Tag Archives: Immigration

Are We Waking up from the American Dream?

What is the American Dream?  Traditional answers included any of the following:

1) White picket fences

2) Your own huge house

3) At least two cars

4) Being Number One

Excuse me while I yawn.  

Childhood Dreams

Growing up in the Philippines I was absolutely sold on the American Dream.  I remember being depressed and incredibly down as a 12 year-old when my family moved from the US to Europe for work-related reasons.  Somehow I knew  that America was the ultimate destination, that the American Dream was real and that I could have it.

Coming to America (Again)

I was incredibly excited to get to study in the US for college.  I could not wait to get my shot at the American life.  I took to my studies with some serious rigor and networked like a madman trying to track down all the best internship or work opportunities.  I found an employer that was willing to hire me and file expensive paperwork for me straight out of college.  I was on the verge of the American Dream.  I was making it!  Or so I thought.

Not so hot

I had come to the US in 2001 right before 9/11.  In the decade that followed, terrorism and America’s response to it put at damper on the allure of America.  Somehow life in the United States looked less attractive.  The balance of power and wealth in the world was shifting.  China was rising.  It passed Japan as the second largest economy in the world.  Other non-traditional players were emerging – South Korea, India, Brazil.  A lot of the members of the international intelligentsia that previously contributed to brain drain from other countries were choosing not to come to the US.

And then Came the Recession

I moved up to Northern California for my second job in 2008 as world economies were crashing and everyone was foretelling Armageddon.  America was on the brink of another depression.  Even illegal immigration was down and the worldwide opinion of American was not nearly what it had been.  Not much has improved despite the hope so many had during the last election cycle.

Here’s the Thing Though…

But I am not giving up yet.  Call it brainwashing or naivete, I still believe that the US will rebound.  The recent dip in the unemployment rate, a recovered auto industry and a few other flickers of hope on the American economic horizon are a few near-tangibles but there is something far more powerful that I am banking on:  American can-do-it-ness.  If there is one thing that has defined the American experience so far it is this:  AMERICA ALWAYS COMES BACK.  This is not a bet against the rest of the world or a patriotic plug for American imperialism.  Power has limits and there is nothing wrong with adapting with the times.  But here’s what I can say with confidence:  I truly believe that America is a uniquely resilient country.  Will it go the way of Rome?  Maybe.  But I am not convinced we have to resign ourselves to the cynical reading of history that armchair political prophets indulge.  Failure does not have to be inevitable.  Let’s rise above that kind of thinking.  Let’s remember that a colony threw off the chains of tyranny not so long ago and rose to heights unparalleled.  Let’s remember that slavery was abolished.  Let’s remember Normandy.  Let’s remember the bridge at Selma.  Let’s remember that preacher from Atlanta.  Let’s remember the man on the moon.  Let’s remember the Berlin Wall.

The American Dream doesn’t need to be shallow and materialistic.  Let it instead be an unflagging belief in the future and our capacity to work for something better.



Bjorn Karlman


Seven Reasons it Sucks Being an Immigrant in the United States

I seriously hate being an immigrant.

Right now, not even the fact that I am married to an American is not going to save me the $1000 plus that I will blow on another international trip to an American consulate to get a visa stamped in my passport (I haven’t gotten my green card yet).  I have to leave the country and get this visa stamp if I hope to travel internationally and re-enter the United States with permission to work.  Absurd.  Hence the dour look on my face as I write this at Starbucks in Terminal B in Sacramento International Airport.

I am not yet ready to look at the bright side of all this (there may be some happier immigration-related posts later this week if my rendezvous at the US Consulate in Calgary goes as planned.)  So for now, let’s wallow in pessimism and complain about the crappy state of the immigration process in seven, rambling points:

1)  There are too many jokes about immigrants – starting with my wife Jammie’s joke that I have blogged about before.  She LOVES asking, “Why am the one who looks like I need the green card,” really enjoying the irony of the Filipina who is this white boy’s ticket to America.

