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.

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.
posted by Clambone to Human Relations (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are there any other immigrants in the area from their country or region? Finding other men to talk to/a community would probably be the most helpful thing. Going from being "someone" to an immigrant who can only get manual labor is a big change, especially later in life. And learning English later in life..that's a tough row to hoe! Their old-school attitudes aside, they are dealing with a tremendous challenge.
posted by emjaybee at 11:01 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mother's husband, also a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, went through something similar. He was a big-shot engineer in the Old Country, and he came here expecting to be able to, well, I have no idea, honestly. After my mom died, I let him live in her apartment (which they shared and I inherited) for a few months and then it was time for him to go and that's when he sucked it up and got a job as a security guard.

I have no idea how your family dynamic works, but deadlines tend to get people moving. The deal was that you were supporting them until they could get their act together, which is pretty common in these situations (my mom brought my family over here as well.) They need to connect with the local Eastern European immigrant community, or, if applicable, their religious community. My family used to be fixtures in the local Jewish community center, because they offered all sorts of pro bono services to Jewish immigrants in this exact situation.
posted by griphus at 11:09 AM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also, I really wouldn't go too far with the 'therapy' angle. Unless his PhD is in a therapy-friendly social science, the Soviet Union used what we call mental health services almost exclusively in a punitive fashion. It's not a lost cause, but you will most likely never get an Eastern European who lived through Communism into therapy if they're not up for it.
posted by griphus at 11:13 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

You have a good heart but I think you need to be realistic in their abilities. I can see why you think the problem is cultural/language based but it sounds to me like the FIL and BIL are just not "hustlers". That is a significant problem when white-collar immigrants move without first securing employment. I am assuming that despite the immigration being planned months in advance they did not learn English back home, or look for work from overseas by looking through their network. Their anxiety over learning English/taking jobs beneath them is greater than their anxiety over messing up this opportunity for everyone else.

Two things I have seen work in this situation (and I have seen it a surprising amount); the men start their own business - usual something tied between the countries like import/export, or the men return home to "work" and the families essentially have two countries they live between (usually Eastern Europeans have generous vacations and visit North America since the travel costs are lower than sending the whole family to them). I put work in quote because honestly, sometimes the men just can't step up, even back home and you would end up supporting two households in two difference countries (plus paying the travel costs).

Under no circumstances should you give up your plans and dreams for your wife's family. They are adults and choose to move here knowing it was going to be difficult and require sacrifices. Stick to you plan about them being self-sufficient and reduce their dependence on you in an open and transparent way. Those that step up continue to get your support. They are adults and their choice may be for the whole family to return to what they know and maybe try again with more preparation on their part.
posted by saucysault at 11:16 AM on December 27, 2012 [10 favorites]

I think their pride is wounded. FIL and BIL think honest but non-status work is beneath them. The idea of giving them a deadline has some appeal. Can it be explained to them that they cannot continue like fish out of water? They must find their new water. Not easy, but those stiff necks will have to bend.
Meanwhile, you and your wife have done admirable things. Yay you.
posted by Cranberry at 11:32 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a reason why "social clubs" for recent immigrants used to be so popular (and likely still are in the new immigrant communities). It's a place to talk with people going through the same difficulties you are (and is likely the closest you'll ever get them to going to therapy!)

Also a great place to get a lead on an appropriate job.

Do you think your in-laws would find some status to be regained by an outside of work project? Church, volunteering, good deeds for the poor, etc..?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:42 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

WRT bringing them over - understand that the IDEA of moving to America and the reality of moving to America are very different things.

Why did you guys sponsor them? Who wanted to come? Did they all want to come? What were the expectations before they came?

Did you guys make it clear that you're only going to support them for X number of months? Did you make it clear that you expected them to learn English and get jobs? (And remember that you're on the hook for them with your visa sponsorship.

It isn't realistic at all to think that they'd be self-sufficient after 1 year (unless you live in a super cheap place to live with ample opportunities for high paying, low skilled labor.)

Are you 100% sure that what you and your wife discuss is the same thing that she's conveying to her family?

Honestly, knowing a LOT of people under similar circumstances to yours, I've found that the family brought over are so unhappy in the new location that they end up moving to whatever city in the U.S. has a large enough recent immigrant population that these people don't have to learn English and can get by essentially living in a small version of the old country.

You and your wife need to decide FIRMLY what you're willing to do and then ask the family what they're looking for and then try to come to some sort of compromise.

