Transcript

124:

Welcome to America
Transcript

Originally aired 03.19.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/124

Prologue.

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

Everybody who's taking the oath, stand up.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life.

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

And everybody speak up now, so we can hear your voice. I--

New Citizens

I--

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

Hereby declare on oath--

New Citizens

Hereby declare on oath--

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

That I absolutely and entirely--

New Citizens

I absolutely and entirely--

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

Renounce and abjure--

New Citizens

Renounce and abjure--

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

All allegiance and fidelity--

New Citizens

All allegiance and fidelity--

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

To any foreign prince--

New Citizens

To any foreign prince--

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

Potentate--

New Citizens

Potentate--

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

State or sovereignty.

New Citizens

State or sovereignty.

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

That I will support and defend--

New Citizens

That I will support and defend--

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

The constitution--

Ira Glass

Monday. US District Court in Chicago. The honorable Abraham Lincoln Marovitz presiding. 30 men women standing, taking the oath to become citizens. What would you say to somebody becoming a citizen of this country?

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

So help me God.

New Citizens

So help me God.

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

Now shake hands with your neighbor on each side and congratulate yourself. Lets give a nice hand, folks.

[APPLAUSE]

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

Sit down for a minute, now we can gab a little bit. There's not much a judge can do that pleases everybody, but this pleases me. And I'm particularly pleased to do this, because my pa and ma were immigrants, and my father's proudest possession was his citizenship papers. And the first few years at election time I suggest who he might vote for, he said don't tell me how to vote, I'm a citizen like you.

Ira Glass

Judge Marovitz is 93 years old. He still runs a citizenship ceremony only because he loves it. He's been part of the Chicago political scene going back to the bad old days of the original Daley machine four decades ago. His office is lined with signed photos of politicians of that era and luminaries. Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope.

But there is something about welcoming people into this country that somehow conjures a picture of life here, evokes a picture of life here that is rosier than, for example, the grimy world of Chicago politics. It is as if, when welcoming people into this nation, we tell them not about the competitive, harsh realities of life here sometimes. Not the country we see around us every single day. But the country we want to believe this is.

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

Every once in a while I'm introduced as a self-made man. And at 93, I've yet to meet one. Or a self-made lady. I've had help all my life. A little push from some, a big push from others. But a kind word from everybody. Reach out to help people. Do a little good deed every day. Regardless of their color, regardless of their religion. And don't judge anybody by the color of their skin or the church they go to. But reach out every day. Don't let a day go by.

Ira Glass

His citizenship ceremony is so moving that immigration officials, whose job is normally to enforce all the laws that make it hard for people to become Americans, immigration officials compete to be assigned to the naturalization ceremony. It's coveted. And they're only allowed to stay on the job for a limited time. A few months.

I'm Ira Glass. Each week on this radio program, we choose some topic. Bring you a variety of stories on that topic. Today's program, Welcome to America. Stories of people arriving here, how they see us, how we think they should see us, and what they know about us that we don't necessarily know about ourselves.

Act One, What do Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigmund Freud have in common? A true story of a group of Austrians who come to New York City to teach in the public high schools, and how their experience here is nothing like what Americans seem to think it will be.

Act Two, Are Movies Stronger than Communism? A man flees Cuba, comes to America, always partly regrets it. His son embarks on a project to convince him that he did the right thing. Stay with us.

Act One. What Do Arnold Schwarzenegger And Sigmund Freud Have In Common?

Ira Glass

Act One. What do Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigmund Freud Have In Common?

Well, the New York City public schools consist of roughly 65,000 teachers, 1.1 million students. And the New York City public schools could not find enough math and science teachers for its classrooms. There's a shortage. Americans somehow do not want these jobs.

Meanwhile, in the European nation of Austria, there was a surplus of math and science teachers. Somebody noticed these two facts. One thing led to another. And before long, there was a decision to import Austrian teachers to New York City. This summer, school officials began the hiring process with job interviews that they conducted by videoconferencing between City College in Harlem and Vienna. Writer David Rakoff has this account of the Austrians' welcome to America and of the platitudes about this country that people kept trying to force upon them.

David Rakoff

Any job interview is an awkward affair. Any job interview with a panel of five interviewers, even more so. How about a job interview with a panel of five interviewers, conducted in a foreign language, via transatlantic live video teleconferencing, complete with an echo and an audio delay with reporters from Nightline, the local TV news, and New York's major dailies watching?

Two young men busily tape up a purple City College banner with packing tape for the news cameras' benefit. Everyone is nervous. Questions are repeated, slowed down. It all makes for very halting progress. A typical question. "Would you please tell us why you have decided to become a teacher?" Typical answer. [IN AUSTRIAN ACCENT] "Sorry. It's very hard to hear. I didn't understand you. Could you please ask again the question, please?"

How much of an actual cultural gap is there between the two sides? Well, when asked what knowledge they had have of New York Schools, one woman answered that she heard, quote, "The kids were having guns and using drugs." But she doesn't seem overly concerned.

