Looking at America through the Eyes of an Immigrant
She reminds me of Veruca Salt from the movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. If you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll see what I mean.
It was her 16th birthday. During her lunch hour at school, a teacher tapped her on the shoulder.
“Step outside. Your Dad has a surprise for you.”
The girl squealed. She leapt to her feet and ran outside. Her friends followed close behind.
Her Dad was standing in the circle drive. “Stay right there, honey.”
He motioned to someone at the corner of the building.
Everyone turned to see what would happen next.
Around the corner came a brand-new car! A silver Ford Focus. Big ribbons crisscrossed the car. A giant bow on top. The car circled the roundabout and stopped directly in front of the girl.
The Dad beamed. “Well, honey…whaddaya think?”
The girl exploded.
“I can’t believe you!” she screamed. “I told you I wanted the BMW! How could you do this to me!?” She began to cry.
The crowd went quiet.
Dad began to chuckle. He turned to the side and gestured.
From around the corner came another car with another ribbon and a bow on top. It was the BMW she had demanded.
The girl hopped up and down in delight. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Daddy! I love it!”
A true story.
The Relationship Between Happiness and Expectations
Happiness is tied to our expectations.
Most kids would be happy with any ol’ car on their 16th birthday. Wouldn’t matter if it was a beater.
But not the girl in the story. She expected a Beamer and nothing else would do.
It’s why Veruca Salt, the spoiled girl in Willy Wonka, was perpetually miserable. She was too focused on what she didn’t have to enjoy what she did.
I suspect that this relationship between contentment and expectations is why so many immigrants I know are tremendously upbeat. Many have tasted oppression or political upheaval or a failed economic system in their home country. So, America to them is place of unparalleled opportunity, limited only by their imagination and their willingness to work hard.
It’s why I love hearing their stories.
Bledi: An Airport Shuttle Driver from Albania
Last year I had a long shuttle drive from Santa Barbara to LAX.
I stepped inside the shuttle at 4:30am, bleary-eyed, coffee in hand.
The driver’s name was Bledi. He’d emigrated from Albania 14 years prior.
He was listening to a sports station on the radio that was covering European soccer scores.
“I think people in America are becoming more interested in soccer, ” I said.
“Finally!” Bledi bellowed. “I like American football too, but there’s nothing like European futball.”
“I’ve always wanted to know something…why are there so many fights in the stands at soccer games in Europe?”
“It’s all about history. There’s been so much political tension in Europe over the centuries. Wars. Skirmishes. In-fighting. People in the stands have long memories. And when the other team beats you, it brings to mind the old grudges.”
“Yeah. Listen, if you’re ever in Madrid and you care at all for your life, don’t try to buy a jersey for Barcelona. They’re still angry about General Franco and the Spanish Civil War.”
We talked for two hours. Bledi spoke reverentially about George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, the 15th century Albanian national hero who led his people against the Ottomans for two decades.
He told me why most Eastern European countries claim The Great Alexander as a native son even though he was Macedonian.
He even explained why the Turks came to believe that Vlad Dracula of Romania was a vampire. “The Turks thought they killed him three times. Then they’d go into battle again and, poof, there he was! Still alive. He just kept showing up.”
Eventually, I asked Bledi the question I always ask an immigrant.
“So, why did you come to America?”
“To escape socialism. I was in Albania when it was still communist. Communism collapsed in the early ‘90s and that’s when socialism took over.”
“What was it like living under communism?”
“Horrible. Just horrible.” He looked away.
“Was it better under socialism?” I asked.
“Better than communism, but still not good. No one worked hard.”
“Why would you?” he said. “I was an engineer. I made $64 a month…same as everyone else. It didn’t matter how much education I had or how hard I worked. I always got paid the same.”
“So, you like it here?” I asked.
He laughed. “Of course! I can get ahead here. I make more here driving this shuttle than I ever did back in Albania.”
“But I won’t drive this shuttle forever. I’ve got plans.”
Jose, a Restaurant Owner
It used to be a Dairy Queen. So, it’s cramped and still has that odd, Dairy Queen hip roof.
But Casa Romero is home to some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten. Surprising when you consider it’s location: Waterloo, IL. Population: 10,130.
I’m a regular, so I’ve gotten to know the owner, Jose.
One day as I was paying my tab, I struck up a conversation with him.
“Jose…I travel for business, so I’ve eaten at lots of Mexican restaurants. I’ve found nothing anywhere that even comes close to the taste of your food. Not in Dallas or Austin, Arizona or even New York City.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Jose said.
“What makes your food so different?”
“I come from Guerrero. It’s in the southern part of Mexico. We use different spices there.”
“What’s Guerrero like?”
“Oh, it’s beautiful there. My family lives in the mountains, but we’re just an hour from the ocean. You should visit sometime.”
“I’d love to.” I said.
He leaned toward me. “You know, Mr. Greg, I have a book of recipes.” He held his right hand about four inches above his left. “It’s this thick. Recipes that were handed down to me from my parents and grandparents. I have plans, you know?”
“What kind of plans?”
“I want to roll out more recipes. Maybe open another restaurant.”
“That’s outstanding.” I looked around at the crowded dining area. “You need a bigger place. This place is always packed.”
“I’d like to find one. I’m looking, you know?”
“So, tell me…why did you come to America?”
“You know, Mr. Greg, my family in Mexico, they work hard. All of them. But no matter how hard we work, we couldn’t get ahead there, you know? But America is different. Better. You can make something for yourself here.”
“I don’t understand some people here, though. This past week, I haven’t felt well. Not sick, just tired. But I come to work anyway. I know people who — if they wake up with a headache — they’ll call in sick. You can’t do that. Not if you want to succeed.”
“This is the ‘Land of Opportunity,’ you know? You can have a great life here. But you have to take chances. You have to work hard.”
“Stop Complaining. Help Me See What’s Possible.”
Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett coined a phrase he calls, “The Gates Test.” He writes, “Someone can judge a country by which direction people run when the country erects gates: Do they flee in, or do they risk life and limb to get out?”
By that measure, the United States is a country to be envied.
Immigrants like Jose and Bledi came here because they see what’s great about America. They see what’s possible here. Each believes he can build a beautiful life if he’s willing to take a risk and work his tail off.
I used to grumble a lot about politics. But one of my daughters put an end to that. I was railing one day about some issue or another when she interrupted me.
“Dad…I know we’ve got problems in this country. And I know they need to be addressed. But I want to have hope about my future. When you complain about this or that, it sucks the life out of me. Please stop. Help me to see what’s possible instead.”
She was right. My complaining was robbing her of hope. And I had no right to do that to her. Or anyone else, for that matter.
Do we have problems in America? Evils that must be corrected? Of course. And each of us should get busy fixing them.
But in the process, I would rather help people see a vision of what could be and then get my hands dirty trying to achieve it than complain and denigrate and drag others down in the process.
After all, so much is possible here. How many countries are there where a person can arrive with a few personal belongings and build a wildly successful life with just a four-inch book of recipes and a dream?
Footnote: If you ever go to Casa Romero, order the Sizzling Chicken & Shrimp Burrito. A soft tortilla stuffed with chicken, shrimp, cauliflower, broccoli, a few beans, rice, and corn. Then it’s served on a sizzling fajita skillet and drizzled with a chimichurri sauce that’ll knock your socks off. Trust me, it’ll change you life. You can thank me later.
If you’d like to read about another immigrant who inspires me, check out, How to Make Yourself Indispensable at Work.
“When you complain about this or that, it sucks the life out of me. Please stop. Help me to see what’s possible instead.” Word. Out of the mouth of babes.
My kids are some of my best teachers.