The Immigrant Class: Part 3

I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe the set of assumptions I grew up with because of my particular immigrant experience. It involved a double displacement: my mother had lost her home when she was a child (that’s what confiscated means, of course). She still remembers that house, and the pony she used to ride. She also lost her social class, because now there were supposedly no social classes, although of course that’s not what actually happened. What happened is that everyone still knew where everyone else fit in the social order, but the people who had once been peasants were now given preferential treatment – easier admission to the universities, for example. I wonder how much that really changed the social landscape of Hungary. I don’t know. But I do know that Hungarians still have an acute sense of social class. Once, I went on a skiing vacation in Austria with my father and his family. An uncle of mine was there, and I was told repeatedly that he was the one in the family who had inherited the title. Those sorts of things were not supposed to count under Communism, and yet they were always there – everyone still knew and remembered.

So I think that my mother grew up with a sort of double consciousness. She was taught that hereditary social privileges were ridiculous, outdated, and she will tell you that. Also that religion is the opiate of the masses. As is television. She believes, to her core, in hard work and individual merit. On the other hand, that core itself contains an instinctive conviction that there are certain ways to live. And those ways come from the ancient social structure that Communism was supposed to destroy.

I didn’t understand this, when I was a child. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t do the seemingly simple and innocent things that my classmates did. Wear an anklet or designer jeans. It took me years to understand that these things were about social class. I remember, as an adult, reading a column by Judith Martin, who wrote as Miss Manners. She was asked about the proper way to wear an anklet, and responded, “The proper way to wear an anklet is on your wrist, where it is called a bracelet.” I find Martin fascinating because she has a thorough understanding of the history of manners. Her knowledge goes back to Emily Post and the Victorians. And the reason I couldn’t wear an anklet or designer jeans is that, although I was an American middle school student, I was in training to be a lady. My mother would probably tell me that was ridiculous, because she was trained to regard those sorts of social designations as outdated. She would simply say I was expected to dress properly. But you know where those rules come from, what properly really means. It means properly for a particular social class.

One thing that happens in immigrant families that come from a relatively high status in their home countries is a deep anxiety that the status will lost. That children brought up in the new country will not rise to an equivalent status. Hence the focus on education, which is the easiest and most reliable way to rise up again.

I think back now to the strange disjunctions of my childhood: my mother was a doctor, but she was raising two children, so in terms of income we were nowhere near as comfortable as most of the children I went to school with. We shopped at discount stores, and I often marveled at what my friends had: the clothes, the houses with rooms just for watching TV, their own cars! On the other hand, I spent so much time at the museums that I can probably still remember my way around the National Galleries of Art, I had a favorite opera and Shakespeare play, and I knew from a young age how to behave at a symphony because I was expected (sometime compelled) to go. When my brother or I cooked, we made Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or Campbell’s Tomato Soup, but the silverware in the drawer was actual silver. The art on the walls was original art. I think I was the only person in my graduating class who applied to Harvard. I didn’t get in, and to be honest I’m not sure I would have survived it at that point. I was young and confused, and I didn’t know who I was or who I was supposed to become. I had both an inferiority and a superiority complex: inferiority because I was so obviously poorer than my classmates, which was even more true at the University of Virginia, and so much in America seemed to be based on wealth, but also superiority because I felt smarter, more cultured. And some of the things they cared about so much, I knew weren’t important.

A sort of aside here. I was taught from a young age that conspicuous display of wealth is vulgar – that it marks one as coming from a lower social class. Once, when I complained about my clothes, my mother told me with scorn that it was the children of the nobility who wore ragged clothes – that is, who wore their clothes out.  They were the ones who did not display their wealth. The real problem with designer jeans wasn’t so much the expense – it was that I would have a label on my butt. And that was something one simply did not do. I still can’t bring myself to wear anything with a conspicuous label, even if I bought it for $5 at Goodwill, which is more likely than not. I like Ralph Lauren, but anything with an RL visible on it would make me intensely and instinctively uncomfortable. I think this particular standard exists because in an aristocracy, everyone already knows who everyone else is. It is only in a socially fluid society that external labels mark status. So having an external label signifies that you are a wannabe. Someone whose social status is not already fixed. Complicated, isn’t it? Of course for me, it meant that I was doomed to being permanently uncool.

One of the reasons we had art on the walls is that my grandmother was trained as an artist, so we had her art, art from friends of ours who were artists, art that my mother had collected. She was used to living with art. I’ll end today by including two paintings by my grandmother. First, a watercolor of my mother as a child.

And second, a watercolor of geraniums. I have a painting of hers rather like this in my own collection. Because of course I have a collection of art myself. Art is the one thing I have always been extravagant about.

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12 Responses to The Immigrant Class: Part 3

  1. Jesse Walker says:

    I feel we get along in one regards because you and I were raised similar ways. You to be an Eastern European lady and myself to work and socialize with CEO’s from around the world. My dad worked in the commerce department and his job was to convince people like Mercedes and BMW to open factories here. So I grew up meeting and visiting with people of that class even if our bank accounts weren’t on par.