It becomes clear that the Austrian teachers are hoping to come to New York out of a sense of adventure, to experience another culture firsthand, and to improve their English, although for the most part, they speak quite well. One fellow hungers for New York's multiethnic society. "I want to see the blacks. Where I am from, there is only one black people a year," is how he puts it. "Oh," one of the African-American principals whispers. "Vermont."

Three of the men, when asked why they became teachers, innocently and unabashedly answered, "because I love children." I don't know that an American male would answer that question in that way, even if it were true.

The final question has them all completely stymied. "Can you tell us anything else about yourself that should make us want to select you as one of our teachers?" Answering this kind of question is an acquired skill, even for Americans. You remember how it took at least three job interviews before you learned that maintaining unwavering eye contact and being hypomanically gung ho weren't just weird and arrogant. They were required. For the Austrians, trained in a kind of courtly European reserve, being asked to assert their sterling qualities in full voice seems truly baffling-- a trick question straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

The best answer comes from the undisputed star of the day, Andrea Unger. With her doctorate in Genetics at age 28, perfect English, and blonde movie star beauty, she has all of us-- educators and reporters alike-- immediately am profoundly enslaved. This being a high school world that I have entered on this day, I am hyper-attuned to adolescent paradigms, and she seems to be that rarest of legendary creatures in high school pantheon-- the popular girl, beloved by students and faculty alike, who, in addition to being pretty and smart, is also nice.

She's addressed as Dr. Unger. Scarcely four minutes into her interview, the borough superintendents are mouthing, "I want her," out of camera range. When asked her final, "Tell us why you're the best" question, she answers, "I don't know if I'm the very best, but I will do my best. And if that's not enough, I will do much better." We would follow her into the very mouth of hell, singing songs all the while. "See you in September," says one of the interviewers after she has left the room in Vienna.

Let's play a word association game. One. Austrian teacher. Association-- that extraordinary opening shot. A camera impossibly placed in the Alpine ether, coming in ever closer to the mountaintop to finally focus and settle on the turning figure, her arms outstretched, face beaming, overwhelmed with joy and music, the young novitiate, Fraulein Maria.

[MUSIC - "THE SOUND OF MUSIC" BY JULIE ANDREWS]

The Sound of Music. Maria von Trapp. Julie Andrews. As seen on television so many times that anyone can complete the following sentence-- "How do you solve a problem like--?"

Two. New York City public schools. Association. Metal detectors, baggy jeans, box cutters, white flight. A futile, underfunded, ineffectual exercise in neglect. The last stop before entering the revolving door prison system.

In part, it is these exact stereotypes, the guileless, defenseless foreigners being used for target practice by young toughs, that have so piqued the interest of the national media. And it is these very stereotypes that I will find debunked time and again over the next five months.

The reporter from ABC asks all the questions that are on the minds of those of us not in public education. They are, verbatim, "New York is one of the toughest places to teach in this country. Are you up for challenge?" "New York is a very diverse city, and there are students from various different countries, and almost anywhere you teach, you'll find students of various backgrounds, various ethnicities. Is that going to be very different for you?" "You, no doubt, have heard about a string of rather unfortunate incidents we've had in the past school year. Students shooting other students in school. Are you aware of that, and did that at all affect your decision to do this?"

All of this takes place at City College, where, for generations, immigrants made their start in this country. And all of this takes place in New York, a city which had not one of the much-publicized school shooting sprees of the past year.

The posters in California Lounge at the Delta terminal of Kennedy airport are, paradoxically, of London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Perhaps the only thing that seems authentically California to me about the California Lounge is how boring it is. I and 13 other newspeople wait for the Austrians get through customs.

The teachers' union has issued this deadpan statement. Quote, "We're pleased they're here, but it's regrettable that New York doesn't pay its teachers more." Unquote. The starting salary for a teacher in New York City's $29,600, which is a living wage in this town, but not fat city, by any means.

Those same two young men from City College come in with that same purple banner, and try to tape it up on the wall, to no avail. When eventually the teachers arrive, my heart races a bit, as if I were in the presence of major celebrities. This is especially true when I see Andrea.

I'm also shocked by how young they all look. They're all in their twenties. This only increases by fear for them. Just listen to the poker-faced reporter.

Andrea Unger

My name is Andrea Unger.

David Rakoff

How do you feel to be here?

Andrea Unger

Oh, it's absolutely great. And I'm absolutely overwhelmed by the interest of the press and by the friendliness of the people.

David Rakoff

Where will you be teaching?

Andrea Unger

I will be teaching in Brooklyn, at the Franklin D. Roosevelt High School.

David Rakoff

I see.

Andrea Unger

This is a nice one?

David Rakoff

You know, I was just talking to Joyce Koppen about it. It's got 4,000 kids. Which is extraordinary. I think the Franklin Roosevelt High School is going to be, um, a completely interesting experience for you.

Andrea Unger

Whatever it means, eh?

David Rakoff

Andrea and three other of the 26 Austrian teachers, Lutz Holzinger, Elke Rogl, and Nikolaus Ettel are all assigned to teach at FDR. I decide to follow them. Here's Nikki.