2)  Life is always more complicated for immigrants – ever since I was in college it has been the SAME story – you’ve got to jump through ALL these hoops if you want to study/live in the US.  Depending on where you are from, the paperwork and the uncertainty surrounding whether or not you will get a student visa is absolutely exhausting.

3)  Immigration to the United States (or anywhere, for that matter) is BEYOND humiliating – When I finally arrived at my American school I had to go to something called International Student Orientation where they shared gems like “take daily showers and wear deodorant.”  Welcome to America indeed.

4)  Immigrants are always at the mercy of the host country – I remember landing in Chicago after a trip back to the UK for Christmas.  An airport official at the immigration desks started yelling at the huge crowd of non-US travelers that were lined up, immigration forms in hand, trying to get in the country.  It was as though we were a crowd of misbehaving school children.  I raised my hand and asked if she was going to do anything about the fact that the super slow immigration officials were causing people to miss their flights.  The collective humiliation of being yelled at as a crowd quickly became personal as she directed her plump ire at me, pontificating on about how we were just going to have to “wait our turn.”  I complained heartily to their customer service people and missed the last bus to Michigan.

5)  Being an immigrant is ALWAYS more expensive – If it were not for the fact that I got lucky and have worked for extremely generous employers, I would be completely broke at this point.  The paper work that has been filed for me to work in the US on a professional non-immigrant H-1B (too confusing to go into the reasoning behind this category here) visa has cost about $15,000 and I have only worked in the United States for five years.  It is absolutely ridiculous.  Having a legal immigration status is immensely costly.  And we wonder why we have a problem with illegal immigration.

6)  The life of an immigrant feels like one long interview process – Living under the constant threat of deportation for the slightest infraction is hardly a great way to enjoy the American life.  It is super stressful.  I have my THIRD immigration interrogation in five years this Tuesday at the US consulate in Calgary just so I can get a visa stamped in my passport for which my employer has already spent thousands of dollars.

7)  You are at the mercy of politicians – It is not ordinary Americans that are causing all of this drama.  It is a completely inefficient Congress.  Immigration comes up in every election cycle, especially in the border states.  Good immigration news is the number one issue in many voters’ minds.  But let’s be real, does anything constructive EVER happen?  It certainly doesn’t feel like it.  Immigration problems are here to stay.

OK, enough negativity for now.  On Tuesday we look at whether or not it is worth immigrating to the United States anymore.


Bjorn Karlman


Wolf in Sheeps’ Clothing – The Life of a Third Culture Kid Swede with an American Accent

adjusting to the American life...

Ever since I was in grade school growing up in the Philippines, I have had a confused relationship with America.  I love America but for some reason I have almost always ended up living in countries where anti-American sentiment could run high.

Breeds of anti-Americanism

In the Philippines there was the gratitude for American deliverance from Japanese control during World War II but anger at subsequent interference.  In Britain where I lived as a teen, politicians boasted of the “special relationship” that Britain had with the US while much of the population dismissed Americans as one giant, gun-toting Jerry Springer show.

I was studying in France when George W. Bush was elected the first time and I studied in Latin America soon after his election to a second term.  Those were bad – even dangerous – times to be identified as American.  But through it all I still saw the US as the place that had the most opportunity and I wanted my shot at living there.

Sounding American

I remember making a conscious decision at the age of 12 or 13 that I wanted to sound like an American.  By then I had already decided that I wanted to go to college in the United States and work there afterward.  I figured that any non-American accent would be a barrier if and when I moved to the US so pulling on my various stints in America (basically two six month periods), and the way my American friends and teachers sounded, I accent corrected until almost everyone mistook me for an American.

It helped BUT

I’m not going to lie – despite the fact that I got some crap from European friends for sounding “SO American”, the accent helped as soon as I moved to the US for college.  Somehow the barriers that accents created for other international students didn’t apply to me.  Americans assumed I was one of them until I told them otherwise.  And for the most part, I thought, “mission accomplished.”

