The Immigrant Class: Part 1

About a week ago, John Scalzi wrote an interesting blog post called Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is. It was an attempt to explain the social effects of race, gender, and sexual orientation in terms of gaming metaphors. Like this:

“Imagine life here in the US – or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world – is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

“Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, ‘Straight White Male’ is the lowest difficulty setting there is.”

The post got quite a lot of attention, and some respondents suggested that John had omitted another important factor: social class. Christopher Barzak wrote a blog post on the effects of that particular factor in his own life, called Life on the Lowest Setting. I found his post fascinating because it was such a personal way to approach the subject, and I found his argument completely persuasive. He wrote,

“Class does matter. Wealth does, too, but class is an identity, an invisible identity in some cases, like mine. Many of my friends now say that they can’t imagine me having grown up on a farm, that I once took part in a 4-H contest to catch a greased pig when I was eleven, that I seem too intellectual and worldly for a background like that. They can’t put my past and my present together, because I’ve crossed over into their world, and I’ve learned their language and mannerisms, much as I learned how to speak Japanese. I can switch codes from the academic circles I work within to the circle of service industry oriented childhood friends who are waiting tables and retailing and fixing cars. And all of those features are part of my inherent personal nature, a personal nature that was nurtured in a working class environment in my formative years.

“I’d add class to that list of identity categories that determines privilege.”

I’m mentioning these two posts because I wanted to talk a bit away the way I grew up, my own awareness of social class. Unlike Chris, I’m not trying to construct an argument. I just want to put some things on virtual paper, so I can examine them myself. So I can understand myself in terms of this thing we call social class, which I have been intensely aware of since I was a child. And since I want to think about it for a while, I’ll explore it in several parts. I’m not yet sure how many.

First of all, if you’re an immigrant, you’re intensely aware of the fact that American has social classes. I think that often, native-born Americans are not as aware of class-based distinctions. Immigrants are more aware of them because many of them come from societies were social class is more overt, so they are taught to look for indicia of class. Also, when they arrive in American, they don’t belong to any social class. They have to learn the system, learn the indicia. That outsider status also makes them, and their children, more aware.

Of course, when I say “immigrant,” I’m eliding important differences between types of immigrants. My family belonged to a particular type: immigrants who were part of the educated or professional classes in their own countries and came to the United States either because of political oppression or because of a lack of opportunity in the home country. There is a commonality between immigrants of this type that can cut across boundaries of ethnicity or national origin. I have found common ground with people from India or China that may be more difficult for me to find with people who more obviously look like me – whose ancestors were European but whose families have been in this country for generations. We grew up with many of the same expectations, particularly educational expectations. We make many of the same choices.

I won’t go on much more in this blog post, but let me at least specify the sort of family background I came from, to give you some idea of what I mean by that particular immigrant class. In Hungary, my family was both educated and professional. I don’t have much information about it, in part because there are things I still haven’t been told. But here are the things I know. I know that I have an ancestress named Katalin Bezerédi, because I have a painting of her on porcelain. The Bezerédis were a prominent family in Hungary. I know that I have an ancestor who wore a sword to receive some sort of honor from the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, because my brother has the sword. I know that there is a famous poet in my family tree (although I’ll have to ask my mother who he was). Also that one of my great-grandfathers was a teacher, because I once saw his picture, looking stiff and respectable. In the black and white family photos I’ve seen from the nineteenth century, everyone looks prosperous. My grandmother’s father ran Szántódpuszta, a large farm close to Lake Balaton. It was owned by the Abbey of Tihany, and he was what my mother calls an agricultural engineer: someone trained to run such properties. It’s fun to visit, because it’s now a museum and you can walk around, seeing how people used to live in the late nineteenth century. It’s been frozen in time. My grandmother was born in this house, in the main room because it was the middle of winter and the other rooms were too cold:

She went to art school and married my grandfather, who was also an agricultural engineer. She was very proud of being a Székely, one of the Hungarian tribes in Transylvania. (I know how all of this sounds, but I’m not making any of it up. Yes, yes, Count Dracula claims to be a Székely in Stoker’s book. I love teaching that part.) The Székelys claim to be descended directly from Attila’s Huns, and sure enough, my grandmother always told me that we were descended from Attila. Remember that in Hungary he’s considered a cultural hero. She came from the lower nobility, and had the right to use some sort of crest, I’m not sure what. It’s pretty much the same story on my father’s side: there’s lower Transylvanian nobility there too. (But no counts, so don’t worry.  I don’t bite.) My father’s father was a doctor, as are my father and his sister.  He met my mother in medical school.