Nikolaus Ettel

My name is Nikolaus Ettel.

David Rakoff

And where will you be teaching?

Nikolaus Ettel

I will be teaching mathematics.

David Rakoff

Where?

Nikolaus Ettel

In Brooklyn, FDR High School.

David Rakoff

So you're one of the four Brooklyn--

Nikolaus Ettel

Yeah.

David Rakoff

And do you have any thoughts about what it is you're about to embark on?

Nikolaus Ettel

I want to just look what happens. I know about the school. I've heard that it's a big school.

David Rakoff

It's huge. It's 4,000 kids. I just found that out.

This is one of our customs as New Yorkers, welcoming foreigners to our shores. Because we are so often frightened by living here, we are annoyed and offended when visitors fail to show the proper signs of terror. So we try to scare the living daylights out of them. And if oblique auguries of physical peril don't work, well then, we can always talk about rent.

Nikolaus Ettel

I want to live together with some Brooklyn teachers. Because low costs.

David Rakoff

Yeah. It's a particularly expensive time in New York City right now. Rents are kind of-- well, you never know.

Luckily enough for the Austrian teachers, their introduction to life in New York City and its public school system will not be left up to the paranoid, hysterical likes of me and other members of the fourth estate. Like the news cameraman who, upon hearing that they will be teaching high school, whistles, asking no one in particular, "Anybody know karate?"

They will instead sit through a series of days-long orientation sessions at the Board of Ed, where they will be turned into fully functional New Yorkers with social security numbers and bank accounts. The bank accounts courtesy of Miss Licorice, her actual name, the representative from the Chase Manhattan bank. They are taught how to write checks.

David Rakoff

Don't they have checks in Austria?

Nikolaus Ettel

Of course they do. That's different, I guess.

David Rakoff

At these sessions, they're told that the United States is a free country. They're told that they don't have to register with the police wherever they live. They're told that when they apply for a driver's license, they won't actually have to know how to fix an engine, as they do in Austria. They're told that in New York, teachers use modern teaching methods, unlike, it is implied, Austria.

The New York educators warn them time and again about the dangers of the dreaded "chalk and talk," that driest, most outmoded Teutonic kind of pedagogy where one stands at the chalkboard, lectures, maybe draws some diagrams, but has no capacity to field inquiry or lead a discussion. The underlying message is, Toto, you're not in Klagenfurt anymore.

Administrator

You seem like a lot of that chalk and talk is what you're accustomed to. I like to talk to my people about hitting the ground running, like they do in the war. That's what you do. You're in there very quickly. If you walk the walk and talk the talk, kids will respect you. What I mean by that is, establish yourself as the leader in this situation immediately, and you will survive.

David Rakoff

One of the more useful moments in the whole orientation, and one that reminds them why they are here, comes when the Austrians meet actual New York City high school kids for the first time.

Student 1

This communication is very essential to the learning process between you and the students. The following, which are being passed out, a word that you will hear us use to address our peers and to address some of the teachers also.

Student 2

What we will be teaching you is our language.

David Rakoff

They run for their flash cards. "Bounce," "whatever's clever," "the bomb," "jiggy," "phat," "you buggin'," "you played yourself." The lesson in slang continues just a few days later in a week the class about life in the city that is being called New York 101 by the media. Although no one out of the media seems to have another name for it. They just call it "what the media are calling New York 101."

The professor, a retired English scholar and native Brooklynite, spends the first 20 minutes of the first class quizzing them on their various subway routes and telling them quicker alternatives. It is one New Yorkers' favorite pastimes, telling one another the best subway routes to get someplace. As the other New Yorker in the room, I am fascinated, and cannot resist even chiming in at one point about the long underground transfer between the 4/5 and the 2/3 at Fulton Street. The Austrians stare blankly and seem exhausted.

Then comes colloquialisms lessons in the form of a handout. This glossary of New York argot has words and phrases like "86," "schmear," "bimbo," "maven," "what am I, chopped liver?" and "schlepping all over town, looking for some tchochkes." All of which would be very useful, if it were 1949, if you were a hard-boiled cutie pie gun moll, or in the USO, or a been-around-the-block dishwater blonde waitress, or a private dick, anyone from a Damon Runyon story, or auditioning for Seinfeld.

What becomes evident over the course of the orientation is that the Austrians are also being given an unvarnished glimpse, albeit an unwitting one, into what it is truly like to be a student in a public high school in North America. Hours spent sitting, listening to lecture after lecture, frequently droning, and frequently about things they will never need to know. The bureaucratic structure of the board of education, for example. Or how to say "86 of whiskey, down with the schmear!"

The orientation does teach them how to find an apartment in New York City-- no laughing matter. Well, if it's a laughing matter, it's in that bitter, rueful kind of way. But very surprisingly, in one weekend of hitting the streets during a Wall Street boom, they all have homes. Homes they have given names to.

Nikolaus Ettel

This is Little Austria. Can't take your call now. Please leave a message after the long beep. Thank you.