Until I felt like a sellout.  Was I just masquerading as someone that I fundamentally was not?  Or was this simply the life of the Third Culture Kid (someone from a certain country/culture that has grown up in a different country and therefore created his or her own hybrid culture.)  I knew that travel and multiple major, long-term international relocations left me not entirely at home anywhere but very familiar with lots of different cultures.  But had I tried too hard and given up too much of my original identity to blend in with Americans? The question still bothers me today.

It Gets Touchy
My own wife confesses that she forgets that I am Swedish.  And almost everyone else does too.  As much as this can be convenient, conversations sometimes get tense when an American dismisses “socialist” Europe or I share my fairly Scandinavian views on the death penalty, divisive patriotism or the limits of American international influence.  As a disagreement brews and I sense that some sparring is coming up I feel really tense and I realize how American I am NOT.  I used to tackle disagreements head on (if you are a long-term CultureMutt reader you’ll remember some sharply worded opinion pieces:)) but nowadays I don’t think the fight is worth it.  Why not emphasize common ground rather than keep stressing about the things about America that I dislike?

Making it Work

Fundamentally I believe in this common ground and how it has to be the focus – not just for this Swede living in California, but for all of us internationally.  Helping to build international cultural common ground in order to do good things for society is one of the reasons I write CultureMutt.  I want to do my part.  The world is getting flatter and more connected every day.  Yes, this makes for a lot of confusion and tension.  But it can also lead to enormous progress and growth as we learn understand and accept each other.



Bjorn Karlman

Immigration Fraud and other Pitfalls in International Romance

So, in my last post I started to talk about the marriage of convenience and how, in my bachelor days, I was either worried of being accused of this kind of immigration/marriage fraud or being duped by some international golddigger who married me for the wrong reasons.  I promised a list or red flags to look out for if you are trying to avoid someone scamming you like this.  A complete list would stretch for miles but here are a few (and yes, forgive the obviously tongue-in-cheek entries):

You found her on any kind of mail order bride service. I’m not kidding.  These sites/catalogs are WAY to common.  I met a guy in a northern Philippine town and we struck up a conversation over mango pie at Jollibee.  He was from Utah, was missing teeth and seemed to drive his wife crazy with almost everything he said.  When she left to go to the rest room he told me she was a mail order bride.  Classy.
She his hot, young and from a developing country and you are old, fat and from a developed country. We have all seen this and it is easy to spot in others but not always as easy to see when you are the aging chubster.  Not to be looks-obsessed but be wary of model types climbing all over you on vacation, they’ll divorce you just as quick when they have grown enough roots stateside.
He or she asked you if you were a citizen of the US, any EU country or other rich country before taking the time to flirt with you further. This happened to ME a few years ago and since I was hyper-sensitive about this I immediately was suspicious of what otherwise seemed an innocent enough encounter.
His family was too eager to encourage the romance. Gold diggers can work as families.  When I worked in a Filipino fishing village I had a father implore me to marry his daughter.  I was 16 and clueless but even then it seemed a little too obvious.  I was the entire family’s ticket to a wealthier life.
Conversation always shifts to leaving country of origin. Pay attention to how often conversation shifts to border hopping.  It can be a veritable obsession for some.
He pushes for a speedy marriage. This may seem flattering but recognize it for what it is.  He may not be as head over heels for you as he is with the idea of a one-way ticket to your country.
Your romance has been brokered by someone who you met on vacation who promises to introduce you to someone, “beautiful’, “sexy”, etc. It happens all the time and this can be exciting.  Often the broker delivers too.  He or she is hot.  But make not mistake.  The broker will get a cut of the winnings one way or another.  And you will be paying.
Too much emphasis on filling out those immigration forms. Refuse to talk about embassies, consulates, immigrations papers or anything of the sort until you are convinced that this tropical romance is the real deal.
In all seriousness, if it is too late and you are already married to the fraudster, check out this site and get help:  http://www.immigrationfraudvictims.com/index.html
By the same token, it IS possible to over-think all of this.  I don’t work for the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services)  These posts were not intended to make you paranoid or xenophobic in your approach to international relationships.  International romance is a good thing.  Do not let the mere fact that you and your potential spouse are from different countries prevent you from finding and growing real love.  That would be a tragedy.  Just be savvy.  One more thing.  Here’s a list of the questions that may come up if you are in a US Citizen / foreign immigrant marriage.  It doesn’t hurt to be prepared:)
A list of likely questions that an immigration officer will ask you if you are suspected of immigration fraud
Bjorn Karlman

