I know, sometimes this is totally fine and sometimes people won’t be offended. If you know someone pretty well and have actually witnessed their English improving, go ahead and compliment them on it. But otherwise, acting like it’s so amazing that the person has indeed managed to learn English is kind of condescending, especially since they might’ve been in the country for quite some time.

4. Don’t assume they’re here by choice or that they want to Become A Real American Now or that they need to assimilate.

Although Americans tend to act like their country is The Best In The World and that everyone else agrees, this isn’t necessarily the case. My family, for instance, came here mostly out of economic necessity–the Israeli economy was basically in the toilet in the mid-90s–and also because, well, Israel is a little bit dangerous. But we miss it all the time, and for me, it will always be home in some sense.

New immigrants are often encouraged to assimilate rapidly to American culture and shrug off their ethnic identity. Historically this was often done to them against their will–for instance, Ellis Island officials would change foreign-sounding names to more American-sounding ones without permission. However, this is still going on to a distressing degree, such as the continuing battles over whether or not Latino/Latina children should be allowed to learn about their own culture and history in schools.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that American culture > other cultures. There is no reason to expect or pressure immigrants to Become Americans. Sometimes you move to a new place and that place becomes home for you. But sometimes, it doesn’t.

5. This is probably obvious, but bears repeating: don’t literally ask them if they fit the stereotypes you have assigned to their country/culture of origin.

If I got a dime every time someone said “Oh you’re Russian? You must be an alcoholic then ahahaha hahaha vodka babushka nuclear weapons Putin Stalin.” That’s all. (Here are some things Russians are tired of you saying to them.)

6. Don’t ask questions like you already know the answer.

This relates closely to the previous point, but it doesn’t necessarily involve stereotypes. People’s questions often contain a latent assumption that they already know the answer (i.e. “So your mom must make borsht all the time, right?”), which forces me to contradict them (i.e. “Well, actually, we eat a mix of Russian, Israeli, and Jewish foods so borsht is really only a small part…”)

Or they’ll be like “Oh so your parents must give you vodka all the time, right?” and I have to be like, “Well, actually, in Russian culture vodka is sort of considered a drink for men, and when my family has dinner parties the vodka is typically only poured for men unless a woman specifically asks for it.” (Fun fact: I have never actually drank vodka with my parents even though it flows freely at all of our social events.)

Questions phrased like you already know the answer makes it seem like you’re just awkwardly trying to show off your supposed knowledge of other cultures. Which just makes me feel awkward because I feel somehow expected to validate you and express surprise and gratitude that you know so much about my culture. (Which you don’t, necessarily.)

If people asked things like “What kind of food do you eat at home?”, that would be much better. That gives me space to actually answer the question and give them the information they’re curious about without feeling like I’m being asked to make someone feel good for knowing what borsht is.

And for goodness’ sake, quit asking about the damn vodka already.

Preliminary comment moderation note: Posts like these tend to bring out the Freeze Peach Patrol en masse. Unfortunately for the Freeze Peach Patrol, however, I have no interest in entertaining their flimsy arguments for the hundredth time. So, if you want to participate in the discussion, please contribute something more substantial than “YEAH WELL THE FIRST AMENDMENT SAYS YOU CAN BE AN ASSHOLE TO IMMIGRANTS.” Yes, you have the constitutional right to ignore all of my advice and be a huge asshole. We’ve established that now. Okay? Okay.