Andrea Unger

Hi. This is the girls' apartment. We're not hear now. Please leave a message. We will call you back. Bye bye.

David Rakoff

Elke and Andrea live in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. Lutz and Nikolaus are in Sunset Park, another part of Brooklyn. Their place is huge and sunny. Seven of the teachers occupy two apartments in the same building. They take me along with them when they go to see their school for the first time a few days before the beginning of the semester. It's two subway rides away, in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Bensonhurst was the scene of some racist violence a few years back. I am quite frankly terrified at the thought of going there. As far as I knew, if you weren't white, Italian-American and straight, you stayed out of Bensonhurst. But as it turns out, FDR's 4,000 kids are from 72 different countries, representing 32 different language groups. One third of them identified as limited English-speaking youngsters, meaning they entered the US within the last two or three years. Easily 60% of the entire student body was born outside the United States. The Austrians will be right at home.

The media attention surrounding them shows no signs of abating. Their schools are Fielding inquiries from CBS, Austrian TV, and a Japanese television crew. The Austrians tell me how fed up they're getting with being portrayed as being too scared to take the subway, unfamiliar with different ethnicities, and oblivious to social problems. Lutz gently points out that the small matter of the genocidal civil war in former Yugoslavia is happening not too far from Vienna. There are refugees coming into Austria every day. Lutz and Nikki are not men who are unaware of the outside world. "We are international people," says Nikki, whose girlfriend is spending the year working in Moscow.

I ask them if they have drugs and teenage pregnancy in Vienna. Lutz replies, of course, although not to the extent of New York City, obviously. But it's really an idiotic question. Where do I think they come from, Shangri-La?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt High is beside a huge cemetery. Literally beside the graveyard, with headstones coming right up to the building. It almost seems like a teen exploitation film joke, a summer camp actually built across the lake from an insane asylum. Architecturally, the school is one of those early '60s Bauhaus-y structures of glass and cinder block. It's quite an attractive building, actually, and there's a friendliness, a sense of community about the place. It's in perfect repair. The floors gleam.

We run into the school guidance counselors, who treat the Austrian Four like celebrities.

[SIDE CONVERSATION]

Counselor 1

I think I saw you on TV.

Counselor 2

You still learning how to write checks?

David Rakoff

Despite the fact that she has two days to get the school ready for 4,000, and that Andrea, Lutz, Nikki, and Elke are by no means the only four new teachers starting this year, FDR's principal, the amazing Adele Vocel, takes the time to sit down with them in the conference room. She doesn't talk to them like Austrian teachers, just teachers. And it's not for my benefit, either. I am, in a word, tolerated.

Adele Vocel

As I said before, you chose a career that's probably the greatest career going. Don't be afraid of our kids. I don't know what you've heard of New York City kids. They're good kids. OK? But you've got the enthusiasm. You've got the [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. You've got the conviction, or you wouldn't be here. So let everybody know. Let the kids know that's how you feel. OK?

David Rakoff

I follow along as Lutz and Andrea are shown the newly renovated science labs, introduced to the ninth grade biology curriculum, and meet Jim and Alex, two biology teachers who sit down with them and joke around like a Vaudeville duo for about 30 minutes or so. They're friendly and contagiously funny and irreverent, and like everyone we meet at the school, they project this sense of shared purpose and excitement. They make it look like great fun. And there's no false nobility here, either. There's none of that sunwashed earnestness of films like Dead Poets' Society. All of this is a long way towards dispelling the fear of the school year that begins in two days' time.

I conjecture that a lot of the feeling of goodwill and helpfulness so evident at FDR seems to emanate in large part from Adele Vocel. She speaks to the Austrians, and indeed everyone we're introduced to that day-- from the vice principals to the payroll secretaries. As colleagues, not as subordinates.

It strikes me that the New York these Austrians will be working in is very different from the New York inhabited by the members of the media covering them, including myself. For starters, there's a lack of ironic posturing to the Austrians, and to almost everyone I encounter on this story. No one is making constant air quotes or dropping their voices in "what, me, serious?" disaffection. No one acts like they've seen it before.

At one point during a teacher orientation, Adele Vocel read a poem called "Average" to a room full of adults. "I don't cause teachers trouble. My grades have been OK. I listen in my classes and I'm in school every day. My teachers say I'm average. My parents think so, too. I wish I didn't know that, because there's a lot I'd like to do. I'd like to build a rocket. I have a book to tell you how. And start a stamp collection. Oh, no use trying now. Because since I found on average, I'm just smart enough to see it means I'm nothing special, that I should expect to be."

Later on, at a reception at the Austrian consulate, another woman in public education planted herself in the middle of the room, took out a laminated card in your pocket, and read a poem to the effect of, a hundred years from now, it will not matter how much money I made, what kind of car I drove, how big my house was, whether or not I was famous. What will matter is that I made a difference in the life of a child.

