Letter To An Immigrant Child

A friend named Jenna who teaches ESL classes in Ohio emailed friends around the country asking for letters about how immigration has shaped our identities. Her students are rattled by recent news, and she wanted them to have access to stories of how “real America” views immigration — ordinary folks around the country, not shouting heads on TV. Anything goes, she said, just tell your own story and don’t be political.

I thought I’d post my letter publicly in case it could encourage someone else to write too. It’s a great idea. Please consider the impact this public fight is having on kids, and please write your own letter.

You can email Jenna directly, or you can deliver it to any school in the country and they’ll know what to do. Or post it online with the hashtag #LetterToAnImmigrantChild

Hi there.

We haven’t met, but consider me family.

I grew up in the countryside of Virginia. The fields were filled with tobacco and corn, soy and cows. Virginians are particularly proud of their peanuts and ham. Brunswick stew is the local soup — you’re supposed to make it with squirrel, but everyone uses chicken. In the houses scattered across the fields, everyone looked and spoke just like me.

My whole life has been a series of moves to increasingly urban places, mostly by happenstance. Countryside to suburbs. Suburbs to small city. Small city to medium city. Medium city to big city. With each move, my neighbors looked less like me. New music, food, perspectives, jokes, fashion, sports.

And now as an adult, when I’m asked “who am I, as an American?” I realize it’s impossible to separate my identity from these neighbors who a little white boy from the countryside would have guessed were nothing like him. These neighbors who speak differently, think differently, eat differently, and worship differently.

I know how to trash talk about cricket thanks to a Sri Lankan. How to make laser cutting art thanks to an Iraqi. What it means to be an entrepreneur thanks to an Indian. And there could be nothing more comic book American than a trash-talking entrepreneur cutting things with lasers, no matter what accent rolls off your tongue.

My wife is Taiwanese, and now I have two countrysides. One in the Appalachian mountains in America. One in the Yilan mountains in Taiwan.

In Yilan, the fields are filled with kumquats and bitter melon, rice and ducks. Yilaners are particularly proud of their clean water and green scallions. Niuroumian is the local soup — you’re supposed to make it with tendon-filled beef, but I ask for pork instead. In the houses scattered across the rice patties, nobody looks like me. And nobody cares.

Only three things actually matter when describing a person. Are they kind? Are they empathetic? Do their actions match their words? Everything else is just a decoration on top of that common humanity.

So we haven’t met, but consider me family.

I know that you eat some kind of soup. That it has its own funny ingredient. That you come from a place that’s proud and a people that call themselves “we”. But what I really care about is that I suspect you’re a good person, and that you expect the same of me.

As you age, you’ll see a lot of people in power ranting and shouting about one group or another. It never stops being terrifying. But the people who represent just a slice will never be as powerful as people who embrace the whole, so long as the whole stands together. That’s the great neutralizing math of society.

So know that during the best times, the rest of us will call you family. And during the worst times, we will fight to defend and protect you. Undocumented, visa, green card, naturalized, first generation — you are my America, and we share this home together.

Ted Benson
San Francisco, California