Intro. [Recording date: March 23, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is March 23, 2021, and my guest is author and poet, Roya Hakakian. Her latest book is A Beginner's Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing today's guest with the Blackwire 5220 Headset.
And, I want to let parents listening with small children know that there may be some adult themes in today's conversation.
Roya, welcome to EconTalk.
Roya Hakakian: Oh, I'm delighted. Thank you for having me on.
Russ Roberts: Let's start with your own story which is the backstory of your book. Your book is written for any immigrant and any non-immigrant curious about understanding more about the immigrant experience. It's fascinating a set of observations about America and what it's like to come to America. But, what is your story, your particular perspective? What's it based on?
Roya Hakakian: I was born and raised in Iran, and I came of age exactly when Iran was undergoing its most cataclysmic moment in 20th century, which was the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in February. And, within about five years after the Revolution took place in Iran in 1979, by 1984, my mother and I were forced to leave--which is not to say that we were held at gunpoint, but life had become very difficult in Iran after the revolution. The rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to power had created circumstances under which religious minorities and a lot of ethnic minorities, and since I was born and raised in a Jewish family, became--received an underprivileged or secondary citizenship status. And so, it was no longer a place where we could thrive in. My mother and I left. And, my father, who couldn't leave with us, joined us about five years later in the States.
Russ Roberts: And, how old were you when you came to America?
Russ Roberts: Nineteen.
Roya Hakakian: And, we spent about a year being refugees, going from country to country in Europe until our asylum applications were approved and we came here.
Russ Roberts: And, I would just add, I think it's just for historical perspective. I think some listeners might wonder: What were Jews doing in Iran? And, the answer is Jews have been in Iran forever and often thrived there until somewhat recently. Correct?
Roya Hakakian: Exactly. It's one of the very odd things that even Jewish Americans often ask me: 'I didn't know there were Jews in Iran.' Well, there were Jews in Iran before there were Muslims anywhere else, because the history of Jewish presence in Iran precedes that of the invention of Islam or the creation of Islam.
And, then, historically, Persia has a very significant place in Jewish history. And, part of the reason why Jews remain in the world is because of the sanctuary that the ancient Jewish Kings offered the Jews who had fled Israel after the fall of the Temple--
Russ Roberts: The ancient--you said 'Jewish Kings'; you meant, I think, Iranian Kings, or whoever, right?
Roya Hakakian: Persian Kings.
Russ Roberts: Persian Kings. Sorry. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: So, you came at 19. There's probably never an ideal age to come from a culture like Iran's to America, which is obviously very different, but I wonder if you'd reflect on your thoughts of America before you got here and what you felt when you first arrived. Obviously, you had an imperfect picture of what you were getting yourself into. Share some of that. It's in the book in passing in certain obvious ways, but talk about it in your own personal example.
Roya Hakakian: Well, I was 12 when the Iranian Revolution took place. And so, I was a kid in junior high and high school when the entire education system in Iran was overhauled to kind of pivot toward the new ideology that had taken over the country. So, I was one of the many, many children who lined up in the school yard every morning and chanted, 'Down to the United States,' every morning. Or, Israel, for that matter. It was part and parcel of being a kid in school in Iran in those years.
And, no matter how much I didn't like the regime, myself, and suspected the circumstances under which they had come to power, if you're 13 and 14 and you are hearing the same things over and over on a daily basis, it kind of seeps into your brain somehow a little bit.
And so, I can't say I didn't come to the United States with certain negative impressions or at least apprehension about the United States. I remember vividly that a cousin of mine that came to our home on the last night--I was packing my suitcase just before we were departing. And, she gave me a book by Maxim Gorky called The City of the Yellow Devil. And, that was the title that Gorky had given to New York City. So, the idea was that this book is going to give you all you need to know about the place that you're going. And, here was a Soviet author warning me about the dangers of America.
And so, that's how I came. And, I keep talking--one of the things I keep saying is that when you admit immigrants like me--I was a teen, I had no skills, I spoke no English and I came truly with a single backpack. I didn't even have clothes. I had to go to a store named Bradley's with my relatives to purchase some things over the weekend after we had arrived. So, when you admit people like me, when we come around eventually, as I have, we become dedicated patriots, because it is that sense of indebtedness, that sense of loyalty that develops as you begin to kind of remember who you were when you arrived and who you've become over the years.
Russ Roberts: Just for the record, I worked at Bradley's in, I think, 1977 in New Jersey, but--and Bradley's is long gone.
Roya Hakakian: Yeah, I was at Bradley's in New Jersey.
Russ Roberts: We could have crossed paths.
Russ Roberts: You came with apprehension, you become something of a patriot from--out of gratitude and mixed emotions. But, what is special about this book, what I loved about it, is: it is a love song to America, but it is also like many lover relationships. There's some quarreling--and quite a bit of quarreling. So, it's America warts and all, and some pretty big warts. And, we'll talk about those.
But, when you were 19, that transition must have been extraordinarily jarring. The fact that you didn't come with any clothes and had to buy them was the least of your challenges. Talk about a little bit about the emotional upheaval that hits anyone coming in that kind of transition.