Generally the words, I'm just going to redo this poem elicit feelings of mild embarrassment in people. How avid, how earnest. I'm not proud to admit that I was a little amused when I first heard these two problems. Neither of them is very good poetry, after all. But on reflection, I realize that they achieve precisely what poetry is meant to accomplish. They edify. They elevate. They speak to an underlying truth not immediately apparent. They change the way one looks at things.

We in the media have all been portraying the Austrians as heading off into a blackboard jungle. All cynicism, institutional neglect, and violence. When in fact, they're entering a world none of us reporters imagined. A world where being earnest and avid and passionate is anything but embarrassing.

It's been made clear to me by Adele Vocel that I am not welcome in the classrooms once the students arrive. He obligation, she tells me, is to the kids, and I would be an unnecessary distraction. I see the sense of this, but I need to see what happens with the Austrian four, so I invite them for dinner, and they accept, and seem happy to be asked.

We have two dinners together, one in September and one in March. At both, they describe the work as hard and time-consuming, with evenings spent either preparing lessons, grading homework, or marking the many, many tests they seem to administer-- far more than are given at schools in Austria. And seeing New York City teaching methods up close and firsthand, the Austrians are finding some of their own preconceptions debunked. They seem surprised and more than a little bit disappointed that their training turns out to be far more unconventional and modern than that of their American counterparts. It turns out they were being warned against "chalk and talk" at their orientation because "chalk and talk" remain such a tenacious mainstay of American teaching.

Andrea Unger

You know, we were trying not to chalk and talk. And we were very eager to earn the American way of teaching, to see alternative concepts, alternative approach to teaching and all this stuff. And I think a lot of us have watched other teachers teaching, and gones that lessons, and all that we see is chalk and talk. You don't see anything else. And everyone was saying--

Nikolaus Ettel

[INAUDIBLE] doing group work or something is cool sometimes. No, we never did.

Elke Rogl

I really dare to say that the Austrian teachers do more with the pupils than the American teachers. Really.

And I think the American system is just [INAUDIBLE].

Andrea Unger

Yeah, just blah blah blah blah blah. The kids are sitting there. They are bored. And you think, ah ha, you know that maybe. And you could ask them and you see nobody knows it.

Elke Rogl

It's contrary to our beliefs, in a way. I think that everybody [UNINTELLIGIBLE] very disappointed about the American system. Very disappointed about it.

David Rakoff

Take all that with a grain of salt. That was recorded in September. At the dinner in March, they feel calmer and have a more positive and three-dimensional view of American methods and school in general, as they themselves are more realistically viewed. After sharing three bottles of wine, I am given enough courage for my next question. The question that I have been waiting to ask since the day they entered the misbegotten California Lounge of Kennedy Airport

David Rakoff

So now, have you guys ever seen The Sound of Music?

Andrea Unger

No.

David Rakoff

You don't know what it is?

Nikolaus Ettel

I have seen it in America.

David Rakoff

Do you know what it is?

Andrea Unger

Yeah.

Nikolaus Ettel

No Austrian knows The Sound of Music.

Elke Rogl

Everybody tells me about it. They say, tell me how to sing "Edelweis."

David Rakoff

Hey! So you do know Sound of Music.

Nikolaus Ettel

We've been told about it.

David Rakoff

By everybody.

Elke Rogl

"But 'Edelweis,' that's the national anthem of Austria, isn't it?"

David Rakoff

Nobody knows "Edelweis"?

Elke Rogl

No. It's not an Austrian folk song. It's nothing.

David Rakoff

And we just thought, we just assumed that Maria von Trapp was a folk hero in Austria.

Andrea Unger

No one knows her.

David Rakoff

You know who Julie Andrews is?

Andrea Unger

Yes. Mary Poppins. And Victor and Victoria.

David Rakoff

Ever the gracious host, and ever eager for a colorful setting to exploit in the service of this radio story, I take the Austrians to see the New York panorama at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows. It's an enormous diorama of the five boroughs with scale models of every single building in the greater metropolitan area. I checked. Everything is there, right down to a half-inch replica of the four story brownstone where I live.

The diorama. is really big. Certainly a healthy percentage of a football field in size. Spectators walk around its perimeter on a catwalk from above.

The videotaped presentation about the display's construction that plays constantly on loop begins with an announcer exclaimed over a Gershwin score, "New York City, the Big Apple, making it big, the arts capital of the world." This bit of cheap New York, New York propagandist metaphor seems a little naive. Because what one actually sees by looking at this accurate depiction of the city in its entirety is that most of the city, the New York that is New York to most New Yorkers, is actually Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, which all contain some pretty vast areas of Urban blight and desolation.

It is the perfect backdrop to ask them how they're doing. They are assimilating rapidly.

Nikolaus Ettel

The relation to the kids gets better and better. And in some classes, it's really interesting now. You know all of them. How to handle the kids. I mean, it's possible not to make it more interesting for both sides.

David Rakoff

So now do they seem different from Austrian kids?

Andrea Unger

Yes. I mean, I don't think that in Austria the relationship could be that's-- how do you say?-- unformal.

David Rakoff

Informal.

