Thoughts About My Immigrant Heritage

As a Norwegian American, Trump’s latest racist comments have got me thinking about my immigrant heritage. Sure, he would welcome Norwegians now — they’re about the whitest and richest people on the planet. But it wasn’t always that way. My great-grandparents immigrated to the USA from Norway back when it (except for the color of its people) was what our president would call a “shithole.”

My great-grandmother Amanda left Norway over a century ago because it was a miserable place to live…a land without promise. About the only thing I remember of Granny Amanda was that, because I had red hair like hers, she’d always put her arm around me and brag about me having “good stock,” and my other relatives would laugh.

Baby Rick Steves

On a recent trip to New York City, I visited Ellis Island, where I was inspired by the stories of tired and huddled masses finding refuge in the United States. I looked up another of my Norwegian relatives in their database: According to a ship’s register, exactly a hundred years ago John Romstad landed with a buddy, bound for Duluth, with $20 in their pockets. Anyone considering Duluth the Promised Land (with a net worth of $20) must have come from a pretty hopeless place.

These Steves ancestors left their homeland to escape and came to America because they wanted to work hard and contribute in a land of opportunity and justice. They toiled long and hard, as immigrants do, and two generations later I am as American as can be.

I recently learned that, a century ago, immigration to our country was based on the concept of “good stock.” The racist term my great-grandmother used to describe me was the term used to describe those coming from an acceptable heritage. That law was changed in the 1960s and today — true to our ideals (sorry, Granny Amanda) — we no longer consider good and bad “stock” when it comes to immigration. (Our president didn’t get that memo.)

It takes gumption to pick up and immigrate to a new country. And, in America, it takes hard work and character to succeed and become established. As a society of immigrants, we can shape our future. It can be angry, fearful, and white — hunkered down behind tariffs and walls, squinting at globalization as if squinting at bad weather. Or it can be open, positive, celebrating diversity, and embracing (rather than fighting) the reality of a global, integrated, and interconnected world. Our future can be determined by bully bargains, zero-sum calculations, and “me first” policies. Or it can be about sharing, caring, and win-win solutions. If our national direction is inspired by our president, we’re heading in a sorry direction. Thankfully, I believe America is more American than that — and that we’re waking up.


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