Roya Hakakian: Well, you're right. Not having clothes was the least of my problems--which is to say that I really had many, many problems. And it really was all rooted in the fact that I didn't want to come to the United States anyway.
And, I think that's a very important fundamental fact that almost everybody misses about immigrants and immigration: Nobody wants to leave their birthplaces voluntarily. Nobody wants to be forced out. Nobody wants to be transplanted out of not having another choice.
And so, I think--when people asked me, when I had first arrived--people would ask me, 'Aren't you delighted to be here since you're from Iran?' Well, you know, I wasn't delighted to be here. And, yes, Iran was not a happy place.
So, both of these facts co-existed and people seem to miss I. I was not delighted to be here. And, yes, Iran was a terrible place for a woman, for a non-believing Shiite in 1985.
And, I think one of the things I try to do in the book is to convey that: that the overwhelming majority of us who come here involuntarily, who may eventually become happy naturalized citizens or happy immigrants, but it really, really is a steep battle to get there.
Russ Roberts: Well, a sub-theme of your book--it's not explicit, but it runs all the way through it--is the idea of home.
Russ Roberts: And, you had to leave home. There were things you didn't like about home. You were glad you left home, but it meant you weren't home. And, that reality--we've talked a lot about the importance of place on the program in recent episodes. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. I left when I was one. One. The idea that I moved around a lot just seemed natural to me. But other people find that frightening and horrifying and are aware of what is lost. I don't realize what I lost really, because I was one--one. But, I think there are a lot of powerful reflections in your book about the fact that no matter how much you love America, no matter how glad you are to be out of Iran, you're still not home, at least in some fundamental sense.
Roya Hakakian: Yes. And, I think that a lot of that is determined by the circumstances of departure. Do we choose to leave or are we forced to leave because we have no other choice?
And, I think whether you're an economic migrant or a persecuted immigrant, the results are the same. We arrive heartbroken and we arrive in pieces. And, it takes a very long time to mend the heart and put the pieces back together. Which is in part why I wanted to write the book--when, in 2016, we were hearing that immigrants come to this country to rob and rape and do all sorts of crimes. And, I was thinking to myself, 'Well, I and those who come under the circumstances or similar circumstances to mine, we are so broken when we arrive that if we can manage to put one foot in front of the other on a daily basis, we're lucky.' Let alone organize a plan to commit crime.
Russ Roberts: And, you know, you start your book with a quote from The Odyssey, Homer's Odyssey. And, I've been reading The Odyssey lately, because--not interesting why I've been reading it--but I've been reading The Odyssey lately and it's an extraordinary book. And, one of the things--it's entertaining, it's funny, it's frightening, it's thought-provoking--but, of course, that book is fundamentally about coming home and trying to get home and what happens when you get home.
And, one of the things that I love about The Odyssey is that Penelope, Odysseus's wife, she's home the whole time, but she's by herself. And, all these things are happening to Ulysses, to Odysseus, her husband, that she's not a part of.
And, a lot of your book is about the challenge of the people you left behind in Iran--or whatever country you came from--the new community you've joined and the tension really between--the reality that the people who are left behind are not experiencing what you're experiencing, your family that are relatives that you left behind. And, as a result, that fundamental connection that you had can never be the same.
Roya Hakakian: Yeah. I'm really moved and somewhat speechless, because I've done many interviews; nobody questioned me about this. But, this is in fact the most tragic element, both in the book for me personally, and also about the experience of being transplanted or emigrating, because at the end of the day, I think the number of communities, families, units, that are unchanged by it are very few.
And so, as much as you think you came to improve--and you do: you achieve certain things that you could have never done had you stayed--what you lose in terms of human relationships is irreplaceable. It certainly happened to me--that I think the separation between my family by my mom, dad and myself and my brothers who had come several years before we eventually arrived, caused a rift that we never really were able to cement again.
And, it's not because anybody is exercising malice or anybody wants to be bad, but, you know, human beings and family relationships are not meant to suffer such historical and cataclysmic events and stay intact.
And, somehow if we are not, I think, going through similar experiences together, then it's very hard to create the bonds that would have been in place had we witnessed the same events or experienced them together. It's almost impossible to recreate the relationships in the same way.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I can't remember where I read this recently, I may have even talked about it on EconTalk, but I certainly read it in a book by a guest. So, I apologize to that author. But, the author was talking about how the power of--and I spend a lot of time on the program talking about what we're doing right now, face-to-face interaction, conversation. It's different on Zoom. It's not as powerful. But this is one thing that human beings I think grow and just life is rich from this interaction.
But, there's another kind that I don't think gets talked about enough and I'll put this, I hope in the transcript when I finally remember where this is from, but it's when we watch something together.
So, when my wife and I go to a musical, we're not looking at each other, we're not interacting. But, we are sharing the experience--ideally a similar emotional enrichment--from the power of a great work of art. And, we might experience the same thing at a vista. We might go to Yosemite and look out at Glacier Point and be overwhelmed together. And, we have that together. And, if we don't have it together, I can show her a picture, she can listen to the soundtrack, we can talk about what we felt. But there's something profound about the shared-ness of that, that is not easily reproduced.