“Nice Green Card” – The Marriage of Convenience

About a year after finishing college in the US, I was working in the Los Angeles area and my US work papers expired.  I was stuck because my new visa had not arrived and a 60-day countdown began at the end of which I would have to leave the country or lose my legal immigration status.

I remember sharing the dilemma with my Rotary Club at one of our weekly meetings.  I could not believe what happened next.  I literally got an offer from one of the members: “My daughter and I cooperate on many different levels, we’ll work out a marriage between the two of you if need be,” said the Rotary member.  I stammered a “thank you” to the offer and immediately started plotting how to politely tell her I’d rather go back to Europe than marry her daughter for papers.  Luckily, by day 51 I had my papers and I was able to dodge the awkward follow-up conversations.

Fast forward to now.  I married my wife Jammie about three months ago.  She loves giving me crap about the fact that I am still on a visa as a Swede living in the United States.  She is an American citizen of Filipino decent so she keeps asking me “Why do I look like I am the one that needs the green card?”  The line always gets a laugh because of the apparent role reversal.  Ever since I stepped foot on US soil for college more than a decade ago, the issue of the “green card marriage” or marriage of convenience has been joked about and for the longest time I swore that I would not marry an American for exactly that reason.  I never wanted to be suspected of getting hitched for papers.

Neither did I want to marry someone else that just wanted my papers.  Although not quite their American counterpart, European Union passports are also highly sought-after, as is the mere opportunity to work within the EU.  So I was always on the lookout while traveling to look out for any ulterior motives in potential romances.

What is the best litmus test when you are trying sort real love from immigration desperation?  I’d love to have your ideas.  Leave a comment or contact me @culturemutt on Twitter.  My next post will have some of my ideas for red flags that you should look out for when contemplating international relationships.



Bjorn Karlman

“Those Pants Make You Look Illegal” – A Win for Intolerance in Arizona

Statue of Liberty holding a stop sign

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer sure knows how to dial back the pace of progress.  Today, Brewer signed into law a bill that will allow police to demand legal status papers from anyone they think gives off an illegal immigrant vibe.  Challenged by Chris Matthews on Hardball last night to provide one non-ethnic clue that law enforcement would pick up on to round up illegals, Rep Brian Billbray (R-CA) said, “They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there’s different type of attire, there’s different type of — right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes.” 

So if you live in Arizona, your dressing rituals will have to allow for more than color coordination and avoiding your fat pants: You will also need  to gauge just how illegal you look before you walk out the door.  Like two dudes at the movies with an obligatory “I’m not gay” seat between them, who knows the lengths people will go to not look border-hopperish?

It is hard to decide what is more crazy-making: the fact that backers of the law are so prejudiced that they think you can identify undocumented individuals walking down the street based on clothing or vague hunches, or the fact that these fearmongering xenophobes have the naivety to argue that this isn’t going to turn into legally-sanctioned racial profiling.  Brewer claims that she won’t tolerate anything of the sort as, simultaneously, she stokes the fears of Arizonians in a shameless mid-battle re-election bid.

Even President Obama himself has tried to stop this legislation being voted into law.  He deemed the Arizona moves “misguided” and stated that they “threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”  Obama has ordered his legal team to examine the legality of the decision in Arizona and said that there must be national immigration reform or we would allow for more “irresponsibility by others.”

