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Claudia Kolker: The TT Interview

The contributing editor for the Houston Chronicle on her book, which chronicles several practices that first-generation immigrants bring to the U.S.

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Claudia Kolker has traveled the world as a reporter, including stints in Japan, the Caribbean, Mexico, India and Central America. In doing so, she’s learned and absorbed volumes about different cultures and the habits of millions of people outside the U.S.

Now living in Houston, Kolker — who has reported for the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, The Boston Globe and the Houston Chronicle — drew on her experiences as a world traveler to focus on what traditions first-generation immigrants bring to this country. In her new book, The Immigrant Advantage, Kolker discusses more than a half-dozen practices brought from wherever different people call “the old country.” These include a Vietnamese savings club called a hui, an age-old Mexican practice of caring for a mother for 40 days after giving birth called a cuarentena and after-school study habits of Asian students. Kolker talked to The Texas Tribune recently on how she chose which topics to write about, what makes Texas special for immigrants and why she avoided talking on the politics of immigration in her journal. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

TT: Is this book a “how-to” manual on how U.S. citizens used to American culture can better their lives or an attempt to describe immigrant culture in the United States? It seems like it’s in the middle, but which to do you think it leans toward more?

Kolker: The latter. It really had a specific focus, which was that these are smart ideas that translate really well to our culture and that are still benefiting the people who bring them here and I believe can actively help the people who are here already. I am not sure if a “how to” is how I would describe it, but it’s not far from it. These are practices to achieve goals that we all want, and immigrants are doing a great job at these.

TT: How did you choose the cultural and traditional practices that you wanted to focus on? There are dozens upon dozens of ways that people have of doing things in their native countries, but you have narrowed it down to a little more than half a dozen.

Kolker: There are plenty of practices from the old county, wherever that may be, that are rotten practices which are best left behind and immigrants that come here are often happy to leave behind, like traditions of discrimination against women and minorities. So these are definitely cherry-picked. I’ve been writing about immigrants more than 20 years, and it’s always been fascinating to me to see what they do, especially things that seem successful in their experiences.

But when I moved to Houston, I became friends with a lot of immigrants, you can’t help it — it’s an incredibly diverse city and some of the most dynamic and successful people here come from other cultures. So the way I got most of the ideas in this book was from my friends, watching them have success with their kids in public schools or happy experiences the first week after having a baby, which is traditionally a very stressful time in the United States. They have successfully saved, which is not easy for anyone, to save a little more than they are comfortable with. I saw my friends doing these things and I asked — or they told me — and I wanted what they had.

TT: Was there a fear that you were furthering the stereotypes that people hold about immigrants? How did you balance that out?

Kolker: I wasn’t really concerned with that because I found out about these practices and then did the research and then finally had it vetted, everything vetted by people within those cultures. I first got the ideas from practices, from people I saw right before my eyes. I thought it was going to be more anecdotal than it was, that I would see these practices, that I would hear the outcome, because these are all practices that are handed down by word of mouth anyway — that’s the traditional way they’re shared. An example is that I tutored some Vietnamese kids in literature in Houston, and at first I thought that this mom just wanted this kid to learn literature. And then I saw his brother, and then I saw his friends and his friends told me: “You know, most of our friends are getting tutored in literature, English or even in math and science, too. This is a tradition in our culture.” So I got it from them. I learned about the practices firsthand. I just tried to follow the scholarship. For example, my chapter on tutoring Asian kids really tried to debunk the idea that school comes easily for Asians. It doesn’t come more easily for them than anybody, but there are certain practices they bring from South Korea and China that absolutely do work very well in this culture, and it correlates to a lot of good documentation. But those practices will work for anyone, and they work for my kids. The other thing I tried to do was really make sure that I documented the downside or the sacrifices of each of these practices.

Some traditions that come from South Korea and China are miserable, and people emigrate not to have to live in the environment where their kids spend an extra six hours at school every day and on the weekends because they’re so terrified of not getting into one of the 12 or 15 colleges that will ensure a successful future for them. We don’t have that, that’s awful, they hate it and we don’t want to emulate that. So I really try to go out of my way to not romanticize these practices. But a lot of the techniques translate really well or even better to our reality.

TT: Did you find that the customs varied more with time? Did they get altered as they were passed from generation to generation?

