An Immigrant Working in America
by Sabine Barnhart
by Sabine Barnhart
As much as I feel America to be in the midst of a philosophical, ideological and cultural crisis, there is still a discipline in the American way of life when it comes to living independently. I continually encounter people that possess the pioneer spirit of early American immigrants who built one of the richest nations in the world. Just like the early immigrants, these people had the freedom to pursue their dreams and happiness without government assistance and support. Early Americans had no social network to protect them. It made America productive with original ideas and many individual success stories.
Special interest groups are continually trying to manipulate government to change the process that kept Americans independent from their government. The meddling began the erosion of a system that flourished on rewarding those people who gave their best efforts. Government interference in the job market and private business is creating a new type of people who believe that they are entitled to jobs for which they are not qualified. Others look at some jobs as being beneath their dignity and won't accept lower paying jobs even if it pays the bills; at least temporarily. Then there are jobs that could be done by a capable person; yet laws and regulations, such as licensing, hold people back from working in their preferred field.
America has been "thrown a wrench" at its core function that made this country successful over any other Western nation. The encumbrance has created government dependent and entitled people all across the board. They demand fairness and equality, rather than base their qualifications on job performance. Employers are more and more losing rights to hire based on their preference and fire those who are unproductive. The process is observed under the watchful eye of the government collecting annual statistics from all employers. What it doesn't show is that employers are still rewarding employees who give their best and see value in their long-time employees. That holds true for most private companies that have no labor unions.
I first became acquainted with American economics while attending a Catholic boarding school in a small town in southern Germany. It was my geography teacher discussing the "the land of opportunities" and its economic miracles with us pupils. It was 1977. Other than being the year of Jimmy Carter becoming President of the US, Elvis Presley's death, and ABBA selling more records than the Beatles, it was also the year where I learned about America and her history and industries. As a high school student, I probably didn't learn more than the average US student. What really struck me though was the idea that one could be a "dishwasher" one day and a "millionaire" the next. It was the idea that everyone had a chance of escaping despair through hard work even if it meant meager beginnings.
Several years later I found myself to be one of those US immigrants when I moved to Texas. Quite insecure with my school English, I didn't think anybody would hire me. My minimal work experience in Germany looked very lonely on a résumé. An acquaintance finally suggested I should apply at a nearby department store. It was a national department store chain that has since gone out of business. And, to my amazement, I was hired on the spot making a whopping $4.15 an hour. I was thrilled and nervous at the same time.
I was given one of those mustard-colored smocks and was assigned to the menswear department. My supervisor was a short lady from Brooklyn, New York. She kind of took me under her wing, taking on a motherly role. Her Italian heritage definitely played that part well, and I liked her no-nonsense approach to her work. We got along well. For the first time I experienced America's work ethics, long hours, the natural ethnic diversity and how Americans accepted me into their midst. I never felt discriminated against as long as I showed up for work and did my job. I did, because I was grateful for the opportunity to work. However, I won't deny that I whined many times about my sore feet at the end of the day.
Listening to elevator music in a department store was the most mind-numbing part of my job. Hearing the same songs over and over again was a nauseating way of spending my time folding shirts and straightening pants. I was glad for every customer that interrupted the mundane with questions. It engaged my mind with actual conversation and thought. The only problem was the Texas accent. I had slight difficulties to say the least. Trying to understand the words along with my limited language skills often lead me into embarrassing moments.
Once, a man in his mid 30's considered buying a t-shirt for his son. The t-shirts could be purchased with a horoscope sign at the front. As he looked over the choices, he mentioned to me that he wasn't sure of his son's sign. He only knew that he was born in September. I knew the sign but didn't know the proper word in English. I made a quick translation in my mind, and proudly proclaimed to him "Sir, your son is a virgin!" The man turned to me with a somewhat shocking expression and answered, "I would hope so; he's only 12." I later found out that the word I was looking for was "Virgo."
Another time I answered a phone call where a lady with a heavy Texas accent asked if we carried any "flash-waters." Already nervous from barely understanding her, I figured she meant something to the effect that cleaned toilet bowls. I ran into the housewares department and looked for all sorts of toilet bowl cleaners with the word "flash-waters." Bewildered I rushed back to the phone, and somewhat out of breath told the impatient voice that I couldn't located any "flash-waters" but we do carry 2000 Flushes. I think the poor lady became quite upset with me, because I could not understand her. I thought the best way of fixing our communication problem was asking her to spell the word for me. It turned out she meant "fly swatters." The word itself was lost in her dialect. I think by that time I sat on the floor exhibiting a very bad hair day. I almost cried with relief that I hadn't gone completely crazy yet.
I continued learning new words and about business transactions. There was a lady with big Texas hair who worked in payroll. Her name was Bonnie. She called everyone "hon'" or "babe" and I didn't mind. She was the first one who explained the meaning of "bubba" to me. She liked chewing gum and spoke with a Southwestern accent. It was Bonnie who handed me my first earnings. It was passed out in cash stuffed in a small brown envelope. I looked at it for several minutes not quite believing that I was handed my wages in cash in a tiny envelope right down to the penny. I was not yet aware that automatic deposit was not a preferred option of paying wages in the US at that time.