In classic conservative “us and them” prattle, the bill’s Republican sponsor, state Rep. Russell Pearce of Mesa, said that Obama and other critics of the bill were “against law enforcement, our citizens and the rule of law.”  He claimed that the new legislation would remove the “political handcuffs” on police.  “Illegal is illegal,” said Pearce, “We’ll have less crime. We’ll have lower taxes. We’ll have safer neighborhoods. We’ll have shorter lines in the emergency rooms. We’ll have smaller classrooms.” Why didn’t he just continue? We’ll have less shady brown people.  We’ll have cleaner accents.  We’ll talk to our neighbors again.

This has been a sad day for civil rights.  Let’s push for immigration reform before we are all Arizonians.



Bjorn Karlman

Joe the Plumber in Phoenix Last Sunday at a Tea Party Event

Some particularly telling excerpts:

“I am not politically castrated — new word for political correctness, by the way. I am not politically castrated. Put a fence in, start shooting. End of story.” (the plumber’s fix for illegal immigration)

“Line up every damn last terrorist, I’ll torture them my damn self. And I’m not just talking.”

“The Tea Party I kinda look at as being a Church…. the main purpose is God.”

“You gotta have the respect of your family and friends, the rest of the world can go to hell”

“Iran… I don’t know why we aren’t bombing them right now.”

“I’m not out here as a lunatic fringe”

“I read history books”




Bjorn Karlman

Surviving “Fresh off the Boat” (FOB) Parenting…

Junge Türkin bei Dreharbeiten

It happened WAY too much.  And it always happened when we were already running late.  Our old, disgracefully dilapidated beast of a Buick would shut off at the bottom of the long, steep driveway to the cookie-cutter Marietta, Ga. apartment complex where we lived.  My high-strung über-Scandinavian mother would then proceed to frantically wind down the car window, stick her head out as far it would go and yell “It STOPPED!!” with shrill, Nordic determination to the annoyed assortment of early-morning drivers behind us.  Humiliated, my sister and I would shrink down in our seats, willing the moment to pass.

This, of course, was only one of the whole smorgasbord of awkward experiences my sister and I had growing up with FOB (Fresh-off-the-boat) parents who had about as much interest in blending into local culture as we did in sticking out like sore thumbs.

I’ve met enough children of FOBs to detect some patterns.  The first of these is that immigrants often have an idealist, nonconformist streak.  It took guts and ignoring naysayers to move from their homelands.  Now that they are here, some of these qualities manifest themselves in a stronger-than-usual sense of motivation. They are also less likely to concern themselves with what others think.  While this singular focus has worked well for them, their children (who are more concerned with blending in) will often find this focus too narrow and abrasive.  I’ve rarely witnessed kids that have been able to change their FOB parents.  It seems that the best thing to do is to appreciate your parents’ work ethic and recognize that they are who they are.

Another thing about FOB parents is that although they (in most cases) chose to leave their home countries, they often are extremely patriotic and nostalgic about the homeland they left behind.  They will wax lyrical about the food, the culture and the beauty of home.  Ask them if they would like to go back though and they quickly shake their heads or talk loosely about what they might do in retirement. If you were born to FOBS and have to listen to your parents and their nostalgic rambling, take it all with a grain of salt.  It is good to be aware of your roots but realize that time and distance have probably embellished the memories of your parents’ home.

One of the more obvious things about FOB parents is their accent and how they carry themselves. Accents rarely change if someone learns a language as an adult so chances are that your FOB parents really sound foreign.  My mom’s accent used to embarrass me, but nowadays it is much more of a source of amusement.  As with most things about foreign parents and their cultural idiosyncrasies, if you can see the humor in the situation, you can actually enjoy it.  On that note, let’s conclude with a video from HappySlip, a YouTube-based comedy series by Christine Gambito, a Filipina American who plays all her characters and who has the funniest take I have ever seen on the FOB experience…


Bjorn Karlman