The melting pot, circa 1986

IN Brighton Beach, a good 45-minute cab ride from downtown Manhattan, Russian Jews have shaped a community that evokes the sights, sounds, and flavors of their native Odessa, on the Black Sea. Russian is heard on the street corners, magnificent borsch is served in restaurants and nightclubs -- and families live out the dramas of adjustment and breakthrough that have enveloped immigrants throughout America's history. Many get established in business or in the professions; not a few founder.

``It's difficult,'' says Misha Galperin, over a late lunch of skewered meat and fish at the Primorsky (``by the sea'') on Brighton Beach Avenue. ``You're coming from a country you don't particularly like, but you come with habits of thought formed there.''

Mr. Galperin came to the United States in the 1970s, earned a degree in psychology, and now works with the youth of this community. His wife, Helen, also a Russian immigrant, recently started her own law practice.

Strong academic or professional backgrounds are one thing that distinguishes many, but far from all, of today's recent immigrants from those who passed under Miss Liberty's torch 70 or 80 years ago. While statistics are hard to come by, indications are that a higher proportion of immigrants today have extensive education and professional backgrounds. The unlettered ``huddled masses'' still come, from Southeast Asia, Haiti, and other corners of the globe. But you'll also find doctors, engineers, lawyers, and educators among the Russians, Koreans, and other groups.

The language barrier, however, plus licensing requirements, will prevent most from immediately taking up their old line of work in the New World.

Stories of cabdrivers with PhDs abound.

Today's New York immigrant has a different face, too -- Asian, Caribbean, Latino, rather than the predominantely Slavic and Mediterranean features of Ellis Island days. This teeming city remains, indisputably, America's door to the world, with more than 115,600 immigrants arriving last year, according to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. That's nearly one-third of the nation's 356,365 total.

Back in Manhattan, along a stretch of Broadway from 24th Street to 32nd, nearly every shop, it seems, is owned and run by Koreans. These recent immigrants, 2,600 of whom settled in New York during 1985 alone, have become the city's newest merchant class. Fruits and vegetables, wholesale electronics, office supplies -- Koreans have moved into all of them with breathless entrepreneurial zeal.

Most of these budding businessmen ``have no experience about this'' from back home, explains Dong Soo Ha, secretary-general of the Korean Association of New York on 24th Street. Some fail. All find the competition stiff. But it's their means of staking a claim to America.

Some 70 blocks away, in the Upper West Side, the city has a Haitian flavor; animated conversations in French and Creole patois frequently greet the ear here, as well as in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where other Haitian neighborhoods have sprung up.

Three waves of immigration from that island country have occurred in the past 20 years, explains Jean Dupuy, who has worked at the Haitian Neighborhood Service Center, a city-funded agency, at least that long. The earliest included many professionals and educated people, he says. Then came artisans, people who work with their hands.

Mr. Dupuy -- himself a political exile who fled the Duvalier regime -- says that now the poorest, the country's peasants, are coming.

Lives are upended, he explains, as Haitian wives often journey north first, establishing themselves in domestic jobs. Then, when husbands and children follow later, he continues, the man often finds that his newly independent mate is ``no more the housewife, like a slave of the husband.''

There are ``maybe 300,000'' Haitians in the New York area, estimates Dupuy, though he expresses little confidence in such estimates. The city's Haitian population grew by some 5,600 new arrivals in '85. Mr. Ha puts the number of Koreans in metropolitan New York at 150,000. The population of Russian Jews in Brighton Beach and other sections of the city is about 70,000.

For all these groups -- Russians, Koreans, Haitians -- as well as dozens of other that make up the intricate ethnic patchwork of New York, life in the ``land of the free'' is life severed from traditional guideposts. Family relationships get redefined. For the first five years you get a ``role reversal,'' says Galperin, with ``children learning the ropes and the language much quicker'' and becoming ``guides and supports for parents.'' Contradictions arise. ``Parents want to rely on the kids, but they want to retain their authority, too,'' he explains.

Sorting these things out is a ``complicated process,'' Galperin notes. And so it has been for every generation of immigrants to enter this huge metropolis, from the Germans and Irish of the mid-19th century, to the Italians and Slavs of the early 20th century, to the Asians, Caribbeans, and Russian Jews of today.

How to adapt to the new while grasping the security, the stability, of the old? That's a question that confronts each wave of new arrivals.

Jong Y. Kim, for instance, came to the US a quarter-century ago, bringing with him two master's degrees from the University of Seoul, in elementary education and linguistics. He spent a number of years getting established in an academic career here, earning a doctorate from Columbia while working for a purchasing agent on the side to pay his way.

When the academic route seemed to be a dead end, he switched to business, buying and running a midtown stationery store. He now lives in the suburbs, and his son and daughter are doing well in high school (``straight A's'' for the son), but Mr. Kim is ``very much concerned.''

Will his children lose sight of their Korean heritage? Wanting to be sure the answer is ``no,'' Kim took his children to Korea last year, showing them the schools he went to, the unspoiled rural region he was raised in. He knows they'll grow up fully acculturated Americans, but wants them to appreciate their family's rich past.

Haitian people, too, want to keep their cultural roots vital. ``We have a lot of bands, we get the music of Haiti here,'' Dupuy says with a smile. There are Haitian priests in church, he adds, and some even cling to their voodoo beliefs.

But there are times, certainly, when immigrants, especially younger ones, might like to shed their ``foreignness.'' Marat, a quick-witted teen-ager from Brighton Beach, recalls the taunts he and others have had to endure from schoolmates. ``In Russia, they call you a dirty Jew; here, they call you a communist,'' he explains, able to laugh about it now.

Neither Marat nor his friends, Albert and Sergio, gathered around a pizza served up by Laurel Casey, a counselor with the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, like being singled out as an ``interesting'' immigrant group. ``We're not really that different,'' says Marat. ``There are good Russians and bad Russians.'' It makes no sense to lump people together, the three young men agree.

Yet the images -- stereotypes, if you will -- take hold, and it's not too hard to find individuals who fit them. Take the hard-working immigrant, battling his or her way up from the bottom.

A woman who called herself simply ``Mrs. Kim'' (not related to Jong K. Kim) arrived in this city with her husband in 1972. His first job: street peddler. Hers: helping out in a hospital. They bought their first tiny store in '78. They were ``making money for the living,'' as she explains it. ``We saved it, didn't use it -- no vacations, no new clothes.'' As they had the funds, they bought a bigger store, working their way up to their present import/export business on Broadway.

The Kims had no previous experience running a business, but that was a minor problem compared with the language hurdle. Like many Koreans, they'd had English in school, ``but we didn't use it, and we had to start from the very beginning,'' she says.

Language barrier is a nearly universal challenge faced by immigrants, now as a century ago. Another, more subtle, is the diversity of choice once you step onto US soil. True, only a fairly narrow range of work may be open to newcomers with a poor grasp of English -- clerking in a fruit stall or other small store, driving a taxi, doing domestic work. But even that may be a giant leap beyond the impoverishment of Haiti or the political repression of the Soviet Union.

Galperin notes that for a lot of people -- and especially for those, like Russians, who've been used to marching exclusively to the tune of an ``omnipotent state'' -- it's ``hard to realize that, largely, you're on your own.

``But there are two sides to that,'' he adds. ``There's joy in that, too.''

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