I feel really bad for your wife who is going to have to negotiate between all of this.
posted by k8t at 11:48 AM on December 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

I'm really sorry but the employment possibilities of these two men is something your all should have considered very starkly before making this enormous family decision to move lock, stock and barrel to the US. The lot of first generation professionals is not generally a happy one - ask all the doctors running 7-11s, and all the engineers working as janitors. Or ask the woman who cleans my house, who also happens to be a nuclear physicist who speaks seven languages.

If they were not and are not prepared to work low-status jobs, it seems unlikely they are going to adjust here without the support of a broader community.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:51 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

[Folks, question is about what to do moving forward not "what should we have done differently?" please answer the question being asked.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:06 PM on December 27, 2012

My first thought was that your relatives' education and Eastern European language skills may open non-manual labour opportunities, though they will need to work on their English. The US military, for example, has been explicitly recruiting non-citizens with certain language skills; there also may be interest from businesses who trade in their home country.

I'm confused when you say that your brother-in-law's PhD is in a field not useful in the USA - I can't think of anything that would fit that criteria. Eastern European history, for example, is in much higher demand than Western European.
posted by jb at 12:25 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm confused when you say that your brother-in-law's PhD is in a field not useful in the USA...

The OP can clarify, but from the "low-wage but prestigious government job" angle, it may be a PhD in a STEM field that isn't 1:1 transferable to the U.S. university system (my mother's husband has a M.S. in plumbing engineering, for instance) and/or requires additional licensure that requires a working knowledge of both the English language and American science/engineering standards. This is similar to the issue that many medical and legal professionals run into, wherein the home country's requirements to practice law or medicine are less stringent than the United States', and they don't have the resources to "finish" their degrees.
posted by griphus at 12:34 PM on December 27, 2012

Disclaimer: I am a Central European.

You sound like a nice person and please forgive me for saying this, but your post sounds a tad condescending towards your wife's family. If I understand correctly, you are legally responsible for supporting them, and you never expected them to rely on you and your wife for so long.
Have you spoken to them about YOUR problem? That you are feeling the pinch, financially, and that you aren't willing to support them to this extent much longer?

Because the way it sounds to me, and maybe I have this wrong, it seems you are telling adults what THEY should do, and how they should live their lives. They should get a low-status job, they should learn English, the Grampa should stay home. Which are all logical choices for sure, but can be double hard if you feel them imposed on you. I am NOT saying you should just happily support them forever. But do make this conversation about YOUR problem: YOU do not want to support them forever, so starting from now, or two months for now, YOU are going to [insert action here].

Again, I realize you are legally on the hook (right? not sure how this works in the US), and you feel frustrated, and that simply turning off the tap might not be feasible. I'd still approach this as a negotiation, to advocate for YOUR needs, as opposed to proposing solutions. Otherwise, you end up with an unpleasant child-adult dynamic.

many medical and legal professionals run into, wherein the home country's requirements to practice law or medicine are less stringent than the United States', and they don't have the resources to "finish" their degrees.

Um, not exactly. Medical degrees from most European countries are actually recognized by the US. The graduates just need to pass the licensing exams, same as US students/grads.
posted by M. at 12:37 PM on December 27, 2012 [12 favorites]

Would a realistic future goal for your BIL be to get a PhD or MA in the US? If so then you could work together to plan out the steps to get there and hopefully that would be decent motivation to learn English.

Other than that: if you live near a research university or even a major teaching university, there's a slim chance they could find something to do (even if it's at a volunteer level, at first) that utilizes their existing language skills or cultural knowledge. It's not impossible that there'd be some demand for language lessons in their language, at schools, businesses with international operations, or privately. They could be tutors in subjects they have skills in, especially if those are STEM fields. They could look for work that doesn't demand high education levels but that still has some prestige (generally because it's meaningful work for some good purpose). They could look for work with immigrant acclimation organizations, or organizations that help people connect with community resources,etc. Maybe there's some field or subject they've always been interested and now have a chance to take up.

All of these would require English skills, but possibly finding some end goals for them that they can accept as interesting or valuable would give them motivation to learn. See what intermediate steps you can work out, too: volunteering, or even taking jobs they see as beneath them (but not too beneath them) for short, pre-defined periods of time just to get them out of the house and give them low-key environments in which to get used to English and US culture. It might help to get them to think about low-prestige jobs as a temporary, easy way to pick up some skills - as steps up a ladder - rather than as jobs that they'd end up being stuck with for the rest of their lives. But to do that it's important to plan things out, to define periods of time spent doing X and Y, and to have some end-goals in mind.

