One immigrant’s view of America

Lit up this week by the patriotic feelings that descend like sparks from an Independence Day skyrocket, I am moved to ask the traditional question: “Is this a great country — or what?”

Not to be an ingrate, but it’s the “or what?” tail of the question that I find interesting. The first part is obvious. Of course, it’s a great country. As the kids say, duh!

But I am also a great person — and you are a great person because you are reading this column — and yet it is possible that, in both our cases, spouses or significant others may have another opinion and suggest ways we might improve our behavior in order to make a more perfect union. That is the spirit in which I write.

As it happens, I have an immigrant’s perspective on this great country, but please don’t start bristling and assume I want amnesty, except, of course, for the odd dangling participle.

I came here legally, so you can resume drinking your holiday margarita even as you denounce those horrible aliens who loved the idea of this country so much they risked everything to come here, which is just the worst crime imaginable, right?

But let us not walk a mile in anyone else’s shoes today, because that would risk discovering a little shared humanity in the desert. Instead, let us consider aspects of American culture that perhaps, as a native-born person, you are too familiar with to have noticed. This is understandable. My own wife does not notice that I am already perfect in every way.

I remember when I came on my first visit to America 32 years ago. I was living in England at the time, having gone there from Australia a few years earlier.

I was thrilled by what I saw. With the fresh eyes of the visitor, my first impression was that America was a land where people jumped into big cars, took a big road and had a big meal when they reached their destination.

Just two days after arriving, I was bundled into a big car, rode down a big road and went as a visitor to a country club on Long Island Sound with the expectation of having a big lunch.

But first I decided to have a dip in the pool. Using the springboard, I dove into the pool and immediately broke my nose on the bottom. Fortunately, I had traveler’s nose insurance.

The nose was duly reconstructed in an operation conducted by a plastic surgeon in a local hospital. Unfortunately, when the bandage came off back in England, I found that my nose sloped to one side, and worse yet, with a strong right-wing bias, so that when I stood in the English rain, it would act as a downspout that threatened to wet anybody standing next to me.

This is how little I knew about American ways: I didn’t sue anyone — not the country club, not the doctor. It didn’t occur to me. Instead, I took the view that it wasn’t because the pool was too shallow or the springboard was too springy that I broke my nose; it was because I was too stupid to do a proper dive. As for the doctor, I was sure he had done the best he could.

As ashamed as I am now of my naivete, I wish that personal responsibility wasn’t such a foreign instinct in my adopted land and, for that matter, that people didn’t run off to the courts every time they lose a pair of $54 million trousers at the dry cleaners.

I also wish that everybody in this country had access to universal health care. I eventually got a new nose courtesy of the National Health Service in Britain, and it is a beauty not to be sneezed at. If you are poor and uninsured here, however, a deviated septum is the least of your problems. It’s amazing to me how such a good and compassionate country can be so unheeding about its most needy citizens — or the immigrants who make its beds and pick its salad.

Still, I am not kidding about how essentially good Americans are — the most courteous people in the world, the most big-hearted. Unfortunately, they are also the most heavily armed, which inevitably leads to its own problems. The inevitable disputes that in England become fistfights are gunfights here. Perhaps that is why I got a better nose repair in England — they are more used to battered noses.

America has changed since I first came, but the cultural traits stay the same, which is mostly good but also bad. Those big meals have made people obese and those big SUVs help enrich nations that coddle the mad mullahs who support terrorism.

Happy Birthday, America, a great country that is only a few “or whats” away from perfection. Hey, guys, we can work on that.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)


  1. scottimack

    The main problems that I have with the immigration issue are :

    1) It is tremendously unfair to the REST of the immigrants, who have waited in lines and filled out the paperwork, to allow someone to walk across the border illegally and work here.

    2) There is a reason why ANY immigrant came here. America had been the great melting pot; it didn’t matter WHAT you had been before– once you reached our shores, you became an American. You assimilated into our culture, and the small differences between us made us (U.S.) stronger.

    Nowadays, we’re not simply Americans; we’re hyphenated- Americans. People don’t want to assimilate into our culture; they insist WE adapt to THEIRS. They want all of the benefits of being in America, but want to take none of the responsibities of being a citizen.

    One of the foremost responsibilities is obeying the law. If your first action upon arriving is to break the law– and then compound that action with many more with document fraud and identity theft in order to work here– is it any wonder that most rational people might take offense at that?

  2. Steve Horn

    Reg wrote “But let us not walk a mile in anyone else’s shoes today, because that would risk discovering a little shared humanity in the desert.”

    Perhaps rather than crossing the desert they should have been involved in their local government, perhaps they should have lobbied for labor reform in their native countries, perhaps they should have attempted to effect change within their own borders, rather than coming into this nation illegally and then lobbying and protesting to be rewarded for breaking the law by being granted citizenship.

    My grandparents, all four of them, came to this nation from Germany in the last century. They were proud of their new nation, proud of their knowledge of English, proud of their childrens college degrees and their childrens sacrifices in the second world war. They were Americans, they wanted to be Americans. They came in legally, they studied the language, they applied for and gained citizenship. My moms parents came here before the “great war”, my fathers in the late 1920’s. They suffered the suspicion of that all Germans felt during the second world war. My dads father, by the way, captained fuel tankers from the East coast to the Pacific to resupply the fleet.

    I have no issue with legal immigrants, but I have a very hard time digesting the idea of people being rewarded for breaking the law.

    I worked for a time in Mexico – I had my passport and my work visa – I was fully documented – as such I was working in Mexico legally. Had I opted to not apply for the visa, to not have my working papers, I could have been arrested – and that arrest would have resulted in a fine and deportation to the United States – oh yeah – I wouldn’t have been able to work legally in Mexico again. I would have deserved the punishment because I would have commited the crime.

    Just because you got YOUR nose bent out of shape doesn’t justify your trying to do the same to MINE.


    No country should pretend to greatness. They are all obnoxious whores.

    John Hanks, Laramie, Wyoming