In The Tempest, the eponymous storm lands the characters on unexpected shores. The same has been true of the US, where chaotic global forces have swept various groups of people onto American land. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, an explosion of anti-Semitism provoked a new wave of Russian Jews to seek refuge in the US. Those who came to the US usually had almost no money, little knowledge of English, and a lack of transferable skills. As a result, 80% of Jewish refugee families from the Soviet Union were on welfare. Nonetheless, they were grateful for the chance to freely inhabit their identity as Jews, even if for most of them this was more of a cultural than religious matter.
Although the Russian Jews who came to the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the Soviet Jews who came at the end of the twentieth share an ethnoreligious identity and a national origin, there were also stark differences between them. These were exacerbated by the near century that separated their arrival in the US. At the same time, Soviet Jews benefited from the cultural institutions and communities that had been established by Jews in the US many years before.
During this period, there was also another wave of immigrants from Ireland, who likewise had been propelled by dire economic conditions in their homeland. Many of these immigrants were undocumented, and were thus forced to work undesirable, low-paid jobs. They “kept a low profile” and only associated with others in the Irish community. These Irish joined Mexicans in fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants. During this time, more Chinese immigrants were also coming to the US. In the 1960s, the hypocrisy between banning racial discrimination through the Civil Rights Act and retaining race-based immigration discrimination became starkly clear. In 1965, Congress finally eliminated restrictions on Asian immigration.
When asked to picture an “illegal immigrant,” most people would probably not imagine a white Irish person. Throughout A Different Mirror, Takaki highlights that this is because a certain model of what an undocumented person looks like has been aggressively disseminated in service of racism. While undocumented Irish immigrants certainly faced hardships as a result of their immigration status, they also still benefited from white privilege in the way that other undocumented people did not.
In the ensuing years, there was a boom of Chinese immigrants moving to the US. Many of them were young people coming to the US to study, and many of them later brought their families under family provisions in the immigration law. However, there were also a substantial number with little education or knowledge of the English language, who came to do low-paid, unskilled jobs. Many women in this category worked as seamstresses in the garment industry, just as Jewish women had done decades before. Many men worked in restaurants, remaining within the close-knit community of Chinatowns. Some of these low-wage workers had been teachers, professors, or architects back in China. Without English, however, they could not get equivalent positions in the US.
It is another unfortunate commonality among different immigrant groups that those who held highly skilled, professional positions back in their home country are often unable to find similar work in the US. Although on some level language issues do provide a practical barrier to these individuals gaining equivalent work after immigrating, Takaki suggests throughout the book that racism is also to blame.
During the Second World War, the Vietnamese fought for independence from their French colonizers. After the country was divided in what was supposed to be a temporary partition, civil war took over the nation, backed by China and the Soviet Union on the one side and the US on the other. During the 1960s, the US became increasingly involved in the war, with disastrous consequences. A huge “exodus” of Vietnamese refugees were forced to flee to the US. Escaping widespread death and devastation, the refugees tended to have fairly good English skills and familiarity with Western culture. Half of them were Christian, a minority that was only 10% of the Vietnamese population.
The US involvement in the Vietnam War is often considered one of the most regrettable moments in the nation’s history. The trajectory of how this war took place shows how the legacy of imperialism can devastate a nation many years after colonization initially took place, and lead to conflict far down the road.
Back in Vietnam, the communist government’s reorganization of society meant that skilled professionals were forced to complete manual labor in the countryside. Many escaped to the US in what amounted to the second wave of Vietnamese immigrants; 40% of these were from the ethnic Chinese population of Vietnam. Although many in the US felt that the Vietnamese, who had fought on the same side as the Americans in the war, had a right to seek refuge in the US, they still faced racist hostility. The refugees themselves had mixed feelings about their new home in the US. Many missed Vietnam deeply and felt dismayed at being cut off from their own culture.
It is hardly surprising that Vietnamese immigrants should feel ambivalent about their new home in the US. A lot of them likely felt resentment about the US’ involvement in the Vietnam War in the first place, which would have bred a feeling of general anti-American sentiment. Moreover, the racist hostility they experienced once in the US likely confirmed whatever negative thoughts they had about Americans.
But the US also brought new opportunities, particularly for Vietnamese women, who could gain independence there. Although many refugees wanted to go back to Vietnam, they slowly realized that this was not likely, and began to settle down in their new home. In the past decades, Vietnamese communities in the US have been flourishing. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that more and more Vietnamese have been coming as immigrants, rather than refugees, indicating that the US is seen as a desirable destination to begin a new life.
This passage contains an important detail about the trajectory of immigration patterns. In some cases, particular ethnic groups come to the US by necessity, without having much optimism or desire about building a life there. However, once people of these communities set up a viable life there, the notion of moving to the US by choice becomes more common.
Afghanis also came to the US as refugees. Following political turmoil in the 1970s, in 1979, Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union, who installed a procommunist leader. The US was worried that this would threaten American access to Afghan oil, and thus financed those fighting against the Soviets, the mujahideen. A brutal ten-year conflict ensued. However, even after the Soviets left in 1989, the civil war continued, until 1996 when the ultraconservative Taliban took power. Women were forced to wear burqas, which covered their faces. Then, on September 11, 2001, the Afghanistan-based terrorist organization Al-Qaeda carried out an attack on the World Trade Center. A year later, the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan, deposing the Taliban.