Several employees were promoted to higher positions. They became a department head with more responsibility and higher pay. Some even were offered to participate in the management program and worked as assistants. I noticed that this happened quite frequently. We had two managers and two assistant managers, who I will call "Fred" and "Mikey." Both were young and ambitious. It was very obvious to me that they wanted to succeed. They were both hard working and friendly individuals. Fred once saved my life while unpacking a box of socks. A scorpion sneaked into the box somehow, and just when I was about to reach for another package, Fred grabbed my hand and yanked it away from the scorpion.
Mikey and Fred were a pair similar to the Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel comedy greats. They acted self-assured with a tendency to be awkward in their body movements at times. Both sort of looked funny in their white short-sleeve shirts and black ties that always seemed to end up with a food stain somehow. Mikey was short and round and Fred was tall and skinny. Often one of the guys' shirttails hung over their pants or a shoelace was untied. I loved those guys. They helped me when I had to prepare for a big sale and assisted with heavy loads. Neither one of them had the Gary Cooper charm, but they both responded courteously to their customers and were forthcoming without having to point it out to them first. I guess that's what made them management material even if they didn't look their best at times.
After only working there for six months, the manager offered me a promotion to the housewares and hardware department. I was to be a merchandiser and my job description included re-ordering and stocking merchandise, setting up new displays and general housekeeping. The promotion included a pay raise of 35 cents, which brought my hourly wage to $4.50 an hour. I couldn't believe that I was actually offered a promotion. According to my brief interview, they were happy with my job performance. My move to the new department included new challenges with a pay raise.
My new job consisted of a lot more physical labor than in my previous position. I had to bring down merchandise from our upstairs warehouse, place it on a conveyor belt and back on a cart to haul it to the sales floor. It was a chore that I repeated many times over in one day. My two part-time assistants were high school kids. They came in after school or in the evenings. I remember talking to them about school and how strange it was that so many kids work while attending school. The kids really impressed me. They wanted to pay off their cars or make some extra spending money.
I worked in the department store for six more months before the chain closed down its doors. I don't think I would have continued in my position, but it did give me the boost that I needed to prove myself capable of working in a foreign country. Although I was a young immigrant, spoke with a strange accent and misunderstood many phrases, Americans accepted me. My fellow workers did not ever ridicule me for being different.
There was a keen interest in people wanting to know more about Germany and what it was like living there. Many had German ancestors and were interested in my country and our customs. I had to explain several times though that I did not escape to come to the US. I actually came from democratic West Germany and not communist East Germany. Some people had Germany confused with being a communist country where people were kept inside by their police and border guards.
After my job ended, I found another entry position with similar pay that allowed me to travel all over the Southwest. I am still with the same company and worked myself into new positions until I ended up working for the executives in our Southwest division. With each promotion I learned something new from the people I worked with or worked for. Each time I was very thankful that I was given a new opportunity to improve my skills.
I will not ever forget my first American job. It was an entirely new experience that introduced me to the original American ideal of making a living even if it meant washing dishes or mopping floors or folding pants. I was just glad I was hired. I knew that I was overqualified according to the education I received in Germany, but I didn't care. The work was hard, and for the first time I had to work on Saturdays and Sundays. A very unusual work schedule, indeed, for a young European who never had to work on weekends.
But I was given a chance, an opportunity, to establish my own work ethics and to challenge myself despite the language barriers and cultural obstacles. I wanted to be independent and contribute to my existence here. My first job gave me that chance and it showed me my weaknesses as well as my strengths. There were many times when I wanted to give up, because of a bad day. I also knew I wasn't a quitter.
Of course there are people that will say it was easier for me, because I was young, blonde, female and white. Sure, that can be an initial impulse to hire someone depending who is in charge of the hiring. However, in all of my experience, girls hired only for their appearance had no staying power. People that stay on their jobs or have an accomplished career are usually reliable, accountable, and responsible with integrity. They are willing to learn and adapt to changes. Even the most challenging supervisors or managers can be a catalyst for personal and professional growth. I don't think that special consideration for gender, race or a license can teach anyone these fundamental work ethics that should be part of our human character.
In all of my working life, I've seen that reward comes to those who don't mind doing minimal work at first. They also don't look down on those who do. Many people started at entry-level positions, and most don't forget their roots. Those who don't respect this simple guideline often want to create problems or end up quitting. It is also my experience that there are people who look for blame in their supervisors or employers. Most issues can be resolved if everyone is doing the job they were hired to do. Nobody is forcing anyone to stay.
Even when unfortunate circumstances strike and one loses a job, life can often lead one into a better place by finding a different field all together with a new success story. The options have always existed, and several of my friends have been down this road that actually made life better for them. It is often complacency and fear of change that holds a person back. What I admire in these people is that they changed their circumstance and made something out of themselves despite the obstacles. They didn't ask for government handouts to get them through their transition period. They made it with the support of their family or friends, and often on their own.
Everyone is given opportunities in life. Sometimes the breaks may not come right away depending how one views success. But as long as people are willing to pursue their dreams through their willingness to work, even if it is at first a low-paying job, it can keep one independent and not under the dependency of the state. The US is still one of the richest nations in the world. America can maintain that status if people would adapt the attitude of the early US immigrants. It would keep private citizens in charge of their destiny, and reduce the dependency of the state. It is the independence of a private citizen that government fears most. An independent citizen can deflate state power and crush its false parental rights. Something the framers of the Constitution knew very well.
November 8, 2005
Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.
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