Roya Hakakian: Exactly. It's the power of witnessing, but witnessing together, because there's something really profound about the experience of witnessing important experiences.
And, if you miss it together, as you say, you can try to compensate. But, then, you know, it's just never the same.
Now imagine instead of looking at a musical you have, the country where you had been born and raised practically is upended within a matter of a few weeks. And, not only the entire homeland comes apart, but your community, your family also somehow completely becomes unstable. And so, you know, much else follows. And, then, there is this other part of your family, these other people who are undergoing their own difficulties, but not what you're experiencing.
And, then, to bring everybody back together after a few years and say, 'Oh, let's redo, or let's rewind, or let's go back to where we were.' I mean, I'm sure certain families can live through it and can successfully come out at the other end, but I think those are far and few between.
So, again, to emphasize what I'm trying to say isn't just to share these tragedies, but to also say that when we hear that immigrants come here to do awful things, it comes, in a way, out of a fact that there is no understanding of what the immigrant experience is. Because, if you have a clue about what the immigrant--someone like me, someone who's in voluntarily here--then you have to know that we are here to grieve. We are here to try to figure out what happened; and we are here to try to pick up the pieces. And, under those circumstances, it's really, really, almost impossible to try to do something extra, no matter what that extra is.
Russ Roberts: Well, just making a living and putting food on the table, of course, is a major challenge you write about it a lot in the book. It's quite powerful.
Russ Roberts: But I think, this whole idea of the challenge of interpreting or imagining what other people are experiencing. And, we had a guest on the program, L.A. Paul, the philosopher, talking about what she calls the Vampire Problem--the fact that, before you're a vampire, you have certain vague idea of what it's like, but until you become one you can't really imagine it. And, you could be told how great it is. It doesn't matter. It just seems awful and weird.
And, I think similarly--I never thought about it in terms of real time--but I've talked about this on the program, written about it a little bit in a fictional form in one of my books--but a family from the Soviet Union, a Jewish family came to St. Louis. Many people did at that time. It was in the late 1980s, early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. And, people came and were connected with people who were already here to help them "assimilate"--help them become more comfortable, acclimate, acculturate.
And, you write about this very powerfully in the book.
But, in my personal experience of it, we took this family that spoke no English, a little bit Yiddish--I speak now Yiddish, so that wasn't very helpful--and, we took them to the grocery. And, we'll talk in a minute about the American grocery. I have some great observations about it. But, you know, I was so proud to show off the American grocery. They were extraordinarily overwhelmed by it, especially the produce. They just couldn't--couldn't get over it. It was like a museum. Right? It was like a museum.
And, the story I tell in one of my books is, eventually we understood from the mom that she wanted yeast so she could bake bread. And, yeast is hard to find in the grocery. And, we are looking around, and we can't find any. And, finally I got some help and the guy said, 'Oh, yeah.' He took us to the place. There wasn't any. 'Oh, that's weird.' He went in the back and brought some out. And, the mom looked at me with awe and reverence, because it was obvious that I had connections. I was able to get the yeast from the back. And, she was impressed. She obviously realized she had been tied to a family that was important. And, that was--I'm trying to tell her, I'm a proud free-market capitalist: 'No, no, it's like this all the time, really. You don't have to ask for it.'
But, it never dawned on--as obviously was that, that they didn't speak English. And, 'Oh, it must be hard and they don't have a car.' And, the emotional turmoil that they must've been undergoing and fear was so not obvious. I didn't think enough about it. I feel bad that I didn't give them enough love. I gave them as much affection as I had hanging around, but they needed something more than that--most of which I couldn't provide probably, because it just was the nature of the experience.
Roya Hakakian: Exactly. Exactly.
You know, I remember I used to take my parents shopping. It wasn't like I knew more English than they did, but they somehow felt like, 'She's a kid and between charm and youth, she can get by far better than we can.' So, and it worked out. We went to stores and I had a dictionary and I would whip it out and ask for things.
But, one of the things that I found incredibly frustrating, even though I was doing it myself, was the fact that we would look at an item--we would see the price and we would transfer it or convert it to the price of the same thing in Iran, which, of course, you have to do, because you want to know how much you're paying--
Russ Roberts: Is it worth it?
Roya Hakakian: Yes. Am I paying too much? Or is it worth it? As you say.
But, it was a horrible exercise, because every time we did that, we were attesting to the fact that we weren't living here--we weren't learning that, that currency no longer was the currency of our lives. And, it didn't matter how much it was in Iran. It was irrelevant, because we didn't have that money anymore, we didn't live there, and we're somewhere else.
But, the fact that we kept doing it, was a way of kind of trying to create some sense of mastery over our environment, over life.
And, it was the wrong kind of mastery, but it was inevitable.
And so, I talk about all these things in the book, just to say that even though we have read a lot of memoirs or, you know, reporters report on the state of immigrants--and much of it is done with a great deal of sympathy--the experience of being uprooted and transplanted is so profound that, that it's almost impossible to capture.
