How to motivate immigrant in-laws?
December 27, 2012 10:56 AM Subscribe
How do we help our non-English-speaking immigrant in-laws adapt to the United States, especially when their notions of respectability and gender roles seem to be holding them back? Details inside.
posted by Clambone to Human Relations (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My wife was born and raised in Eastern Europe, and I am American. She's an American citizen, and a fluent English speaker. We both have has good careers and a very happy marriage.
This spring, she was fortunate enough to bring her entire nuclear family to the United States as legal immigrants- both parents (in their sixties), her brother and sister-in-law (mid-twenties and mid-thirties) , and their two wonderful young daughters, ages two and four. My wife and I anticipated that we would support the six of them for a year, as well as paying for English classes and day care. The plan was that once they were on their feet and self-supporting by spring 2013, we would get pregnant with our first child.
The women in the family have adapted nicely and are glad to be in the United States. Our sister-in-law has learned a lot of English and gotten a good job. Her mother already spoke English, but she has assumed primary responsibility for child care. The little girls are blossoming in America. The girls are the light of our lives- we see them once or twice a week, and now that they're here, I can't imagine being without them.
The problem is the men. Her father was a Ph.D. and a "big man" in the old country, with a low-wage but prestigious government job and a wide circle of friends and relatives. Her brother was pursuing his doctorate (in a field that won't be useful here) and had a respectable job in the civil service. Since immigrating, they have not stepped up like we were hoping. They've taken English classes, but only sporadically, and without the kind of follow-through and study time necessary to learn a new language. I think that they're afraid to fail or to sound like they don't know what they're doing, but... what other option is there?
Furthermore, they have generally refused to consider the kinds of jobs that an immigrant with little English can realistically hope for. For example, there is a packing plant nearby where they could hope for jobs, but her father said, "Me, with all my degrees- I'm supposed to work in a packing plant?" And he discouraged his son for applying for the same reason, because that kind of work is not respectable.
What's more, they're pretty old-school about gender roles. In a rational world, it might make sense for Grampa to just stay home and take care of the kids while the other three adults worked- Grandma could easily get a job. In the real world, Grampa doesn't know how to turn on the washing machine, make a meal, or drive a car.
So the men are very demoralized. They spend almost all of their time on the internet, reading native-language news and message boards. If it sounds like they're depressed, they probably are, but we can't afford therapy, even if we could find a therapist that spoke one of their languages.
Nine moths after arriving, the family of six with four adults has just one paycheck. I just don't see any other way forward for the men except for buckling down, learning the English language, and taking low-status jobs, at least at first. Even if coming over was a mistake (and I strongly believe that the girls are infinitely better off here than there), it's no use complaining about it now; their wives are not going back. My wife and I can afford to support them, but it's not a negligible expense, and it's forcing us think about changing our own plans for a family.
I know that my father-in-law and brother-in-law would die for those little girls. But we need them to live for them, and I don't know how my wife and I can convince them that clinging to their notions of status and gender roles are making them miserable. Any advice is welcome.