Immigrant In My Own Land

Norman - Sacramento, California
Entered on February 1, 2009

This I Believe—a public dialogue about belief on National Public Radio

Immigrant In My Own Land

Some years ago I invented an electronic product that was modestly successful over a 12-year run. I learned many lessons about enterprise, but I also grew to understand my own country much better while traveling abroad as an entrepreneur.

Although there have been many overseas trips, I vividly remember one evening in particular. I was in a Taipei, Taiwan neighborhood where the distinction between one’s home and one’s business was as simple as this: if you were awake, you were at work; if you were asleep, you were at home.

A small engineering firm was finishing a job for me. The room was crammed with tables, PCs and monitors, drawings and documents crowded every corner, and a scatter of electrical cords ran dangerously from a stack of outlet extenders. I remember being woozy from the dense cigarette smoke that filled the air.

When we finally headed out for some late dinner, the young owner of the firm stopped me mid stride, mid sentence, and spoke to me so earnestly that I was caught off guard.

“Norman, you don’t know how lucky you have it. In America you work hard, you get whatever you want. Nothing hold you back.”

Back home in Sacramento, California, perhaps the most racially and ethnically diverse city in America, I began to see more clearly the immigrants that moved purposely about our community—Latinos, Asians, Indians & Pakistanis, Middle Easterners, Russians, Slavs, Poles, Brits, Aussies, Africans, Canadians, Pacific Islanders, Europeans.

I realized then that I believed less in our opportunities than those who risked so much to get here. When I looked more closely I saw that their children were winning spelling bees and science contests, and then going off to Cal and Stanford, their parents’ lives often richer than most because they believed they could make it happen here, and thus they did.

It seemed to me that what I needed to do was to act like, be like, think like, an immigrant in my own land.

What if all I had was an entitlement to be here? How many billions would trade me their circumstances for that? I was legal, I had language skills—it was a palette of infinite choices.

Today I seriously doubt that many Baby Boomers would have predicted that so late in the game we would be faced with the stark reality of a badly frayed U.S. economy.

Like many of my contemporaries, my vision was to cruise into retirement, still young enough to enjoy the freedom of it all, still vibrant enough to trek from here to kingdom come with money in my jeans.

It’s no longer the passport to somewhere else that I think about. For me the time has come to be an immigrant in my own land, to remember that young engineer those years ago, “Norman, you don’t know how lucky you have it.”