Russ Roberts: Well, let's talk a little bit about the supermarket, for fun, and shopping in general. One of the things I loved about your book was noticing the strange nature of the phrase, 'How may I help you today?' Which is, you know, a boiler plate customer-service remark from somebody standing at the entrance to the Gap or the grocery store, or--'Did you find everything you needed?' And, those of us who live here, have grown up here, don't think about that as noticeable. It's just part of the air we breathe. Why was that so surprising to you?
Roya Hakakian: Because, you know, in the past whenever I went somewhere, nobody wanted me there. If I walked into a store--even in Europe, if I sat in a cafe, nobody wanted to serve me. It was almost as if, 'Oh, why is she ruining a good time for us by becoming a customer?'
But, I don't think the people who have been born and raised in this country understand how uniquely American this is. Just like we who've been born and raised in this country, don't understand so many other gifts that makes this life so comfortable, so tolerable, so unusually rich. And, I'm not talking about money or resources. I'm just talking about just the simple beauty that these comfortable experiences infuse life with. And, as a result, create a space. Because, when you don't have anxiety and when you're not constantly worried, and when you're not fearful, suddenly you realize that your brain has so much more space to think about bigger things and more important things than you used to know.
And, that's what going to a store and hearing, 'How can I help you?' was like for me. When you don't have to worry about, you know, 'Can I find it?' And, 'Will they take it away from me?' Or, 'Do I have to pay someone to get it?, Or like your Russians, 'Will you have to know someone important to go to the back and get it for you?'
All these things kind of crowd your brain and your soul. And, when they're no longer there, then you experience yourself as somebody who is roomier, who has more internal space to do other things.
Russ Roberts: But, as you point out, you know--it's an incredible gift that's common in America. It's not universal. We have had a recent guest--this episode hasn't aired yet--but talking with a recent guest about economic insecurity. Obviously, people who are struggling to make their rent, find work, and so on, they don't have that room because it weighs on them.
And, in your experience and the experiences you reference of others, a lot of times that insecurity was physical. It was the fact that you were at risk of being arrested. You were at risk of being jailed. You literally couldn't find things that you wanted in the store. They either weren't available or you couldn't purchase them.
And, similarly you talk, I think, very movingly, about so-called illegal aliens--people who are here trying to make a living, support their families, who can't can approach a policeman if they're scared, because they're at risk of being arrested themselves. I think it's an issue that is not going away here in America, that we have to cope with.
But the bulk, an enormous portion of people in 2021 in America, of a wide variety of races and colors and creeds, lead a pretty comfortable life to the extent that you make the point that after a while you start thinking 'This is it.' It's just comfortable. Where's the excitement? Where's the vitality of life in contrast to the past that you brought with you?
Roya Hakakian: Absolutely. And it's so--it's a bizarre thing to admit, isn't it?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it was kind of fascinating--not 'kind of'--it was fascinating that that was so powerful for you.
Roya Hakakian: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there's a hashtag on Twitter these days by, you know, the Iranian diaspora who object to the regime in Iran. And the hashtag is normallife--you know, because I think the idea of--whoever came up with it is totally brilliant--is to show what normal life is like and how people who live in Iran or other undemocratic places simply don't know what normal life is like.
And, when you don't know that, then because you're spending so many hours of every single day planning how not to get into trouble when you're going out, how not to get arrested, how, you know, to lie in order to keep your job or not pay the traffic ticket or, you know, all sorts of other things--it's just endless.
That, suddenly when you come here, and you don't have to do any of it, then there is this vast vacuum in your life.
And you suddenly feel like, 'What the hell am I going to do now? What do I think about? What do I worry about?' And, 'What do I do? If I'm not against that or if I'm not clearly operating against this grand menace, then who am I?'
And, then you begin to realize that you have to define yourself, your life, your direction, in a very different way than you had ever thought possible. And, that creates a sense of emptiness.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think it's a major problem in America today for the native-born--not just the immigrants--that it's much easier to be against something than for it. We're really good at 'against.' But, then there's a little hole if there's nothing here 'for.' And it becomes a big hole; and, the against-part starts to fill that hole as a way of coping with the fact that life is: Really, what's going on here?
And, despite all the claims of our economic problems--and we have many here in the United States--we remain a remarkably wealthy, comfortable place. Again, not for everyone, but for the bulk of the citizens who, after a while just take it for granted. It's just--as you say, the comfort level is just extraordinary. And it's not just physical. It's pervasive. And, your book really brings that out.
Roya Hakakian: Mmmhmm. That's absolutely true. Even our poverty is far richer than, you know, poverty in other parts of the world--
Russ Roberts: The poorest countries in the world--
Roya Hakakian: And so, you always, as an American, can find clothes--free clothes--anywhere. It won't be what you want to wear. It won't fit you right and it won't be fashionable, but it will be clothes.
And so, that's very different than places where these extras, they simply don't exist.
And, I think it's really remarkable, because in our conversation about immigration, we don't seem to recognize that, you know, people often come here, if they come involuntarily, they encounter so many difficulties in the beginning, especially that, again, putting one foot in front of the other will be the biggest thing you can possibly manage.
