When I was 18 years old, I began to form my own definition of the phrase “culture shock” for the first time. It was while having a conversation with my brother on how, as kids living in Venezuela, we had to boil water before using it. We would watch the sediments drop to the bottom of the pitcher, then transfer the water to another container to boil it again before we could drink it or bathe with it. Sounds weird—right? — But that is what we had to do, because the water we used for everyday things came from different sources, like a water well, the river or the rain. Some houses had running water and some did not. Some houses even had dirt floors inside—Imagine your bedroom or living room with a floor made of dirt! My brother and I would have these types of conversations on a regular basis, and they were initiated or triggered by the constant insults and badgering which came when our father would yell at us, expressing his discontent on how we had not met his expectations or taken advantage of being brought to America. Like most people, he just did not know the concept of culture shock. He would talk down to us, judge us, and mistreat us, mistakenly thinking that we immigrants were stupid, uneducated, defensive, or argumentative.
The fact is that there were multiple complex factors that came into place with regard to our lack of advancement emotionally and socially, our economic status, our academic record, and the overall outcome of our mental well-being in adulthood. My father would say those hurtful things to us and, as we got older, we looked back at the early days and thought about how the last thing on our minds had been our future—high school, college, getting married and having families of our own. We had no advocates and no one to look to for guidance. Instead, we thought about what a strange thing snow was, or that due to indoor plumbing we did not have to run outside during a heavy rainstorm to use the bathroom in a leaky outhouse.
Although we heard and knew the expectations that our father had for us, our minds were at a completely different level of understanding. The fear of the unknown consumed our every thought, and just the basics of everyday life kept us in hyper-awareness of our surroundings. I recognized that the vivid details in my memory of boiling water to take a shower or for drinking use went well beyond the obvious. The fact that children in the United States did not have to boil water to drink it was immediately clear. But I believe the amount of brainpower and time I spent thinking about such differences in culture, and the lack of guidance (I did not have anyone specific person to advocate for me, other than the English- speaking school personnel) really disabled my subconscious growing process. My biggest concern in 5th grade was learning the English language, as I was on one of only two Spanish-speaking student in my class.
One of the many definitions of culture shock is “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, set of attitudes due to immigration, or a visit to a new country; a move between social environments.” As of 2007, the U.S Census Bureau reports that about 1 in 5 Americans speaks a language other than English at home, and of that group, about 4.5 million do not speak English at all. People think that being an immigrant is just not knowing the language, but it is so much more than that; it’s all about customs, and if you do not have somebody at home readily available to teach you the customs or what is expected of you, you have to trust that those who are teaching you are trustworthy. Immigrants come to a new country, or they are thrown into a foreign land, like people in the late 70’s trying to escape the Cambodian genocide, siblings were torn apart do to the quick process of immigration and they had to figure everything out on their own, far beyond what is obvious; these are the things immigrants feel self-conscious about. They alone have to figure out what opportunities or services are available to them, who are trustworthy, or what organizations are good for them. Coming to a country as an immigrant, you are already behind the eight ball, and you have to catch up to people who have been here their entire lives. Immigrants have to catch up just to be equal to them, in terms of what their expectations, experiences, and knowledge of what this country offers, and what society demands and expects, so it is more than just the language. You might learn the language and speak English, but it is not just about a language environment; it’s also about a cultural environment.
Immigrants without parents have to carefully use their own discretion and judgment in deciding what is true, in making value judgments, sometimes your judgment is right, and when your judgment is bad, you have to learn from it. Day to day tasks and challenges, simple things, going to school—every day is a new experience. Going to school when you are a little kid is hard enough, let alone being a little kid who does not speak the language and does not know how to function. Think of how much he has to catch up on to know what other kids know, to learn how they respond to others—he is going to be the one that’s “different,” that’s “outstanding,” and that is the “odd” and “weird” one. This little kid has to learn what is expected and how to function when other people are viewing him as something different. All this amidst the spotlight that is always on you.
Immigrants also have to overcome other issues that can lead to problems like addiction, if they are not well adjusted and are trying to compensate. Immigrants might feel “less than” or not equal to others; they may feel shame that they do not know certain things. To come out of the immigrant experience as a healthy, whole person is very challenging on so many levels emotionally, culturally, and intellectually.
The topic of immigration is frightening these days, particularly given the current political environment. As an immigration advocate, you have to be someone who can allay the fear and help the client to stay calm. You should be culturally competent, speaking to the person on their level, which is not necessarily “less than” you but is just different from you. Empathy towards immigrants is key for an immigration advocate, which includes being mindful of the obstacles immigrants had to tackle just to get where they are now. It also means knowing how to be diplomatic in all areas, because many immigrants are highly educated, but because of the language barrier may feel insulted if spoken to in Spanish of a certain tone. Immigrants should not be operating out of fear; they should be operating out of knowledge and security. This country can be very welcoming and supportive, but if you just take the news at face value, you might think this is an unfriendly, uncaring country.
Now is an especially necessary time for devoted immigrant advocacy, what with the current fears and constant changes in immigration laws. And New York State has many programs—whether you’re an immigrant or not—that are welcoming and supportive. New York is a very liberal state, and is very progressive in terms of its social programs. New York cares about people and is not judgmental.
On a national level, Congress created the U non-immigrant visa with the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (including the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act) in October 2000. The legislation was intended to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of aliens and other crimes, while also protecting victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse due to the crime and are willing to help law enforcement authorities in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. The legislation also helps law enforcement agencies to better serve victims of crimes. In addition, D.A.C.A, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), is an American immigration policy founded by the Obama administration in June 2012. DACA allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.
All of this is about making people feel safe and secure. A good immigration advocate can make immigrants in transition more comfortable, more knowledgeable, and more confident that they will receive all due accommodations and protections under the law. An advocate can make an immigrant feel less like an alien in a strange land, and more like a productive human being with the rights to security and well-being that all people deserve.
Illustrations & Written by: Ronald Rodriguez Orozco