Why Empathy Bridges the Souls of Immigrants and Americans

bekah General, Guest Writer 26 Comments

I’m honored to introduce you to our 4th of July guest, Jodi Grubbs, an incredible writer and lover of community and connection. I first met Jodi when she reached out for writing coaching and I’ve loved journeying with her, learning her story, and a plus is that she’s become a valued friend.  Be on the lookout for her words because Jodi’s passion for slow island living, rooted from her childhood in the Caribbean, is intentional and good for the soul. Jodi, thank you for sharing your perspective and inviting all of us to offer empathy to immigrants and Americans alike.

Dear immigrant children, immigrant parents,and lifelong Americans,

As one who, since birth, grew up on the quiet island of Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles, and immigrated to America as a teen, here is my heartfelt letter to you:

I didn’t know I would rise on this quiet, 4th of July morning, awakened to feeling torn between all things patriotic and foreign. I invite you into my story of a white American “immigrant” who found it difficult to acclimate to the USA.  Every three or four years my family left Bonaire and settled into life in Michigan for about 3 months, visiting family, then returned to the island for my dad’s work. I am grateful for the island life I was gifted, yet equally grateful that I now live in a quaint Southern town in North Carolina.

Which brings me to thinking about today and wrestling with the phrase, “us” and “them.”

Are we really all that different?

Some of us have light skin. Some of us have dark skin. We live in the same neighborhoods but may speak a different language. If we are made in the image of God, aren’t we, as mortal humans across the globe, pretty much the same?

To my fellow Americans:

Perhaps I can portray a small portion of what immigrants experience daily, as they settle into their new life here, in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of others who are different than me.

I woke up today realizing that I am much more like “them” than not.  

My family moved to New Jersey from Bonaire when I was 16.  Although I have told those closest to me, that island living runs through my blood, I failed to understand, until recently, that when we are immersed in another culture from birth, island living also runs through my soul.

I find myself curious about all those conflicting feelings of “belonging” I had when I came to America. The ones that lingered through the years, woven into who I am today. What if I don’t fit in? What if I don’t understand an idea? What if I look at movies, food and friends differently?

What if there’s nothing wrong or un-patriotic about those feelings? What if I don’t have to choose between cultures? What if we see empathy as a strength and not a weakness?

What if the thousands of children and adults who are here on American soil for their first American holiday have those same feelings of wanting to belong?

The girl who’s swinging at the local park. The brown skinned boy who’s swimming in the lake with his many siblings. The woman who’s wearing a head covering, ordering her first Starbucks coffee in the drive through line.  The man who’s wearing cowboy boots and walking the isles of Home Depot, searching this new big store for the same item that I am. Do they want to belong? To have familiarity? To feel at home here?

I wonder how my great, great, grandparents felt when they came over from Holland and left the only life they ever knew; appreciative of a new life, but already saturated to the core with traditions from a culture far away?

To immigrant children and your parents:

Words, smells, music, and life experiences here in America, are there times when these are literally foreign to you? I haven’t walked a mile in your shoes but I’d like to think that I have walked a few meters in your flip flops,sandals,or even in my bare feet.

To the 4 year old little girl, playing with the local children, not yet understanding their words, I understand you.

I had three languages running through my head at your age and many of my verbal sentences consisted of all of them. The local island dialect was made up of English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Afrikaans. Some of my closest friends were island children. I did not look like them, but they treated me like I was one of them. They are still dear friends of mine today.

To the mother, watching her children play in the snow, I reminisce with you.

How hard it must be to know that your children may never walk barefoot on a dusty dirt road like you did as a child.  They have a new opportunity.

But still, I reminisce with you.  I have days, where I watched my own child sled with the neighborhood children, while truthfully, my heart ached for the taste of salt on my tongue, wind in my hair, and tan feet, calloused from going barefoot as a girl.  My daughter doesn’t know how I miss “home,” for many of the island’s third world aspects were normal to me.

To the father, who is feeling embarrassed about having to show paperwork to various authorities, I stand with you.

I carried a dual citizenship for much of my childhood. I was detained several times while traveling internationally with my husband.

I was even prevented from boarding a plane until the last moment. Interestingly, I have been flagged all of these years for the sole reason of being born outside of America. It doesn’t feel good to have people watching you, wondering what you may have done to be detained.  

 To the middle schooler trying to mouth new words being sung at your church, school, or community event, I watch with you.

I can recall too many times where I stood among other children, teenagers and adults as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance.  I =fidgeted and missed most of the words, trying to decide if I should mimic the memorized chatter around me. I often felt out of place,  having been immersed in a Dutch speaking school since the age of four.

To the siblings, afraid to have their first school lunch in the cafeteria, I truly feel you.

One year, our family came back to the US in May and my parents put me in school. . The culture shock was too much. I walked home every day for lunch and then walked back to school.  I missed the cheese sandwiches, pineapple soda, and peanut satay sauce for fries. The smells, sounds, and sights were so foreign to me I could hardly stand it. My must have been uncomfortable for others to observe, especially because I looked like them.