But, also we who come under those circumstances become, if not later then definitely sooner, truly grateful for the many gifts that almost go unrecognized by the native-born, because they've always been here and they don't know of any other life.
Russ Roberts: What I like about your book among many things is the clear gratitude you have for the opportunity to be here, while recognizing that, certainly on the basis, certainly for black Americans and for many immigrants, going back a long, long way--black, white, wherever they're from--it's a weird thing, but there's a tension. We welcome immigrants, right? But, as you say, hating an immigrant community is America's hazing ritual.
We have this weird thing. It's the ethnic group d'jour, or of the year, or of the era. It used to be Germans, then it was Irish, then it was Jews. And, once you've gotten here and become an American, you're happy to keep out others. Which is, like, weird.
But, you balance and recognize that tension. It's not a simple story. And, I think one of the tragedies of political discourse today--and your book has some political aspects to it along the personal, obviously--but one of the tragedies is political discourse today is it's so unnuanced.
Your book's very nuanced. It's an extraordinary thing that America has brought people from around the world and let them become Americans. But, not so nice all the time. So, talk about that. And, if you want, talk about the ominous question, 'Where are you from?' Which Americans ask all the time, either of natives or immigrants. But it's complicated.
Roya Hakakian: Yes, exactly. Well, one reviewer, going back to the comment you were making said of this book, that it's a love letter by an exacting lover.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. A demanding lover. Yeah.
Roya Hakakian: Right. So, and that's honestly is the only way I know how to love, because I think if you're engaged enough, if you're paying enough attention to what and who you love, you're then invested in the process of making it better.
And, I think a criticism, as James Baldwin put it, is part of expressing love for something or in the case of James Baldwin to America, because he says it was the one country in the world that he most loved.
So, I think it would be foolish not to see the flaws. And, it would also be in some ways unpatriotic, because if we love something, if we love a country, we always want to feel that we've done something to make it better.
And so, recognizing the shortcomings is actually, I think, part of what makes us deeply patriotic, because we want to feel like we've left a mark--that our presence somehow translated into something tangible that became, that manifested itself in some form or shape of improvement, whether it was in understanding or creating a different, improving the dialogue, or actually building things, and so on and so forth.
So, going back to the history of the America's favorite hazing ritual: I think in some bizarre way, it's very reassuring to know that we have hated everybody equally. We have been indiscriminate about discriminating against immigrants. We have--you know, Franklin hated Germans--
Russ Roberts: Benjamin Franklin.
Roya Hakakian: Yes. He also thought that Russians were not white enough. He just wanted a Nordic and British people to come into this country, in some ways. I think Trump echoed that when he said, 'Why don't more people come here from Norway?' Well, because--
Russ Roberts: There's a lot of reasons. There's a lot of answers to that question. Possible.
Roya Hakakian: And, then, we didn't want the French here, at the end of the 18th century. We had trouble--great trouble with Italians. We hung up signs saying, "Irish need not apply." We turned away the Jews from the shores on the ships fleeing the Holocaust. We put in place Chinese Exclusion Act. I think it's one of the lowest points of the American history. And, then we set up internment camps for the Japanese.
In some ways, it's reassuring to know that whatever community it is that's being picked on now: a). we will move on from it soon enough. And, then they are not alone: that they belong to this longstanding history of an exercise of hate that I hope we manage to eliminate from our practice.
Russ Roberts: It is extraordinary, given that history. My ancestors fled Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. As Jews, they had very limited rights in the countries they were in, very limited economic opportunity. And, like millions of Jews, they came here in the late 19th century. And, were despised by large groups of people--kept out of the best colleges for a long time, and so on. And, yet they were allowed to come.
Now, the Holocaust is a particularly tragic episode of that kind of fear of the other and immigrants. But, just as a general history, the unease with which America accepts foreigners and yet takes them in anyway.
It's hard to remember: There's no person called America.
There is a statue in the harbor, outside New York City, who says, 'Give me your huddled masses yearning to be free.'
But, America is a complicated place. There are people here who want that, and there are other people who don't.
But, over time, it ebbs and flows, it seesaws back and forth. But, no other country has opened its borders historically to so many people--with mixed feelings, yes, and misgivings. But eventually it does turn out mostly okay.
Roya Hakakian: Precisely. Rhis is what I tell my 15-year old boys who, fortunately, as we want all adolescents to be, are developing very strong feelings for social justice.
Russ Roberts: Idealistic.
Roya Hakakian: Idealistic.
And so, they come home and they are all very critical of how bad we are in this country towards minorities, towards this group and that group and so on.
And, one of the things that, at least where immigrants are concerned, I tell them, is that we are incredibly imperfect, but fortunately for us, in comparison to our counterparts in the West, we're much better off. And, we have done a much better job. And, we--while we ought to try and definitely make things better in comparison to others, we have been a far more successful model for bringing in and assimilating immigrants than any other Western nation.
Russ Roberts: We're going to come back and talk about social justice on this program, I think in the coming weeks, months, years.
But, I want to say one thing in response to that young idealism, which is--it's an interesting--condemning the United States for various policies is an interesting starting point.
