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Old and New Immigrants to US Face Same Problems - 2004-07-06


Recent statistics from the U.S. government show the majority of immigrants today come from Asia and Mexico, in contrast to a century ago, when they mainly came from Europe. New York's Lower East Side Tenement Museum shows that despite the differences in ethnicity and culture, the immigrant experience in the United States has not changed much.

As the first generation of her family to be born in the United States, Sin Yen Ling draws inspiration from her grandmother who arrived here from Hong Kong 30 years ago.

"When she arrived here she was 53 years old," she notes. "She had started out working at sweatshops on East Broadway in Chinatown. She earned $500 a year, which is an amazing salary to survive on. With her strength and her courage, she was able to survive."

By the 1980s, Ms. Ling's grandmother was earning $1700 dollars a year. She survived on public assistance programs and despite the meager wages, Ms. Ling's grandmother was able to save thousands of dollars to sponsor her own daughter, Ms. Ling's mother, to emigrate to the United States.

Ms. Ling, who works as an attorney in a non-profit organization representing detained immigrants, says it is her grandmother's immigrant experience that inspires her today.

For Shahaan Azeem, who was born in Guyana, describing his own journey to the United States brought back memories of loss.

"It represents a certain loss children go through when they are taken from one place and sort of relocated to another," he recalls. "And they can't do anything about it. They're along for the ride. So it represents all the stress, all the heartache, all the loss and all the fear that a child feels when they are taken away from what they know, all their friends, and the people they grew up with and the people who raised them, and their environment. And they're whisked away to a new place."

Both Mr. Azeem and Ms. Ling are sharing their stories as part of a collection of personal anecdotes about those who have often struggled to make the journey to New York. Their experiences are part of a new installation, Living American, at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Artist Chanika Svetvilas explains her exhibit illustrates the similarities between modern day immigrants and those that came before them.

"It is about connecting the past to the present," she adds. "And the issues that immigrants deal with today also are not much different from the past. They're still struggling, but also they have incredible resilience."

However, enlightening viewers is just one of the artist's goals. Ms. Svetvilas explains that she wanted to provoke viewers into thinking about what it means to be American. And she wanted her art to reflect the contradictions between the perception of the United States as a welcoming haven for immigrants and the realities that many immigrants face once they arrive.

"I'm always confronted by my identity. People that are non-Asian for instance, because when they see me they associate my Asian-American identity as foreign," she says. "So I'm constantly asked where am I from, how long have I been in this country, why do I speak English so well? And I wanted to impose that experience on others, no matter what their ethnicity or race."

To do so, Ms. Svetvilas' invites viewers to peer into a large mirror, surrounded by the words "welcome" written in 30 different languages. But when viewers see their reflection, they also see the word "foreigner" staring back at them, confronting them with the power and stigma of such labels in American society.

Daniel Cory, whose family has been in the United States for several generations, says seeing his image in this way was a powerful reminder.

"Certainly remind you that you are an immigrant or descended from immigrants," he says. "When I looked in the mirror, and I saw myself standing there, I actually saw my great-great-grandfather standing there."

It is this mix of personal and political that encapsulates the immigrant experience in America. Each immigrant's experience is described through a suitcase, the universal symbol of travel. Personal artifacts, such as photographs, passports and documents, tell of hopes, dreams and cultures that together show that while there has been a change in where immigrants come from today, there is little change in the journey they undertake.

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