We Are So Incredibly Fortunate

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Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t want a bumper sticker that reads “Proud to be an American,” although I am proud of what my country has accomplished.  I didn’t earn my citizenship – I was given it as a gift at birth.  The best gift I have ever received.  What I feel is gratitude.

Think of the people who came here over the last 233 years, including my ancestors and maybe yours.  Many of them didn’t come because they wanted to vote or to run for office.  They came here because the United States, more than any other country founded before or since, offers opportunity.  The opportunity to work, to create, to achieve, to provide a better life for themselves and their children.

My grandfather Jim Hickey came from Ireland in the 1930s.  At that time Ireland was a mostly independent, mostly free country, but desperately poor.  There was little industry in his area and no chance for an uneducated young man to succeed.

Gammuck Jim worked at backbreaking jobs until he was finally hired on by U.S. Steel in Worcester, Massachusetts.  His efforts led to a promotion to foreman.  When he retired, he owned three houses.  Had he stayed in Ireland, he might never have owned one.

My wife’s grandfather Erminio Ricci came to the United States in 1919 as a teenager, settling in Portsmouth, NH.  He worked as a construction laborer and as a “sandhog” – incredibly dangerous work digging the foundation for one of the bridges connecting Portsmouth to Maine.

In those days, little attention was paid to worker safety in any industry.  Fatal accidents were commonplace.  Sandhog work was considered so dangerous, however, that the projects did have at least one safety regulation – workers could not work more than a set number of hours.  Exhausted workers could easily commit deadly mistakes.

Erminio Ricci, saving money to open his own contracting company, punched in under two different names so that he could work double shifts.  He was smart as well as hardworking, and no accidents resulted.  However, the two companies he founded, Ricci Construction and Ricci Lumber, are still in business today.

The United States attracts hard workers because it provides opportunity.  Ricci could have worked his whole life as a laborer in Italy.  In the United States, however, he could develop into a businessman – making deals, initiating projects, and building success for himself.  With discipline, hard work and time, he could become a “real American.”

The wheel turned again in 2005

The newest member of our family immigrated in January 2005.  My daughter Gianna was an 14-month-old orphan in China.  Years ago – things may be different now – Chinese girls who were not adopted faced an uncertain future.  Parentless and poorly educated, they often grew up to become maids, peasants or even prostitutes.

Opportunities in China, even now, are limited to all but a select few.  One reason for this is the “hukuo” or residency permit system.  Just as in our country, some areas are much more prosperous than others.  People from rural areas (as Gianna was) cannot get permits to live in modern cities like Beijing or Shanghai.  In those rural areas, the schools are worse, the jobs are worse, and the chances for long-term success are much less.  College is unlikely.  Business ownership is next to impossible.

Please understand that we didn’t adopt Gianna out of a selfless desire to give a foreign child a better chance.  We wanted another child and did not want to go through another pregnancy – my wife’s first had been challenging and risky.

Gianna will have a better life here because her opportunities are so much greater.  She knows she’s from China, but she doesn’t think of herself as Chinese – she’s an American.  And like most five-year-old girls, she has a million different ideas for what she might do when she grows up.  She wants to fly helicopters, be a doctor, and be a mommy.  Who knows what her future might hold?

The only job not open to her is President of the United States, and we’re working on that minor Constitutional issue.  If that doesn’t work out, I suspect she’ll become president of something else.

Erminio Ricci and Jim Hickey would have liked Gianna a lot.  They would have recognized something in her that they possessed themselves.  One difference is that they had a perspective that she may never develop – they knew in their bones what life was like in the old country, and why life was better in the new one.  They knew they were lucky to be Americans.  As are we all.

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