My fear is that a lot of people seem to think it's an ending point. It's like, 'So, therefore we should start over.'
Starting over doesn't have a good track record in human history, unfortunately. The people in charge of the starting over are not necessarily the people that you would like to see in charge.
And so, as a result, I think--I'm hoping in the next decade in America, we'll have a productive conversation about what is helpful--not simply about what needs fixing. What needs fixing is a lot of things. Yeah, definitely. But, you want to fix things with things that'll make them better and not worse. Just want to, just had to get that in. Sorry. That's my little soap box.
Roya Hakakian: Right. No, no, no. I completely agree. I think, or, as those who criticize America rightly for its bad behavior or conduct, then say, 'Let's not do that again.'
Well, you know, that's [?not a?] solution. If you intervene in the affairs of another country and it went bad and clearly you shouldn't have done it, but if there is genocide taking place in that country saying that intervention caused, created problems, isn't an answer. You have to figure out how to prevent evil from taking place while not adding to evil. And, that's--
Russ Roberts: Not straighforward-- [crosstalk 00:44:54].
Roya Hakakian: Exactly. So, that's kind of--we have to recognize that, that's part of the responsibility of all of us as global citizens.
Russ Roberts: So, earlier I referenced the nuance in your book that I appreciated. And, nuance generally doesn't sell. What sells is simplicity.
But, I've been thinking a lot lately about our national narrative in the United States and how we need one.
So, there's two competing narratives right now. One is: 'America was formed in 1619, in evil. It is irredeemable.' That's the one narrative.
The other narrative is: 'Everything's great. Shut up.'
Those don't work well together. And, we need a nuanced one. And, my feeling is that the musical Hamilton, which is a somewhat nuanced story, and it's made more nuanced by the fact that it's performed with people of color as a way to recognize the imperfection of the Founding.
And, your book is another attempt to give a national narrative that--that I for one, would like to embrace: 'It's imperfect. We need to make it better. And, we need to make it better in ways that actually make it better, not just appear to.'
And, it's a recognition that our history isn't the same for everybody. It's different for people whose ancestors were enslaved, versus who came here escaping tyranny or who came here for economic activity by their own free will.
So, to me, we need a rich narrative that's not simple. And your book--it points the way toward that. And, I'm curious if you think about that at all and if you agree with me.
Roya Hakakian: A great deal. A great deal. I mean, this is why I wanted to write this.
The first thing that I--and I talk about this in my memoir, which is my first book--the first people I identified with--and it's very strange because clearly I'm not black. I'm officially a white person. But, when I first came and I went to college or wherever I went, when I was in public, the people I most identified with were African-Americans. And, I'm sure--I would sit next to them in class. Somehow I thought that being an immigrant from that sort of background and having experienced the oppression that I had experienced in Iran, made me kind of kindred to them than anyone else.
So I think, speaking of nuance, this is an important narrative, too: that part of the reason why we as immigrants have it better in America is that we have this community of African-Americans who have put up this 200-year struggle, and perhaps longer, to make this society more just.
And, as a result, we come in more tolerated than we would have been had they not put up this struggle.
Now, do I wish that we could go back to 1776 and tell George Washington and the founding fathers that: 'Don't be stupid. All human beings, regardless of gender and race, are created equal?' Yeah. But can I? No.
But, I think at the end of the day, this struggle has given, has left a great deal of tragedy in its wake, but also a great many gifts that need to be recognized: that if we are a nation of nations, if we do better at assimilating immigrants, if we have learned to celebrate this diversity of races and ethnicities and religions in this country, it's because we have had an ongoing national conversation about equality. And we have all become better as a result of it and benefited from it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think of it as should we celebrate how awful we've been in the past, or should we celebrate how great we could be in the future? And, I choose the latter. It seems kind of easy, but it's not always.
Roya Hakakian: Well, I think it's interesting because I think--you're Jewish, I'm Jewish. Passover is coming up. For me, it's a much easier answer. We sit around the table on a yearly basis and we recount the story of the departure of Jews from Egypt. And, we recount the story of how the Jewish slaves in Egypt toiled, suffered, but were liberated. So, you know, do we throw it away because it's a bad story? No.
Narratives, especially narratives of struggle, if they lead to accomplishment, achievement, then they become backstories and backbones of generations to come.
And so, while we don't want these injustices to recur, we have to also recognize that because they have led to success--whether it was in Egypt, in the Bible, or whether it is in America--because they have led to success, then they can create the backbone of generations to come. That, no matter how bleak the circumstances and how awful the past has been, we have overcome. We have succeeded. And that makes us a much stronger nation than we would have been otherwise.
Russ Roberts: And, a skeptic might say, 'Well, it's easy for you to say. You're not black. Blacks are not fully liberated in the United States,' for all kinds of reasons. I would just--and, I think that's true--I think there are challenges that black people have in America, and immigrants have in America, that are unique.
And, again, as we've talked about earlier, I don't think it's easy for people outside those experiences to fully imagine them. They can't.
But, I think it's worth remembering that all of us could use a little further liberation. I think we're all a little bit enslaved, still. It might be to our screens or to our egos or our imperfection. So, we all have work to do. Some, tragically, have more to do than others.