Andrea Unger

Informal, yes, informal. Don't think so. Because they are making jokes, and I'm laughing, I'm making jokes, and they are laughing. It's very seldom you find that. I think so.

David Rakoff

Do you feel like teachers or do you feel like foreign teachers?

Nikolaus Ettel

Now I feel like a teacher.

Andrea Unger

I still don't feel like a teacher.

David Rakoff

We're standing over the Brighton Beach and Rockaway is part of the diorama, Manhattan far behind us. And while it's certainly the most crowded of the islands, its buildings are the tallest, it's also noticeably smallest. Seeing it from here, from the equivalent of a few thousand feet up, Manhattan's disproportionate influence, the power of its few over the millions in the outer boroughs, seems not just strange. It seems futile.

All of us in the media have been wondering how the Austrians would deal with it all. Expecting them to crumble when actually faced with real New York. That the smug assurance that Manhattanites like myself know what real New York is. But more than almost anyone I know, these four teachers have been thrust into a uniquely diverse and mixed environment where almost everyone is from somewhere else.

In my search for an authentic backdrop to this scene, I brought these teachers to a large simulacrum, when probably the most authentically New York place is the block they live on. It's time to find their houses.

Andrea Unger

There's a light. A red light. Where are we? Here. OK. Now we look for [? Rockaway. ?]

Nikolaus Ettel

OK. This Sunset Park?

David Rakoff

Which? The small green or the big green?

Nikolaus Ettel

Big green is the Queens cemetery. And small one is the Sunset Park. Sunset Park. Fifth Avenue till Seventh Avenue.

David Rakoff

Night descends upon the miniature city. Their city. The sky darkens and blacklights illuminate the buildings, whose windows seem that up in millions of pinpoints. A few moments later, it is morning again, and another day dawns on the greatest metropolis on earth. The orchestra on the video plays. It is all one can do not to stretch out one's arms and turn around like some singing nun on the mountainside for the sheer joy and beauty and hugeness of it all.

Tiny planes on invisible wires come in for landings and take off from the diorama airport. And far higher than all of them, an airplane sails through the sky, tracing its path from across the Atlantic westward to somewhere else on the continent. Nikki wonders aloud how any plane passing over New York could possibly resist landing there. Indeed, how could any aircraft ignore the very center of the universe? He's become a real New Yorker at last.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff lives in Manhattan, USA.

[MUSIC - "NEW YORK CITY" BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]

Coming up, trying to convince Dad down in Florida that it was a good idea to immigrate to America all those years ago. That's in a minute on Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Are Movies Stronger Than Communism?

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's program, Welcome to America.

So I'm on a plane coming home from oversees. And the plane lands and is taxiing to the gate. And the flight attendant gets on the PA and says all the usual things they say. The weather, the local time, customs information. And she ends by saying, we hope you enjoy your stay in the United States of America.

We hope you enjoy your stay in the United States of America. The thought had never occurred to me before. And then I thought, yes, I do hope I enjoy my stay in the United States of America. My, you know, 50, 60, 70, whatever it is year stay.

Because you know, not everybody does. Though that's usually the story we tell ourselves as Americans. The story we tell ourselves about people coming to this country is that hopeful people coming here, escaping political oppression, escaping poverty. And it's hard at first for them to adjust, but then they do, because everybody has so much more here than they did back home where they came from. That is the story we usually tell ourselves about coming to America.

Ignatius

I don't really think I like this place. Life is a little bit harder here. Very difficult than in Africa. It's very, very difficult.

Ira Glass

Ignatius is here for school. Works in a parking garage. When he's done his studies, he wants to move back home to Cameroon, where he won't have to work from eight in the morning to one at night.

Ignatius

In Africa, only if you work in a hospital, they should be working after six or seven PM. After five, most offices, every place is closed. In Africa, people are not fast-forward, fast lane, fast driving. It's a little bit slow. At times I used to think that time runs faster here.

Ira Glass

Some people take a long time to convince, to feel like they belong here. Alex came over when he was eight from a small town in Sicily back in 1958.

Alex

I mean, we would do the pledge allegiance, you understand? And a lot of kids, I noticed, would assimilate. Like my brother, for instance, assimilated really fast. And that's the thing about the 40 years that it has taken me to really call myself an American now.

Ira Glass

What's amazing about his history is just how American anybody would think he was. He spoke English, worked among non-Sicilians, married a non-Sicilian, lived like this for decades. And still, he did not believe that he belonged here.

Alex

There was always the hope of going back, and there was always the feeling that I am Sicilian.

Ira Glass

Do you think there's anything that could've changed that would make you feel more American? I mean, you had a job, you'd learnt the language, you'd married somebody. Your children were Americans, born American citizens.

Alex

Yeah. By this time, for instance, my father, my mother had become citizens. I refused to become a citizen.

Ira Glass

How come?

Alex

Because I didn't feel this was my country.

Ira Glass

And was there something about America that felt too different from the way you felt about yourself?

Alex

Yeah. There was a lot of things I couldn't understand.

Ira Glass

Like at that point, what would those things have been?

