The American Dream Sounds Like a Cult

Kristy Martino
May 1, 2017 · 6 min read

That’s a Funny Accent

The first thing I noticed about Catherine was her accent. She was talking too fast for me to pin it down but I could certainly conclude that it wasn’t any sort of American dialect. When we meet to discuss her journey to America, she makes two remarks that embarrass me. “Americans never ask me about being Scottish and no one ever understands where my accent is from.” We’ve known each other for four years now and this will be the first time I ask her what it’s really like to be Scottish in America.

Catherine Fiona Stewart was born in Rutherglen, a suburb outside of Glasgow, Scotland in 1987. As a toddler, she lived in England until the age of five when she and her family moved back to Scotland, to a middle class neighborhood called Stirling. Her family heritage traces far back with deep Scottish roots. When I ask her how she identifies herself, she nearly cuts me off and proudly proclaims, “I am Scottish, of course!”

If you were to try to construct the image of a Scot (not Scotchman, not Scotch, that’s a beverage), from memory, you will likely see creamy white skin, pale green eyes, and red hair. Catherine fits this description and when I think back on why I’d never asked her about her experience as an immigrant to this country, I realized, my image of a Scott, my image of Catherine did not match my image of “immigrant.” If left alone, without serious or thoughtful inquiry, the stereotype of “immigrant” comes down to difference. Is there a difference between this person standing before me? When I first met Catherine, I saw subtle variations among our skin, hair, and eye color, but nothing that would amount to me seeing her as different. In other words, I did not see her as “other.” She spoke English (albeit with an accent), was in my office asking about an arts organization I belonged to. She even had the same shoes that I had. Morris Levy and Matthew Wright of The Washington Post explore a deep-seated bias against Latino immigrants in a recent study:

Discrimination against Latinos may grow not from hostility against an ethnic “outgroup,” but rather stereotypes about whether they will contribute to the United States or become a burden. In the absence of other information, whites in our sample rely on ethnic cues to “fill in the blanks” — assuming undocumented Latinos are uneducated, unassimilated and potential financial problems for U.S. society.

I did not see Catherine as an immigrant, likely due to my own biases I often neglect to check and reign in. But indeed she was. And likely, in fear of deportation that very day in my office.

I Live Here Now

In 2012, Catherine and her boyfriend Michael (an American with dual citizenship from Spain) whom she had met while attending college in England, received a phone call. Michael’s father had terminal cancer. Within a week, Catherine was on her way to America on a tourist visa. Over the span of three months, Catherine and Michael were caretakers, realtors, counselors, advocates, and quickly became husband and wife as the clock ran out on Catherine’s tourist visa. The threat of deportation loomed during the expired visa to green card waiting list limbo. She was also greatly restricted in her ability to drive, work, bank, and much more. In November, 2012, Catherine received her green card and a two-year permanent residency. While sitting in a Hampton, New Hampshire winter rental by the ocean decorated in abundance with a fake lobster claw coffee table and starfish plates, napkins, door mats and all, she had a moment where she thought to herself, “this is home, I live here now.”

When I think of my father’s family, and their immigration from Italy to America, he had mentioned over and over again the importance of learning the English language, that that was a necessary part of becoming American. I asked Catherine if there was a similar reverence for language in Scotland. Besides a “certain snobbery” around the preference of some to speak Scottish Gaelic, language was never an identifier for her. Until she came to America. Much of Catherine’s work is in arts education and this includes much communication via telephone and email. She often has to stop and ask herself, “do I write this email in American?”

The assimilation process has been drawn across delicate lines. Language, as in my father’s family, has played a large role but has played out in softer ways. In her writing and speaking, Catherine regularly “Americanizes” words. Pants, not trousers. Backpack, not rucksack. Color, not colour. She finds herself abstaining from conversations where too many pop culture references dominate. She can’t relate and is exhausted by continuously having to ask, “what does that mean?” For my father’s family, the language was different. For Catherine, the language is the same, but the social norms, the perceptions, idiosyncrasies separate her from her adopted countrymen.

There has been much to lose, much to give up, in Catherine’s immigration experience. Most sorely missed is the classic Scottish dish, haggis. A Scottish tourist site declares haggis “Scotland’s national dish and the crowning glory of a traditional Burns Supper, and although it’s an object of Scottish culinary fascination around the world, it certainly is not a beauty queen” (Scotland Alba, 2016). Haggis is a savory mix of sheep’s innards and spices. “I really miss haggis. Scotland’s Patron Saint Day is coming up and I would make it if it weren’t illegal. You can’t process sheep lungs in America.” For now, her other Scottish favorites will do; mashed turnips and rutabaga, and a tenderized beef flank rolled around garlic, spices, and herbs called “beef olives” — my Italian family’s braciole by another name.

The American Dream Sounds Like a Cult

Since I had made a number of assumptions about Catherine and her experience, I asked her to deduce what may have been different between the way each of us were raised. She immediately remarks on the American Dream. She’s heard me tell stories of my father, how he drilled us daily with the words, “if you work hard enough, you can do anything in America.” As a high school senior, Catherine studied American politics and identity. She was always dumbfounded by our notion, our narrative that we were a country of men who were created equal, when clearly, this was only the case for some, not for all. She saw us burdened with unrealistic idealism, driven by individualism; foreign ideas to her and her view of the world from Scotland. “Americans put the work ethic on a pedestal, and they love to talk about themselves as Americans. We don’t do that.” When I refer back to conversations with my father, I hear the mention of work ethic and can recall him saying many times that his family “were a different breed of immigrants, they [Italians] knew how to work hard, they had a great work ethic.”

People constantly ask Catherine if she will become a citizen of the United States. “I feel like I’ve made no choices to be here, there were just events and circumstances out of our control. But since I’ve moved here, I feel strongly that I am not a citizen but I’m not sure I want to be a citizen. I’m not sure I want to pledge allegiance to this flag. I’ve paid thousands of dollars to be in this country and I would have to pay thousands more to become a citizen. As an immigrant, being a part of democracy, voting, is the last thing withheld from you. It should be the first thing given to you.”

When I ask Catherine what she thinks makes someone American, she sighs, answering that this is a hard question now in a world where Brexit has happened, and Donald Trump is the President-Elect. She repeats her observation of America’s many hypocrisies; declared but not enacted separation of church and state, children standing at attention and reciting an allegiance with the words, “and justice for all” in it. But as she speaks, she uses the word “we” when talking about Americans. I point it out to her and ask, are you an American? Catherine brushes her bright red hair from her face and in a pleasantly melodic accent replies, “I am not a citizen of this country, I cannot vote, but I am participating in this country.”

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