When I hauled myself into his cab, the driver was speaking Arabic into a phone mike. The only phrase I could make out was “long term mortgage”. I surmised he was talking to a relative because, whatever the language, only close friends and relations talk in the clipped tones and interrupted sentences that other people would take as rude. Halfway through the ride, he hung up (or whatever you do to slam down the receiver when using this kind of phone equipment). He glanced over his shoulder at me and unburdened himself. “I brought my son over from Egypt, and now he doesn’t even want to go into business with me. All he cares about is his own family.” I felt like saying “Welcome to America”  because, of course, that has been the story of any number of immigrant groups. The first generation comes over knowing it may or may not be as successful as it was over there, that they may sacrifice themselves to allow some success to the next generation, as was the case for the Chinese laundryman and his wife on my old block who spoke fluent English and whose daughter became a doctor, and not so much for the Korean grocer on the corner of my old block who never learned English and so could not use his Korean degree in social work, and yet put his kids through Ivy League colleges, never allowing any of them to work in the store, one of his sons, nevertheless, eventually taking over the store.

There is, indeed, something magical about America. Its streets are paved with gold; it is indeed the gold mountain. The chances of doing well over the generations are big, though children may go through a time when they are embarrassed by the fact that their parents seem so quaint and unknowing, but that happens with all American children, no matter how many generations their families have been here. What explains the ambitions of the immigrants and the relative success of their children?

Read More