Alex

You know, I didn't feel connected to the ground I walked on. I didn't feel like I was sitting on the chair I was sitting on. When I was eating, I felt that I wasn't eating food.

Ira Glass

What changed his feeling about America? When his mother was buried here, in American soil. When he found a church and the community here. When he spent time alone in the wilderness in southern Utah. He became a citizen in 1998, after 40 years.

Some people never make the transition. And that is the subject of our next act in our program today. Act Two. Are Movies Stronger than Communism? This is the story of a father and son, told by the son, Juan Zaldivar, who was born in Cuba.

Juan Zaldivar

We never thought about leaving Cuba. At least, as a 13 year old, I never thought that I was going to leave Cuba. I knew that my uncles had left in the '60s. And I grew up in the system. I never thought that I was going to leave. My picture of the United States was, you know, this is a place full of monopolies and prostitution and drugs, and you couldn't go out in the street at night, because you'd get mugged.

Ira Glass

Everything a good young communist is supposed to believe.

Juan Zaldivar

Yeah. I basically believed everything that I was told.

When the Mariel boatlift happened in 1980, there were a few people went into the Peruvian embassy and asked for asylum. There was a big civil unrest was created by the fact that within a week, there were about 500 people crammed in the Peruvian embassy, asking for political asylum.

And Fidel had a speech on national television, and claimed that anybody that wanted to leave, could, because anybody wanted to leave wasn't really wanted for the revolution, and was a parasite of the revolution. So he created demonstrations nationwide. I was actually out at those demonstrations, screaming against people that were leaving.

And then within a week, my whole world turned around. Because one of my uncles who was in Miami came on a boat To pick us up.

Ira Glass

You mean the family in Miami came back to retrieve you?

Juan Zaldivar

Yeah. Cubans who had left Cuba in the '60s who lived in Miami decided to go and get their families, because all of a sudden it was possible for them to leave the country.

Ira Glass

And so at some point about five years ago, you decide to make a movie about your family without any funding, and just shooting on your own to see what would happen.

Juan Zaldivar

Yeah. I started by basically just asking the whole family to tell me how they remember the whole experience.

My other objective when I first started shooting was to try to find out, you know, what had gone in the mind of my dad, and whether he felt OK with the decision that we had made about coming over. Because I felt that once we got here, even though our family was brought together in a sense, he also retracted from us. And I felt that he seemed more depressed and dejected, and he had a job that wasn't so great. And he was always afraid to lose it. He works a lot of hours. He doesn't get paid very well.

And so he wasn't like that when I was growing up. He was building a house in Cuba. He had friends that supported-- they found ways to get food and clothing. And he was a much more outgoing than he was once we got to Miami. So I wanted to find out what had happened.

And so I decided this summer to go back to Cuba and ask several questions. And one of them was, did we make the right decision? I wanted to see what my family that was left behind was like, and what their life was like. And I was hoping that in going back, I would find something that would make him feel better about the decision that we made.

So I took the trip. I went back in August of last year. And last summer was the first time I had been back in 18 years. And it was a very intense trip. Day-to-day life there is very, very hard. And it became very clear to me he had indeed made the right decision. That our lives and the opportunities that we have had here, we would have never had there.

Ira Glass

Why? What did you see? What kind of situation were your family members in?

Juan Zaldivar

I talked to a lot of young people when I was there, and I saw that a lot of them had a lot of ambitions that they felt were never going to happen. They wanted either to study things that they were not allowed to study, because everything's rationed, so there's only a certain number of positions for lawyers every year, per town. A lot of them felt also, even if they could study what they want, they could never really get the things that young people have in, say, America or other parts of the world.

Ira Glass

And then what about your family members? Did they speak directly to your dad? You know, through the video camera?

Juan Zaldivar

Yeah. I collected a series of video letters when I was in Cuba. And I took some from family members. And then I also went and sought out friends of my father that I knew were very close to him before he left. And they wanted to see him again. They said not to be afraid to go back. That nothing was going to happen, that people go back all the time. And they said to him that if he were to come to Cuba without a shirt on his back, he would leave fully clothed and fully fed, and that they would make sure that would happen. And he was very emotional when I showed him the footage.

Ira Glass

And what did they tell them about whether or not he should have left? Did they tell him that he should have stayed?

Juan Zaldivar

No. They told him that he shouldn't feel bad for the fact that he left. That they understand that it was probably the hardest decision he's ever made. They said, look, your family has done well. You should not feel bad about it. Here's your son, coming back to find his roots and make a connection with the people that he left behind. And they reassured him all of the things that I had been saying to him.

Ira Glass

And when you showed him the footage, what was his reaction? Was he reassured?

Juan Zaldivar

No. He still set that that's something that he's always going to feel, no matter what I can say to him.

Ira Glass

Do you think he regrets coming here and bringing you all here?

Juan Zaldivar

You know, I think because he was achieving things for himself right before he left, and he hasn't really been able to do that as much once he's been in the United States, part of him has to feel that his life was moving in a better direction when he was there. I guess I don't know. He hasn't said that he regrets having come to the United States.