The horrific experiences of Afghans in the late twentieth century are evidence of how a fairly small nation and population can get caught in the midst of global conflict, with terrible results. For ordinary Afghan people, US oil interests and the conflict between the West and the Soviet Union were completely irrelevant and meaningless. Yet they suffered to an enormous degree as a result of these issues.
During these years of strife, Afghanis came to the US to seek refuge. Most escaped via Pakistan, in a journey that was highly dangerous and traumatizing. Many of these refugees settled in the Bay Area, particularly in Fremont, where signs of Afghan culture bloomed. They brought food and traditions to “Little Kabul,” but many struggled to find work, particularly due to a lack of English-language skills. Things took a stark turn for the worse after 9/11. Fearing backlash, Afghanis tried to hide their identity, pretending to have Mediterranean or Hispanic heritage instead. Afghan children were bullied at school, and adults were horrified to see all Muslims being characterized as terrorists.
As is evident today, the demonization of Muslims has long outlasted the immediate aftermath of 9/11. For many Muslim Americans, the country that they call home is a hostile and terrifying place to exist. Indeed, this unfortunate reality shows that the issues Takaki describes throughout the book are not confined to history, but rather very real and powerful aspects of the present.
In 2007, a conference was held in Fremont to consider what it meant to be Afghan-American. One 24-year-old Afghan American who was born in the US explained that both identities were “embedded” within her. Others expressed pride in being both Afghan and American. Some indicated a desire to return to Afghanistan and contribute to the country. They also discussed their fears of anti-Afghan and anti-Muslim abuse in the US, which had become a major problem after 9/11. Others noted that it could be difficult to reconcile the cultural differences between Afghanistan and the US, particularly as children caught in the middle. Yet one participant spoke of how Afghans have managed to retain their identity while immersing themselves in the US, which she framed as “integration” rather than “assimilation.”
Again, just because the experience of being an immigrant often involves being caught being two cultures, it doesn’t mean that this is a bad thing. As the conference on Afghan-American identity shows, the duality of culture can actually be a source of beauty, complexity, richness, and strength, even as it might also have some downsides. Indeed, the issues described at the conference are hardly unique to Afghan Americans, but are rather something than an increasing majority of people in the US experience in some form or other.
At the time Takaki is writing, there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in the US, most of whom have come from Mexico. There are many in the US who want to exclude and deport this population, making their lives so difficult that they are forced to leave—or worse. Yet some argue that they should be given amnesty, as suggested in a 2007 article in Time magazine. The article assured readers that these undocumented immigrants would eventually assimilate. Takaki points out that it is largely thanks to US-backed trade policy that the Mexican economy has become so unstable, forcing immigrants to come northward. These undocumented migrants dream of a better life in the US.
A Different Mirror was originally published in 1994; Takaki revised it in the 2000s, when the issue of undocumented immigrants was gaining more and more national attention. Since this edition of the book was published, immigration has become an even more emotionally charged and difficult aspect of American culture. Indeed, the trajectory that emerges here suggests that the history of immigration is not one of straightforward progress, but often involves periods of significant regression.
Crossing the border is highly difficult and dangerous; many die in the desert during the journey. In order to meet the US need for agricultural workers, President George W. Bush initiated a guest worker program, which forces migrant laborers to return home after a fixed period. This harkens back to the painful era when Chinese laborers—who were so crucial to the construction of the nation—were denied the right of naturalized citizenship. A perhaps unlikely supporter of the rights of undocumented immigrants was President Reagan, who created pathways for the undocumented to reside in the country legally. Reagan argued that the undocumented class were doing labor that American citizens were not themselves prepared to do.
Today, it is easy to draw simplistic conclusions down party lines about who believes what about immigration, which is why Takaki’s description of Reagan’s more nuanced beliefs is so important. Reagan’s beliefs about immigration suggest that from a purely economic perspective, open borders are far more profitable than exclusion.
For many Mexican immigrants, moving to the US has provided educational and employment opportunities that have enabled them to flourish. Like other children of immigrants, young Mexican Americans must find a way to reconcile their ancestral culture with the norms that govern life in the US. They work hard in order to honor the sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents and to make the older generations proud. Yet Latinx people in the US have some of the lowest levels of educational attainment. Those who are undocumented often have to pay steep out-of-state tuition prices, making college economically unviable for many. Still, there has recently been a sharp increase in the percentage of Mexican Americans who are US citizens, which Takaki asserts is a highly promising turn of events for the community.
The issues Takaki describes here remain pertinent and difficult obstacles. Indeed, this serves as a reminder that the future of the country is still very much in flux. The US may still become a place where racism and xenophobia begin to vanish and the country will indeed embrace its multiethnic history and reality. At the same time, it is also very possible that racism and xenophobia will increase. This possibility ties into Takaki’s overarching goal in writing A Different Mirror: to lay bare the pain and exploitation that characterized US history so that Americans can learn from the past and cultivate a better future.