Kolker: I asked that question a lot myself, and the short answer is that there is not really a formula to it. I was interviewing first-generation immigrants mainly, and that’s what my book was doing: grabbing these customs before they fade away. And they do fade away quickly. Food customs tend to live on, and I seem to think that party customs tend to live on. And they spread laterally; everyone loves a good party and something fun to do at a party. Sometimes in New York you’ll have non-Jews dancing around with the bride and groom in a chair on their shoulders; it’s a Jewish custom, but what’s not to love about that? In Houston there was some research at a high school and the majority of the non-Latino kids wanted to have a quinceañera because it’s fun, they like the conspicuous consumption and the attention and the limos. I think that fiestas and food are very easy to translate because they live a long time. Other behaviors may seem weird. For example, the idea of living with your parents, not because you’re broke, not because you haven’t grown up, but because you’re saving for your Ph.D. or you want a down payment on your own house, free and clear, and not get into a terrible debt crisis. In Jamaica, that’s the mature responsible, socially supported thing to do. In the United States it’s weird and tragic and you have to do it because you lost your job. That’s the message we have been giving for a long time. There’s a lot of peer pressure against it. But that, I believe, is changing for a couple of reasons. I think it’s changing because of the economy and the millennials are much closer and comfortable with their parents than the '60s generation, so there’s not that stigma. So some of these customs, it just depends on how much validation they get here. And that was a goal of my book, to say: “These are great ideas, hang on to them. Resist some of the messages from our culture because our culture is changing, too.”

TT: You touched on the history of immigration in the first chapter and mention illegal immigration briefly. Why did you choose to stay away from that and not get into the policy or political aspect of illegal immigration or immigration reform, or the DREAM Act?

Kolker: It was not relevant to what the subject of my book was. The subject was on practices. And of course, most immigrants who are in the United States are documented, so the great majority of people I met and whose practices I was talking about were here legally. My book was about smart practices, and those that I found were smart practices whether the person was documented or not. For example, Mexican women have better birth outcomes in the first weeks of life, their babies do, than non-Hispanic white women. That’s just incredible. We don’t know the reasons why, but that’s not contingent on legal status, so I grab a good idea where I can see it. So my book is just about good ideas, and it wasn’t about immigration policy.

TT: Have you received any backlash about the book from anyone accusing you of promoting immigrant culture, of being anti-American?

Kolker: To the contrary, it’s been very interesting. There has been zero backlash, so far. It’s very clear what this book is about — it’s about good habits, many of which fall into the category of family values and conservative habits: thrift, revering grandparents and paying attention to what they have to tell you and their wisdom, family values, prioritizing the health of babies. These are not political ideas. And some of the most positive and strongest feedback I’ve received is from people of European descent. The first chapter of the book is how much we’ve gotten from German immigrants. And a group that has really loved this book are people that are descendants from Scots Irish, who are one of the biggest white ethnic groups in the United States but don’t get a lot of attention for their impact on this culture. But the Scots Irish have a strong tradition of picking up smart ideas wherever they were, whether they were around the English and picked up English farming habits or when they came to the United States where they picked up a deep love of wilderness and hunting and fishing and even traditional Indian clothing. So you might be surprised that it’s been the opposite. I think people feel like they’ve been reflected in here, that their contributions have been reflected.

TT: You traveled all over the country for this book, but did you feel that any of these practices would fit better in Texas more than another area, or do these all fall in line with society regardless of where it is?

Kolker: My point is that all of these can be cherry-picked and adapted for people like me: I am born and bred American and was raised in an urban environment. I found that applying these worked for me. So, that said, Texas really is a great spot. In Texas you can’t turn around without meeting an immigrant, so there were lots of people to ask and I got tons of ideas. But the social habits of Texas, which made me fall in love with this state and settle in Houston, are really conducive to some of the ideas in this book.

TT: Is there anything you would like to add about the book hasn’t been stated?

Kolker: This isn’t a book about immigration policy, but there is a takeaway that has to do with current events. That is that we are tight on money in this country and we are especially paying huge costs in health care and in addiction treatment and debt-related issues where we weren’t comfortable correlating what we had with what we wanted and what we bought. That’s human nature, but it’s gotten us into some trouble. These practices come from people who have to take care of themselves. They are people who either don’t have doctors or even medicine. The Mexican woman I interviewed had babies in Chiapas in places where they had never seen a doctor in their life. So taking care of new mothers was not a luxury — it was a matter of life and death. So we’ve got a lot to learn from people who know how to take care of themselves before they get sick, or squeeze the best out of an education and get ahead, rather than catch up, in school.

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