Book Review: The Immigrant Advantage

In her new book, The Immigrant Advantage, Texas journalist Claudia Kolker writes against the too common stereotype of immigrants as disadvantaged burdens on society who need to either be assimilated or pushed out as quickly as possible. Instead she looks at individuals and communities from diverse backgrounds — Vietnamese, Korean, Mexican, West Indian, African and South Asian — to discover the social, financial, academic and health advantages conferred from their native cultures.

I enjoyed this book, reading through it over five hours in fewer than four sittings, despite stopping to share interesting bits with others. Kolker’s style is engaging and her passion and research for her subject is real and is clearly influenced by her own Latina Jewish background Her enthusiasm for the people and customs she’s writing about shine through. I was fascinated and cheered by her confident willingness to try diverse customs to solve problems in her own life.

While I found the trust and relationships implied by the Money Clubs a bit daunting, I also was intrigued and by the end wanted to try it myself. Like so many of the customs Kolker writes about, this method of loaning and saving connects people, allowing them to share their financial goals and aspirations with each other. It also involves significant social connection and breaks the age-old taboo of mixing money and friendship. I felt a pang when reading about it, not sure I had enough friends that I would trust and who would trust me enough to try this. But I definitely would like to.

Kolker is honest with her feelings and trepidations about customs.  In no place is this more clear than in Chapter 3 where she discusses South Asian “Assisted Marriage” which involves parents (usually mothers) scouting out and making lists of prospective spouses for their adult children. At first I was a bit floored by the idea, but then I considered my own background. On both sides of my family, marriage was “assisted” if not overtly arranged as recently as my great-grandparents times. By all accounts, these were long and happy marriages between people who loved each other deeply and lived long lives together. It left me thinking a great deal about what romance means in the twenty-first century and how we construct and define family.

Although I found every chapter –no, every page– interesting and enjoyable, I was most fascinated by Chapter 4 — Kolker’s accounts of Chinese and Korean afterschools. Going to Catholic schools in Los Angeles, I remembered that a number of my Japanese classmates had gone to Japanese school on the weekends to both to learn the Japanese language and to receive extra tutoring in preparation for various standardized tests. When I commented to a good friend at how hard it seemed — that she had all our school work plus extra — I remember her telling me that it was fun, that she’d befen going since she was five and had good friends there.  Further, during the years I was in Graduate School I had many friends who earned extra money working as tutors at in Asian after school programs.  I admit though, it never occurred to me this was tutoring not to help students who were struggling with their classes but rather enrichment to help them excel.

I recommend this book highly. It’s well written with a clear argument and engaged prose. I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to use it in a freshman writing course to encourage students to think critically about their own customs and traditions and what they might learn or adopt from each other.

Disclosure: I was given an advance review copy of this book. The words and thoughts about it are my own.

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