Coming to America: Understanding My Immigrant Experience through TV

Syndicated

There’s no pretty way to say this: TV made me an American.

When I first moved to the United States at the age of seven, I believed that everything I saw on screen was a documentary demonstrating how “real” Americans actually lived. (The fact that we didn’t have a gargantuan staircase like on The Brady Bunch proved that my family weren’t yet real Americans.)

However, while I was perfectly willing to accept at face value everything that the miraculous, marvelous machine (and it was in color, too!) that sat in my living room told me about my new neighbors, I was a bit puzzled by the manner in which they represented my fellow immigrants.

Balki from Perfect Strangers
"Perfect Strangers" Image: Warner Bros.

Take, for instance, the TGIF hit, Perfect Strangers, and the less well-known, syndicated series, What a Country.  Bronson Pinchot’s character, Balki, was from some vaguely Eastern European/Mediterranean country that couldn’t have been too far from where I was born in Odessa, (then-)USSR. And stand-up comedian Yakov Smirnoff, who played Nikolai, was actually from the same city as my family.  So, in theory, I should have known dozens of people just like them.

Why then, did both these shows appear to be under the impression that because you spoke English like a child – simple syntax, limited vocabulary, taking idioms literally – that meant your thought processes and reactions were that of a child, too?  On both shows, the new immigrant was basically a toddler in an adult’s body. Nothing like the engineers, doctors, and professors all around me who, yes, may have been watching Sesame Street to pick up the language, but managed to remain adults, nonetheless.

Strangely enough, the show that came closer to representing the American immigrant experience as I knew it, was All American Girl, based on Margaret Cho’s stand-up routine about growing up Korean in San Francisco.  I later found out that Margaret and I were in the same (850+ students) high-school class. The school was an exam-based institution for the “gifted,” and was mostly comprised of kids from Asian and Russian Jewish immigrant homes. (Not because they’re smarter than native-born children, but because they had parents who made sure they were ready for the test.)  Despite lasting less than a season, All American Girl really captured what it was like to straddle two cultures – the one at home… and the one you watched on TV.  All American Girl may not have been everyone’s immigrant experience, but it was definitely this TV addict’s one.

Even more strangely, the next TV family that was most like my own was In Living Color’s hard working Jamaican family.  The one where every member held a dozen jobs, and was horrified when they met somebody who had only one (or, even more unthinkable, none). I loved the sketches, though it took me a while to figure out why a person holding more than one job was funny… or unusual.

Nowadays, my American husband looks at me and laughs hysterically during FX’s The Americans, where the big complaint Cold War-era Soviet spies have about life in the US and the oblivious, Reagan-era offspring these unconventional immigrants are raising is, “They expect so little of children here.  All we do is sit and watch them play.”  Their middle-schoolers not only don't have jobs, they're not even cramming for tests!

Another present-day show that approaches the immigrant experience through their children is Modern Family. Colombian-born Gloria worries about son Manny forgetting his Spanish – and newborn Joe never learning it at all, while Mitchell and Cam perennially wonder how to keep daughter Lily connected to her Vietnamese culture without making her feel different or left out.  An episode last season, in fact, dealt directly with Lily announcing that she was gay, so that she could be like her Daddies.  The resulting scene, besides being, in my opinion, hilarious, struck many viewers the wrong way, as they felt once you were in America, you were American, period, and bringing up anything else is just maliciously exclusive. I, on the other hand, thought it perfectly captured the daily struggle my African-American husband and I go through with our three children, trying to connect them to their interracial, interfaith heritage(s), while making sure they also understand that they are 100% American.

The Neighbors
"The Neighbors," Image: ABC

Perhaps it’s because of the multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual household we live in that the show my family currently relates to the most is about another immigrant clan… from outer space. On The Neighbors, these brand-new New Jersey-ites have arrived from another galaxy and assumed the physical forms of your typical, American family: Dad is white with a British accent, Mom is black – with a different British accent, Older Son is Asian and speaks like a native, while Younger Son is white but also nearly completely androgynous and often mistaken for a girl.  None of them or the population that traveled with them exactly understand Earth’s peculiar customs, but they are eager to learn and fit in… without giving up what makes them unique.  They’ve made friends with a handful of  Earthlings, but also continue to live in their own gated community.  They’ve seen some of the best America has to offer – Broadway shows; and some of the worst – people seem to keep falling into wells.  (This happened in the same episode and prompted a song and dance number about that particular topic.  As normal Earthlings are wont to do.) 

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