Monday, October 13, 2008

Columbus Day: Focus On Immigration

Today is Columbus Day, the odd national holiday we have for an Italian who sailed for Spain and thought he'd found a route to India, and who never set foot in North America.

Nonetheless, Christobal Columbus set the stage for the resettlement of the Americas (named after another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci) by Europeans, Africans and Asians.

So, it was a good weekend to focus on immigration, in the Curmudgeon's case our personal family immigrations. We were up in New York this weekend for a reunion of the Curmudgeon's father-in-law's WWII unit, and while there took a long-neglected trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Let's start with our father-in-law. S.L. was born in the Sichuan province of China, in the salt-mining town of Zigong, in the 1920's. The oldest son in a relatively well-off family, he was soon swept off to war against the Japanese, finding himself in the Burma theater. A smart guy, S.L. recognized an opportunity when it came along. He knew a little English, so eagerly volunteered when someone came looking for recruits for a new unit that would go to America and help train U.S. troops for the fight in China.

S.L. soon found himself part of an elite unit of 100 soldiers that was called the Foreign Affairs Bureau, or the FAB 100. Arriving in the U.S. in 1945, S.L. found himself stationed at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis. He soon met a fascinating red-headed teenage girl from nearby when a local church organized a swim party for the foreign soldiers.

The war soon ended, S.L. married the red-head, and decided to stay in America, like many of the other FAB 100, while civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists and Mao Tse-Tong's Communists raged in his homeland.

In time, S.L. went to college in the U.S., earned a doctorate and became a computer engineer, working many years at Union Carbide. He and that red-head raised a thoroughly American family. For 25 years he had almost no contact with his family in China, until Richard Nixon's historic trip opened relations between the two countries and S.L. finally caught up with his parents and his brothers and sisters.

Many of the others at the FAB reunion--fittingly held at a hotel in NYC's Chinatown--have similar stories and brought significant portions of their now extended American families with them.

(The reunion also featured a visit to the under construction Museum of the Chinese in America--"MOCA"--nearby, to which the FAB experience is but one of many interesting stories.)

While down in Chinatown, we took the opportunity, on a crystal-clear blue sky day with ideal warm temperatures and low humidity, to visit Liberty Island and Ellis Island, that gateway to tens of millions of mostly European immigrants to America, especially in the period from 1880-1920. (It seemed that everyone in NY this past weekend had the same idea, giving Ellis Island and the ferries the same crowded feel they must have had during the peak immigrant years.)

Ellis Island was the portal for the Curmudgeon's grandfather, a skinny Jewish teenager who arrived from Poland in the first decade of the twentieth century to catch up with his older brother who'd already settled in Brooklyn.

It was interesting following Nathan's likely steps through the main hall as we took the audio tour and tried to share the mix of hope and apprehension he must have felt as he waited to see if he would be admitted to the American dream.

Nathan made it in, and after a few years in Brooklyn he and a cousin set out for Charleston, West Virginia--but ended up in Charleston, South Carolina. Or so the family legacy goes. He ended up settling in the tiny cotton belt town of North, South Carolina, where he operated a mercantile store. He persuaded the girl of his dreams, Esther, also a Jewish emigre, to marry him and take the leap of moving down to S.C., where they raised seven children, also thoroughly American.

These immigrants, and millions more, have enriched our nation and made it what it is today. At bottom, we're all immigrants. It's just a matter of when.

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