Ira Glass

But he is disappointed in how things have gone since he's been here.

Juan Zaldivar

I think so. I think he expected things to go better. I think he expected to achieve the American dream that everybody talks about. And he just doesn't like the way this culture works. He doesn't like that people have to have two jobs, and he doesn't like the fact that you don't get to see your relatives every day, and that people don't live close enough that you can go walk to somebody's house and borrow a cup of coffee.

So he feels very alienated. He feels he has to drive everywhere. Everybody works different hours, so he can't really see his brothers as often as he would like. He never sees his nieces and nephews.

Ira Glass

It's interesting. He's disappointed in America, but it's in such a different way than the Communist government of Cuba told him what America would be. Like, if Fidel had been saying, you know, if you come to America, you'll be working two jobs, your family won't live down the block, might've had more of an effect.

Juan Zaldivar

Yeah, perhaps. Don't give him any ideas.

Ira Glass

You guys have been here for almost two decades. Do you think at this point he feels American?

Juan Zaldivar

You know, he just became a citizen. And I talked to him about it. I was in New York and I wasn't able to go down-- I wanted to be there when he was going in for his swearing.

Ira Glass

And what made him decide to do it right now? Why now?

Juan Zaldivar

I think the main thing was this law that passed that said that if you weren't an American citizen and you retired, you would lose all your benefits after a while. Yeah. I don't think he would have done it otherwise. I don't think he really has any interest.

Ira Glass

He still feels like a Cuban who happens to be here.

Juan Zaldivar

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Is he thinking about going back now?

Juan Zaldivar

No. I asked them if he wanted to go back. I asked him right at the beginning, when I started shooting four years ago, if he wanted to go back to Cuba. And he said no. And I asked him in August, after I came back from Cuba, whether or not he still felt the same way, and he said that he still wouldn't go back. There's nothing for him there anymore.

Ira Glass

You must have been been surprised, when he saw the video that you had shot, you must've been surprised that it didn't kind of turn him around.

Juan Zaldivar

I really was. I, now, was a little disappointed. I, however, haven't shown him an edited thing.

Ira Glass

This is the dream of any artist, however, if I could just say.

Juan Zaldivar

Yeah. Well, because we've got all these very disembodied conversations, you know? Which I think is how he sees it. I've been thinking about this and working, it's a whole process for me. So I have all these ideas that I've been mulling and I'm able to talk to you about them because I've been thinking about them for four years. I think with him, it's more like separate conversations that he's had with me. And he hasn't really been able to sit down and evaluate the whole experience.

Ira Glass

Has your dad talk to you, has he noticed the level of energy that you're putting into healing this thing for him? Is your dad touched by what it is that you're trying to do? Does he understand--?

Juan Zaldivar

I don't think he understands fully. No matter how many times I say it, I don't think he sees it as something that I'm doing for him. I think actually that before the trip, all this time, he thought that I was doing it because somehow I questioned whether my decision to come was right or not. And I think that his brothers thought that too, because my uncle even mentioned it at one point. I don't know that he necessarily knows that this movie, it's about me trying to make them feel better about the decision.

Ira Glass

It's just striking. I feel like what you're doing is that you're using the tools of rationality to achieve something which maybe can't be achieved, because it's just a feeling. Do you know what I mean? On his part. That feeling that he has isn't going to change through argumentation.

And now I feel like you've enlisted the full power of like, motion picture narrative, do you know what I mean? I imagine, like, OK, so you've gone down, and you have this whole story going, and you've shot these people, and you have these images. And at some point, they'll be music underneath the whole thing. You'll have all of these things. And the notion of, will it change this man's point of view about himself? It's just, I wonder if it can. If all the power can. You know, you think about, like, what is the power of a movie? And does it include the power to change a person's feeling about himself?

Juan Zaldivar

You know, sometimes, if somebody were to paint a picture of you, you may or may not think that it looks like you. But I think that if you stared at it for hours, you start seeing the way somebody else sees you. And there's no way you cannot learn something from that. Whether you think that it looks like you or not.

Him and I might never see eye-to-eye. He may never see my argument. He might never feel better about being here. But there's got to be something-- he must be able to learn something, from just seeing my perception of the whole thing. And I think it will give him more insight into how I perceive him as a human being, and get to know each other as two men, and not necessarily as a father and son.

Ira Glass

So even if it doesn't give him his own life, in a certain way, it gives him you.

Juan Zaldivar

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Juan Zaldivar's movie about his father in Cuba is called 90 Miles. 90 miles is the distance between the two countries, the US and Cuba. In the time since we first broadcast this weeks' radio show, he has finished his film. You can get more information about it at www.90miles.com.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann, and Sylvia Lemus. Engineering help from Mr. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Williams. Elizabeth Meister runs our website.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

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WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who says this about anybody who dared to turn away to another radio station during our program.

Juan Zaldivar

Anybody who wanted to leave wasn't really wanted for the revolution, and was a parasite of the revolution.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. I hope you enjoy your stay in the United States of America.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.