Living Up to the American Dream


The Price of Being the Model Immigrants

May/June 2008


I'm sitting with my husband watching a PBS program on the Jewish American experience. It starts with the first Jews to immigrate to the United States, in the mid-1600s, and those who fought in the Revolutionary War. It's a history with which even my husband, a third-generation American Jew, is unfamiliar, and it fascinates us. When the timeline reaches the 1950s, a period of accelerating assimilation, the photographs and narratives evoke childhood memories for him. For me, the stories of hard work, overcoming discrimination, and social success bring back memories, too—not because I'm Jewish, but because they remind me of the history of the Japanese American community, in which I came of age.

I was born in Japan, but spent my earliest childhood years in Michigan with my family, before we all returned in Japan to live until I was 17. I then came back to the U.S. for college. During my college years, I worked with Japanese Americans, first as a community volunteer, and then as a social worker. Raised in Japan, I could converse in Japanese with older women—something my English-speaking, third-generation friends couldn't do. I loved listening to women who'd come to this country as picture brides, arriving via ship holding photos of their husbands, whom they'd never met, and then struggling to make lives for themselves in a new land, where they didn't speak the language and didn't understand the culture. In some respects, the challenges they talked about reminded me of my…

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