I understand that you do not.

To the boy stumbling through an American menu, listening to country music fill the air, I gingerly anticipate the newness with you.

Music and food are keys to culture. It’s normal to miss the sounds and smells of home.

In  America, children fall asleep to lullabies.  However, as a young child, many Caribbean nights I fell asleep to the rhythm of a steel drum band; a rhythm of slow drifting-out-to-sea living.

To the teenager, struggling to catch up on homework, with all of the newness swirling around in your brain, I sit with you.

I remember being held back a grade in high school because I didn’t study enough English, American History, American Literature, or American Geography when I lived overseas.

I knew European history and Caribbean geography, as well as interesting things about the rest of the world.  New American teenager, be confident that everything you have learned up until this point is just as valuable as your new education.

To the families, watching masses of people wave little American flags while they enjoy a parade, I see you.

I too noticed the men and women in uniform and felt pride in the air, but couldn’t fully grasp American patriotism. You may be missing your homeland, your roots, even your flag.  I miss the bright colors of our island flag, designed by one of my own schoolmates. I understand your military and police looks different. I can still visualize how our family traveled through the beautiful Venezuelan countryside and headed into Columbia to pick coffee beans. Out of the blue, soldiers stopped us, and forced us to get out of our van, at gunpoint.  They were just doing their job, looking for drugs, and making sure we had proper papers. Still.

To the immigrant grandmother, wondering why the pace of life has to be so fast and furious for your grandchildren, I sense this busyness alongside you.

I miss the 2 hour lunch breaks when our island shut down for siesta. I miss the unhurried schedules and how cars stopped in the middle of the road so friends could chat. I miss the feeling of community when I was included in birthday parties that lingered well  into the night. I fondly recall the food and hospitality from my best friend’s housekeeper, who was a beautiful woman from South America. Keep on with your traditions. There is a sense of community that blossoms out of hospitality. Continue cooking, feeding, and loving your family and your neighbors well.

My fellow Americans, I realize my childhood experiences of being an island girl who later came to America might be a bit rare. I wasn’t skipping the pledge or the song to be disrespectful, or unpatriotic but simply because I didn’t know the words; they were foreign to me.  

My hope is that whatever our American community looks like, we give people a chance at connectedness. That we offer solidarity, and we choose to see immigrants the way that God does.

The next time you decide to go out for lunch – if you haven’t already – try a Hispanic, Indian, or Greek food truck. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised how your tummy and your soul are filled.

And to immigrants and Americans alike, may each one of us, through true empathy and a glimpse into each others lives, understand that “we” are all pretty much the same inside.

Jodi Grubbs
Helping you find community for your soul.

Comments 26

  1. Bravo! Beeooteefull! The last 20 years of my teaching career were intentionally spent in an inner city middle school where 22 languages were spoken. My overarching goal was for my students to feel connected… on EVERY level! Thank you for yourvwise, tender, insightful words.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your heart and soul in this beautiful illustrated cross culture scene
    that is beneath the surface of so many hearts today. Well said…….daughter!

  3. Thank you for sharing your most interesting article. Even those of us born in the USA share many of your feelings. Having been raised on a farm, my life was much different than those raised in big cities or even small towns. My four room country school for my first seven grades with no indoor plumbing for half of those years is still very much a part of my life. You have made us aware that we are all a part of God’s creation no matter from where we have come.

  4. What a beautiful article! I wish there were more people like you out there. I remember moving to the US to study and being asked about my race. I checked off “other” since I had no idea what to put on the application for a driver’s license. We never think about these things growing up here. You have a heart of gold Jodi. God bless you and your family. Love you 😘

  5. Love your perspective & these words really hit home! Thank you!

    “My hope is that whatever our American community looks like, we give people a chance at connectedness. That we offer solidarity, and we choose to see immigrants the way that God does.”

  6. Erica, I appreciate you reading this! I’m so glad a part of my writing hit home for you. It’s always risky sharing memories! XO

  7. What a beautiful tribute to immigrants and their children, especially today when division is loud. Thank you for sharing your voice of experience, validation, and comfort.

  8. When I was 14, I was infected with Wander-Lust (the name my grandma gave for my love of having my passport stamped). It came
    from living in England for a year with my family. Although I have never been as entrenched in a different culture as you have, that little dosage started a life-long love affair with the Nations. Thanks for fanning the flames, Jodi!

  9. Amy! Happy to fan the flames, friend. Cannot wait to hear more about your passport stamping experiences. Thank you for your words here.

  10. Jodi,
    what a beautiful piece. Being there and experiencing this with you brings tears to my eyes. Especially when i read and hear the politics of today. As kids i remember and as you put it, you were not different than any of us. There was no color, race or politics. The americans and Transworld radio was just a part of the island.
    You brought me back to those lovely childhood memories. Up to this day, i still pass your old house and say, that is jodi’s house. 😉 Hugs.

  11. Absolutely beautiful Jodi. A call to empathy, and connection for all. Made in His image and worthy of honor – whoever you are – wherever you’re from.

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