Immigrants’ Child: Thoughts on Belonging in the United States and My Work Ahead
by Dr. Drew Koch
I am the son of immigrants. Like millions before, my parents came to the United States in search of a better life – for themselves and their future generations.
A close study of history has taught me that many persons did not arrive to this land in the same manner. Some were here long before the start of the Western European migration – first nations peoples who somehow did not “vanish” despite the best efforts to forcibly claim and displace them from their soil.
While force was being used to remove some peoples, it was simultaneously bringing Africans to these shores – in chains, as chattel labor, and, until recently, counting at most as only 3/5 of a human and then only for someone else’s benefit.
Yet others, such as Mexicans, were forcibly incorporated into the nation – courtesy of treaties that were signed without their input.
Even when peoples came willingly and legally, they were often less-than fully embraced. Exclusion acts, nativist anti-immigrant practices and movements, and even internment centers infringed on the rights of those who were lawfully admitted to till, shape and build the nation. The message was clear – you can come in, but you don’t exactly fit in.
As a child of immigrants I wrestled with what it meant to be American on a near daily basis. My first language was not English. My mother has a thick German accent. My father’s forename, Wolfgang, screamed “I’m not from here” even if his English was accent-free.
I was “the German kid” – routinely taunted on an elementary school playground by a bully and his toadies who greeted me during recess with “Koch ties his shoes in little Nazis” and “Heil Koch-ler!” In art class, the same classmates “lovingly” crafted and donned swastika arm bands and then saluted me as they exited at the bell. Somehow, the playground monitor and art teacher respectively but similarly chalked this all up as good-natured ribbing.
When I would visit family in Germany, aunts and uncles would tell people meeting me for the first time to pardon the fact that I spoke a dialect of German used 40 years earlier. “Er ist nicht echt Deutsch, er ist Amerikaner” – He’s not an authentic German, he’s an American – they would apologetically tell the new acquaintances before I got a chance to speak.
While at times painful and confusing, I would not trade this personal experience for any other. It has made me a culturally liminal person – someone who has had to learn how to span and be competent within many cultures simultaneously. It has made me compassionate as well as passionate – compassionate for others whose lives span multiple cultures; passionate about equity and inclusion.
My personal experience and study of U.S. history tells me that that the fights for inclusion, social justice and civil rights progress have been anything but linear. They have come only with vigilance and persistent pressure – by an alliance of the oppressed and their allies.
So, for those of you who feel alarmed by immigration bans, border walls and the rise of the Alt-right, know that I share your concerns. For those who speak with or have family members who speak with an accent, know that I too have lived this experience. For those of you who have wondered if you belong, know that I have asked the same questions about myself.
And the answers are simple even if the issues are complex.
You all belong, just as I do too.
I am an American, and so are you.
And I pledge allegiance, to the charge, of making a united state of Americans;
Through the work I do at the Gardner Institute, and my life outside the office;
In the pursuit of liberty, and justice, for all.
E Pluribus Unum.
Photo of the Pan American Airlines plane on which my father flew to immigrate to the United States from Germany in 1955.
The passenger manifest from my father’s immigration flight, March 30, 1955. (Passenger #5)