Finally, this is a bit out of the blue but since you said they hang out on forums: might they be interested in blogging or posting about their experiences in the US to a home-country audience? It's something there is probably a non-trivial amount of demand for. On the off chance that they could be encouraged into doing that, it might provide them with some motivation to actually go out and get some experiences, and also to frame what they're doing in such a way that it sounds interesting and of value.
posted by trig at 12:42 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've helped a number of skilled immigrants find good jobs in Canada. Accreditation has never been a problem, just their skills.

The real challenge is social skills (do they present well and do they present appropriately in their new country?), savviness (do they understand what employers want?), and English ability.

For the longest time the local immigrant-services non-profit tried to shame local employers into hiring immigrants, but the fundamental problem was communication ability. Your in-laws have got to learn English. They can use their skills just fine if they have the ability to communicate.

At least that's been my experience, and I have spoken with dozens of immigrants. Some folks I have connected with an engineering or software job in 24 hours.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:51 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would consider the brother and parents separately. The brother needs to get a job and support his kids. If he's in his 20s you might try laying out very starkly what his life will be like if he doesn't learn English and try and figure out why he keeps quitting now. Maybe it would help for him to do some sort of one on one language exchange with some one his age. Having in-laws as your only social outlet sounds stressful.

I would resign myself to supporting the parents, hopefully with the help of the brother and sister-in-law. None of the eastern European immigrants I know who came over at that age developed any sort of language skills. And manual labor-type work might be too physically demanding at their age. I'm not sure your expectations here are reasonable, is what I'm trying to say. I would focus your energies on the brother.

On preview, if your brother's degree is of the type griphus mentions, have you talked to him about converting/finishing it? That seems like it might motivate him to learn English and be better economically in the long run.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:52 PM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

My brother-in-law was pursuing a Ph.D. in law. They come from a very small country (which unfortunately limits the size of the community anywhere in the United States, although they do speak Russian), and his knowledge of that country's laws are not likely to transfer, unfortunately.

My father in law's degree is in sociology. With English, my father-in-law could potentially make a fine addition to a university- in fact, that was his hope when he was pursuing the green card- but he's not approaching that level yet.

I very much appreciate the feedback, and thank everyone who has taken the time to write.
posted by Clambone at 1:22 PM on December 27, 2012

Your brother-in-law's best bet is to cold-call every single Russian-run law firm in town. There's a lot he can do for them, even without a transferred degree/knowledge of English.
posted by griphus at 1:26 PM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

Perhaps your BIL can approach a local university about transferring into a degree program with more transferability? Perhaps your FIL has a degree which can be repurposed to qualify him for a US teaching job? I don't think he needs a green card to work. My husband didn't, when he came from Eastern Europe, but he needs to be legal and have a visa that allows work. If he finds a teaching opportunity at a University, they will have a person who is devoted to obtaining working visas and who can answer specific questions.

Not sure where you are located, but many larger communities have social service organizations specifically aimed at enabling immigrants to transition. In Philadelphia it's here: They were enormously helpful to us (official transcript translations, visa advice, etc.) and can probably steer you to a similar organization in your area. This would probably help your family in many ways, social and professional In fact, these organizations exist to help immigrants transition to America, and often have tons of ways immigrants can connect with each other and traverse the chasms your family has encountered.
posted by citygirl at 1:32 PM on December 27, 2012

Thanks, Citygirl. So I'm clear, every member of the family has a green card and is a legal permanent resident with the ability to work.
posted by Clambone at 1:37 PM on December 27, 2012

Your brother-in-law's best bet is to cold-call every single Russian-run law firm in town. There's a lot he can do for them, even without a transferred degree/knowledge of English.

This is awesome advice, and it is advice I would give to any immigrant referred to me for help.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:42 PM on December 27, 2012

Oh, and, yeah, sorry to spam the thread, but if they speak Russian, definitely get them in touch with your local Jewish community center(s), even if they're not Jewish. There's a countrywide infrastructure for helping establish Soviet bloc immigrants based out of these community centers. Again, they do not need to be Jewish to get help.
posted by griphus at 1:43 PM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

My brother-in-law was pursuing a Ph.D. in law. They come from a very small country (which unfortunately limits the size of the community anywhere in the United States, although they do speak Russian), and his knowledge of that country's laws are not likely to transfer, unfortunately.

You will be amazed. So some research on-line, I'm sure that someone, somewhere could put those skills to use. Even if it's freelance, even if it's a one-off.