    Did I mention to you my abhorrence of designer labels as well? You may have noticed it. A small discrete logo is fine but the rest? I don’t understand it.

    Part of it is coming from the same place as you, that it isn’t classy to do it. Quality speaks for itself not the logo. The other part of it comes from the photographer who works in advertising when he is lucky. You want me to wear your logo? That’s fine, pay me to advertise for you. No, I will not pay more for a t-shirt because it has your logo on it, but I will pay less for it. Clothing seems to be the only area where you pay more to have logos spluged all over it.

    • Jesse, at some point I’ll have to describe my college years and my college boyfriend, who went to a prep school (Groton) and was a diplomat’s son. I think your experiences probably had a lot of similarities. There’s a way to dress, too, that comes from that background. It’s the khakis, collared shirts with shirttails out (because they had to be tucked in for prep school), jacket, no tie. Shoes without socks. Men still dress like that at UVA.

      Yes, when my mother had dinner parties, I always had to greet people, pass around canapes, and make conversation. The real way to distinguish people by class was not by what they wore but by their manners. I think my childhood was partly a training in manners, and I don’t think my mother ever thought my manners were good enough! 🙂

  2. Maureen E says:

    Part of what’s fascinating to me about your description here is how closely sections of it relate to my experience, even though my family background is completely different. I grew up in a declining neighborhood in Columbus OH, in a house my great-grandparents built. We were pretty poor, but we also had bookshelves full of books. We went to the ballet and the symphony–not often, maybe once a year, but that was our splurge. And the sense of both inferiority and superiority is exactly right. I know I felt it starting in high school and then in college. My classmates might have had more money than I did, but I knew that branded bags didn’t really count and were, in fact, not really in good taste.

    On the other hand, I think a lot of my sense of good taste and so on came from a generational family thing which had a lot more to do with middle class striving than with actually belonging, or having belonged, to the right class. I know on my dad’s side, my grandparents met because my grandmother wanted to go to the dance school that all her classmates were going to, but her mother, who was divorced, couldn’t afford it and sent her to a cheaper school. She met my grandfather there, so I guess it worked out, but there’s this multi-generational tension between the desire to be cultured and classed and the reality that we don’t actually have the money or connections to be either.

    As a side note, I vividly remember my grandmother once giving me a manicure set because “Ladies can always be recognized by how well they keep their hands,” and I, my mother’s daughter, being entirely indignant because that meant you couldn’t do anything–by which I meant garden, paint, bake, etc.

    • Maureen, that’s very interesting. The Victorians had what was almost a technical term: “distressed gentlewoman.” It was a lady who did not actually have the financial means that were supposed to go with her status, but she had the manners, the habits, the way of dressing and carrying herself. I was expected to garden, paint, and bake, because those were all skills that ladies were supposed to have–maybe that’s a European distinction, I don’t know. But I was supposed to do so without getting dirty fingernails . . . 🙂

  3. This account is very helpful to me in the mystery of my Polish ancestors. While we were not well off, my half Polish mother taught me to be polite to everyone, Pullman
    Porters, Chinese people, everyone. She introduced me to classical music by making up fairy stories to Tchaikovsky and her beloved Chopin: she read to me, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland… One of her best gifts to me was how to look things up in the public library. I was raised like a little princess. My mother was raised to be a sort of countess in the wild west.

    • Phyllis, it sounds like we had some similar experiences! 🙂

    • It crossed my mind that for younger people, tolerance has thankfully become more common. I’d like to add a little more to my mother’s incredible compassion. It was more than just being polite to people of color or those somewhat ‘different’ in a time, not so long ago when that was not the norm in our backwoodsy West. She gave me a sense of looking for the soul and backstory of every-one I met. It has lasted all my life, at ease around street people or in mansions.The gift a fairy godmother
      might give a little girl.

  4. Evelyn says:

    This is fascinating. My parents grew up as farmers in Communist China, so a lot of the things they have been teaching me for my whole life are the same: individual merit, hard work, etc. They’re also (very) insistent about getting into a good/prestigious college.

    I’ve never liked logos, either, and have on occasions when they are foisted on me the article in question is usually regifted.

    • And do they also save EVERYTHING? We used to have a stacks of plastic containers from various types of food (sour cream, cottage cheese, etc.). My mother hated to throw anything that she could use again away. I still hate to see people throw away food. I think there are a lot of similarities when your parents come from Communist countries, whether it’s Hungary or China or Poland etc.

      • Evelyn says:

        Yes! We have a cupboard in the kitchen that is overflowing with plastic grocery bags, and I’m probably not going to have to buy binders ever because there are so many discards from my parents’ work. Whenever we try to get rid of that stuff someone in my family always claims it, on the grounds that “I’ll find a use for it, eventually.”

      • I’ve heard that phrase many, many times! I think they’ve just gotten so used to saving everything that they can’t stop. And I have to admit, it is an admirable quality. Much better than our tendency to throw everything away . . .

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