So, we’re taking about a family that came from a sort of upper professional, lower noble, financially secure class. Of course, everything changed during the Communist era. But I think I’ll write about that tomorrow.

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12 thoughts on “The Immigrant Class: Part 1

    • Thanks! I did read Erin’s counterargument (if that’s the right word). Honestly, I had a bit of trouble understanding it, for the same reason I had a bit of trouble understanding John’s post: I’m not a gamer, so some of the terminology goes over my head. But it’s a very interesting discussion.

  1. Very cool. Love that bit of history.

    My family were immigrants it’s true but as they immigrated to this land approx 370 years ago, you could say we have established a foothold here. They didn’t immigrate poor either. In fact they came with indentured servants to do all the work for them.

  2. Interesting subject. And yes, there are definite classes in American society, all the more noticeable to me at least for how little most in the US seem to notice those distinctions.

    I wouldn’t say, though, that immigrants are not in a social class when they arrive. That might be true of the sort of immigrants you’re speaking of, the professionals, the ones from minor noble houses or whatnot–but as for the poorer immigrants from poorer backgrounds, they’re definitely placed in a social category, at least for a time: One of their own, just above illegal immigrants and below everyone else.

    I wonder if I count as one of your professional-level immigrants, by dint of moving from a decently well-off family background in the States to Canada. I suspect, though, that if I have to ask then I don’t; it’s very different immigrant situation when the conditions back home are entirely as good as where you’re moving. Maybe there’s the difference between the expat experience and the immigrant one? . . .

    • Interesting: I wonder what the expat experience is and how it’s different? I think it does have to be quite different: for us there was no possibility of going home, or even of visiting for many years because once you left Communist Hungary illegally (and there were very few ways to leave legally), you could be jailed if you went back.

      I agree that some immigrants arrive with a social category, but I think it’s usually when there are already immigrants from their country and social class here waiting for them? For example, a Mexican immigrant arriving in California may already have an entire community that provides identity and knowledge of how to function in the U.S.

  3. Well, as an expat you can always go home, as you say. I’ve been trying to think of something else that is necessarily different, but I haven’t come up with anything. But being able to go home, without even a worry about decreasing one’s standard of living much less the threat of being imprisoned, is a pretty big difference.

    I think most poorer and less educated immigrants end up moving into or building their own communities. It’s just way too hard to immigrate if you don’t have skills, money or social networks to fall back on. So, yes, immigrant social classes in US society come from cultures where a lot of immigrants have moved in during the same generation, but they also tend to be comprised of the poorer and less educated immigrants because of the advantages they gain by immigrating in groups.

    • Richard, I think you’re right. And also, it’s easier for immigrants from the most educated and professional classes to assimilate into American society. For one thing, those immigrants really focus on assimilation. For another, they have more resources in terms of things like language classes. And I’m not sure whether this is absolutely true or not, but my sense is that on the upper levels of the income scale, there’s a lot less resistance to immigrants. American doctors don’t worry about Hungarian doctors coming and taking their jobs. So they are more likely to immediately accept that this is simply a colleague from another country. In a way, it’s easier to be liberal and tolerant and all those good things when you have job and income security . . .

      • Yes, and I think it’s also true that people nearer the upper levels of the education (if not always the income) scale are often used to working with other researchers from all around the world, so they’d also feel less resistance when some of these colleagues might immigrate to their country. As well education tends to breed a familiarity with other cultures, which can encourage greater mixing between immigrants and non-immigrants.

        The education itself might not even be the important factor leading to increased tolerance, but rather the familiarity with other cultures that tends to go along with it; a white factory worker who’s only ever been around white people, for instance, is more likely to be less tolerant of other races than would be a similar worker with friends from other countries or racial communities–or even a similar worker who reads a great deal about other countries.

      • I think you’re right, and that they go together: people who are more educated are more likely to work in an environment where educated people are coming from other countries. They’re more likely to work in an international environment, like any science lab in this country nowadays. Higher educations also equals more exposure to other cultures and a more international mindset.

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