But what I like is the importance of looking to what can be, not just what has been.
Roya Hakakian: Great. Yes, absolutely. You brought up this question of 'Where are you from?'--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah. Talk about that--
Roya Hakakian: which I mentioned in the book. And, I have friends who have been born and raised here and they say, 'But, it's such an innocuous, benign question. Why do you talk about it in the book?'
Well, you know, we had a an extensive dinner conversation about, you know, where are you from? And, when it's okay to ask and when it's not okay to ask.
And, it was very interesting because I was listening in even as I was the source of the reason why the conversation had begun to begin with.
But, I think: when you're a new immigrant and you're trying to pass--you are trying to feel like you can fit in--and then somebody asks you, especially someone you're unequal with, for instance, you're a cab driver and you've picked up a customer, or you are a grocery worker or a babysitter in a white American household.
When you are then under those circumstances, you're trying to pass, you're trying to prove yourself, and then people ask, 'Where are you from?'
Oftentimes, the reasons are completely benign. But you feel vulnerable because you feel vulnerable, period. Because of the circumstances--your own brand-new circumstances as a newcomer.
But, I think once you settle in and you are no longer that vulnerable, anxious newcomer, and you find your bearings, then it can actually--'where are you from' can be a wonderful way to strike a brand new conversation and develop friendships.
Russ Roberts: But, as you point out, sometimes it's just an innocuous question. It's a conversation starter. It's just something to get a conversation going. And, when you say, 'Well, I'm from Iran,' it's like, 'Wait a minute. They don't like America. Whoa. Who are you?' And, that must have been very jarring, especially given that you write about it. You were fleeing Iran. You weren't a spy. You weren't fond of the regime. But you were of dubious origin, like, just by that statement.
Roya Hakakian: Exactly. And, ironically, a great many Iranians in America call themselves Persian Americans. And, they always tell me, 'So, why do you say that you're Iranian? You're Persian.' And, I'm like, 'You call yourself Persian because you don't want to take the trouble of explaining the Iranian politics. And, you want to wash your hands off of all the political strife.'
I happen to actually like taking them on. And so, I call myself Iranian-American. But I can see that it becomes a really troubling issue if you come from places that are at the crosshairs with the United States, and you have to, also, go into and out of these communities that can be prejudiced toward who you are and where you come from.
Russ Roberts: At one point in the book you write:
What ought to be the quality that makes an American?
The answer is simple: devotion to America's founding principles. If you believe that all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that ideas and speech must be aired and protected, that people of diverse backgrounds can come together over the love of those values, that serving the country--through the army, unions, Rotary Club, volunteer groups--is the way to unite the people, that every person deserves a vote and equal regard before the law, then you are an American.
So, I wanted to stand up and cheer when I heard, read that. But, that's a little bit--that's a controversial statement in today's world about all ideas and speech must be aired and protected. That definition of what is American or an American is under threat.
Roya Hakakian: It is. But, do we have any other choice?
If we are going to recognize the fact that we have become more racially diverse than we have ever been--and this isn't something that has happened only to us. We, 20th century, created possibilities of human interaction in the way that it never existed before. And so, we have become far more multi-racial and multi-ethnic in this country--and around the globe--than we had ever been. So, we can't define communities based on purity of race, purity of ethnicity, and all these other jargon that we defined communities by in the past.
So, we have to look for less moveable, changeable principles; and those can only be shared values.
You can't define communities or tribes based on all the other things we did in the past. It was easy to keep other people out. It no longer is.
And so, if we are mixing to the degree that we are mixing now, then the only immovable things become fundamental values that we can all hold regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion. And, I think we have good ones to want to hang on to.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, I think the fight is going to be over what those things are; but yeah, that's where we're at.
Russ Roberts: You talk at the end of the book about naturalization and becoming a citizen--really quite moving. You write the following. I want to preface this by--we're going to talk a little bit at the end of our conversation about my own journey, which listeners know: I'm moving to Israel soon. I think America will always be 'our' and 'we', and it'd be hard for me--I'm not giving up my American citizenship. But, I'm making a big change. Somebody said to me: A person should re-pot themselves a few times in their lifetime. And, a lot of what your book is about is the challenge of being repotted, not so much a choice to--I'm fortunate, I'm choosing to re-pot myself.
But, you are talking about being wrenched from the soil that you were raised in. And you write the following--it's very beautiful--about the naturalization certificate, which is your certificate that establishes your citizenship. You say the following,
The certificate vindicates you. The certificate is proof that you were not permanently broken and deserve to belong again. You have been renewed, validated, and recycled back into society to be visible among others once more. That is what America has always done. That is what American knows how to do. Do not mistake the certificate for a deed. You can only guard her grandeur, not claim it. Citizenship does not give you the ownership of this land. It only gives you the honor of her stewardship, the pride of upholding her principles, and of keeping her fire burning to warm all the generations to come.
That's really magnificent. End of quote. Just talk about--
Roya Hakakian: You read it better than I do.