Go to SimplyHired and type in the language these folks speak. I did Armenian (who knew there was an Armenian community in SoCal?) Moldovan, Serbian and Hungarian. Some pretty weird stuff popped up, but there was stuff.

Just some things to consider.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:56 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I see advertisements on Craigslist legal jobs for Russian-speaking paraprofessionals on a weekly basis, and they seem to be much more interested in Russian than in English, although decent English skills ARE a requirement. If your BiL was pursuing a PhD in law in his home country, and he's already a qualified attorney there, then a 1-year LLM in law in most American states will be enough to get him rolling on a track toward practice. The TOEFL gives him something to get started on and a structured program of study to get there.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:05 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is a Workforce Solutions/WorkSource office for every state - you might need to search "Workforce Development" + state to get to the right place. These offices have resources for non-native speakers, and special programs for immigrants.

You may already have taken advantage of this resource, but throwing it out there just in case.
posted by batmonkey at 2:11 PM on December 27, 2012

If your BIL learns English there is a lot of money in legal translation and I don't *think* he needs a degree or to be barred, but that would be something to investigate. Even if that isn't an option, he would be very marketable to firms as a legal secretary or similar position with his language skills (once he learns English). This might be good motivation for him to learn English knowing he could be using it to get a high paying white collar job and not something slightly above minimum wage.

Russian language jobs won't be a huge market, but the rarity should work in his favor. I know people who made a lot of money during the lowest point in the recession doing French translation and there are way more people speaking french than Russian so it's something I would aggressively pursue.
posted by whoaali at 2:38 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Courtroom interpreter is another opportunity for the brother-in-law once he gets his English up to speed. Would the father-in-law be at all interested in doing medical interpreting? That's somewhat sociology-adjacent.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:50 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Has your wife spoken to her sister-in-law? My parents were in the same situation when we came to the US, but without family to help. My mom cleaned houses and my dad sulked until she sat him down and told him she'd had enough. My recollections of this time are extremely hazy, but I'm pretty sure my dad was demoralized and depressed from the drop in status. It took some pretty strong words from my mom to pull him out of his funk.
posted by snickerdoodle at 3:13 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had actually missed that the parents were in their sixties when they came here. To their generation that is retirement/winding down employment age. They (or the MIL most likely) will help with the children (saving you money on daycare) but the only income you can realistically expect from them is their retirement income from back home (and any old age benefits the US government provides). To save costs you should consider living together and sharing resources like cars.
posted by saucysault at 5:20 PM on December 27, 2012

nthing that you're going to get nowhere fast telling the father-in-law to lug boxes, and that the best option for him may be to nudge him off the computer and towards whatever broad expat community exists in your area, at which point paid opportunities may emerge more organically. Separate that from the brother-in-law, who needs more of a kick up the arse.

The tone of your post suggests that you have a mental model of assimilation and getting over culture shock that's at best a hothouse, at worst a myth. In their minds, the men have already given up a whole lot to come to the US, and may feel that they've satisfied their side of an implied bargain with their wives and kids; that is a bit different from simply a status question, and perhaps unhelpful to regard as 'clinging'. The way to turn the vicious cycle virtuous is to find some kind of environment in which they feel useful, and that may start with the local social club, even if it doesn't immediately add to the family kitty. If you are in an area that simply doesn't have that kind of community, you may seriously have to consider moving to one that does.
posted by holgate at 8:06 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to add: I'd be more concerned on your behalf and have a different answer if your original post suggested that they were actively trying to undermine the women and children's adaptation; since there's no indication of that, the implication is that they feel like they're sucking it up for the benefit of those who have most to gain from being in the US. In short, the deal you and your wife had in mind is not the only deal in play here, and that has as much historical precedent as the immigrant narrative of shovelling shit for 40 years so that your kids don't have to shovel shit.

Twenty years ago, without the web to provide ties to back home, they'd probably already be more engaged with whatever expat community exists where you are. The adaptation phase can drag on longer now. Perhaps nudge FIL to tap up his contacts back home to see who has friends and family already in the US? From my admittedly scant knowledge of a few small European countries of that ilk, if you're in the professional class, you're only one or two degrees of separation from everyone else in the professional class, and if a friend's cousin's wife turns out to be working high up at the embassy in DC, that cracks open a door or two.

Ultimately, I'm most in agreement with M.'s answer, which is that you and your wife need to disentangle the issue of your ongoing financial support from what you consider appropriate for them to do in order to no longer require it.
posted by holgate at 9:12 AM on December 28, 2012

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