Russ Roberts: Well, your English, your written English is magnificent and as clear as your spoken English. Talk about what that meant to you.
Roya Hakakian: Well, you know, it's interesting, because as a green card holder, five years after you have your green card, you can naturalize and become a U.S. citizen. I didn't do that.
I was thinking about naturalization in a very strict nationalistic sense--that I was going to throw something away that I used to be, or I still was; and then take on this other thing.
And, that created a sense of contradiction in me, because I thought, 'What kind of a person with half an integrity, sense of integrity, would do that?' You have to hang on to whoever you were, regardless of how bad the place was that you came from. It would be a lie to throw that away and take on this other thing. I couldn't really reconcile it.
And, then finally, after about 15 years, I recognized that I would become an American for the values and the principles that I loved, no matter what country I would choose to live in or be born to.
So, in other words, once I began to look at this choice as a choice of adopting certain principles--which, you know, we were just talking about: freedom of speech; you know, everybody, one man one vote, equal before the law and all that--then when it was no longer a matter of geography or nationality in its limited ethnic or racial sense, then it was very easy for me to naturalize.
And, when I did, it was wonderful, because I looked around the room and I thought, you know, 'Nobody looks like me. And, somehow we manage to all call ourselves part of the same broad family.'
And, it's really incredible, and also uniquely American. Because, if only you come from a place like, you know, I do from Iran, where you have seen people who have looked like you, spoke the same language, came from the same background, is it that you recognize when you come here that this multiplicity is staggering and the multiplicity of races and ethnicities and religions is in fact why we are who we are? Is in fact why we have gained an edge?
And is, in fact, a source of innovation and just wonderful experiences?
How else would we have these incredible cuisines when we want to decide what to eat? I assure you, in most parts of the world, you would be lucky to find something other than the cuisine of that country, if you wanted to go out to dinner.
So, I think it's--we can choose to improve things, and we ought to. But the reason we have become and we have the strengths that we have today, is because that those imperfect original principles allowed us to be.
Russ Roberts: You mentioned food. I often think about music, the incredible melting pot of music that is America. And, those are things that we can point to and you can think about. I don't think we appreciate. You talk a lot--I want to let you end on that beautiful note--but this is important stuff to add[?], too. You talk about the importance of accepting immigrants who aren't just highly skilled. There are a lot of people who say, 'Oh, we should only take the highly skilled ones, the ones that are going to make a contribution,' as if everyday human beings aren't making a contribution. Every day, as you point out, driving Uber, mowing the lawns, building the buildings, taking care of the elderly, they're immigrants--
Roya Hakakian: Picking our fruits--
Russ Roberts: Picking our food. And you are talking--as you talk about, these are areas that are dominated often by immigrant. I hate to call it workers--I'll just say immigrants. They are leading lives and enriching the tapestry that is America in innumerable ways, just as we all do as human beings. It's not--nothing special about being an immigrant, although they're often, as you point out, working three jobs to make sure that their kids can get to where they want their children to be and so on. And, that they're struggling just to keep things going. But, they're all part of us. It's all part of the same big tapestry. And, it's tragic to not appreciate it. I think it's beautiful that you talk about, so eloquently, about the contributions that everyone makes, not just the high tech, H-1B Visa people--those are nice, I'm happy to have them, too. But I'll take them all as long as--why not?
Roya Hakakian: Well, you know, I think that there came a point where, in 2016 when this talk of merit-based immigration system was all the rage, I froze--thinking that if those laws were in place, I would have never come in. I would have never--
Russ Roberts: What did you have to offer? You had nothing to offer on paper. On paper.
Roya Hakakian: Nothing. Nothing. If they asked me what I had to offer, I would say, 'Nothing.'
But--I may be narcissistic, but I do think that at the end of the day, I've been a good citizen and I'm contributing to this society. And, I'm more than productive. I have understood what it means to be here and what makes this American universe turn.
And so, I think the difference is when you admit the H-1B1 applicants, you don't buy their loyalty, because they know they have entered into an exchange. It's tit-for-tat if they have skill.
Russ Roberts: It's transactional.
Roya Hakakian: It's transactional.
But, in my case, eventually when I grew up, I was less anxious and things turned, and I became who I became. I am full of a sense of: 'This is amazing. Who wanted me?' I didn't want me. I was so devastated and angry, I thought I was useless, myself. And so, to think that, you know, some nation, some country, open its doors onto you, when you didn't believe in yourself that, that you could be anything other than the miserable wretch that you were, then eventually they are buying, they are investing in patriotism that you will inevitably develop.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm glad you came around.
Roya Hakakian: Thank you.
Russ Roberts: I wish the circumstances had been different. But, I think when you said, 'I'm more than productive,' I think that word 'productive' is a dangerous word, right? It implies that our value is what we make. It's important. It's not our value, though. It's only a part of the story. I say that proudly as an economist.
But, what's powerful about your book is that because you were a miserable wretch when you came here and you came from a very different world, you were able to see things that those of us who were in the water don't necessarily notice. And, your book is an incredible tribute to that.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Roya Hakakian. Roya, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Roya Hakakian: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.
Russ Roberts: And, for being part of America.