Essays & Presentations

The Promise of This Place Endures

Yvonne Abraham, Immigration Reporter, Boston Globe

For two centuries, they have gathered up belongings and courage. They have clung one last time to those they loved, the ones who knew them best. They have scraped together fares, and climbed aboard buses and airplanes and the tops of trains. They have taken giant, terrifying, now-or-never leaps, believing that what they had yet to see must surely surpass all they were leaving behind.

My forbears were among them. In 1949, my grandfather took his wife and his three children and climbed aboard one of the many buses that were leaving his shrinking Lebanese mountain village. Word had spread that prosperity was possible in Australia. He gave up everything he knew on the chance that the stories trickling slowly back from the other side of the planet were true. His brother ran beside the bus as it pulled out of town: "Don't forget me!" They never saw each other again.

A generation later, I, too, leapt into the breach: I said goodbye to my family on a sunny Sydney morning, leaving my country for the first time, hoping for a bigger life in America. Now I spend my days writing about others who left so much, as my grandfather did. People with far more to escape, and lose, than he.

Dinka boys like Isaac Majak, who fled ravaged villages in Southern Sudan, growing into men on long, deadly treks to Ethiopia and Kenya, with only each other for protection. Men now living in Atlanta, or in Somerville, Massachusetts who, with their 80-hour-a-week jobs and their shared apartments, now live lives of which their relatives, slowly returning to their devastated villages, can only dream.

"I feel very guilty because they are really living under a zero life," Majak said of the family he left behind.

Cambodians like Chhan Touch, who trekked through jungles and crossed rivers crowded with floating bodies, desperate to escape certain death in the killing fields, seeing horrors along the way that would never leave them.

"They looked at the human race as a field of grass," Touch said of the Khmer Rouge. "The only way for a pure Utopian society is to kill all the grass."

Armenians like John Kasparian, who fled his village in Ottoman Turkey in 1915, just before Turkish fighters marched his friends and neighbors into an armory and set it ablaze.

"On the road, there was nothing to be eaten. I ate grass for days. It was a hell life to live," he said. "I don't look back. I forget about it, just looking forward. Thank goodness, I live in such a heavenly country."

Some gave up everything. Some had little to give up in the first place. In their struggles to escape or improve their circumstances, few of the immigrants with whom I spend my days gave any thought to the kinds of issues that drive the fractious national debate over immigration, which has so seized the nation in recent years.

Yet here they are, in the middle of the nation's struggle to reconcile the aspirations of the millions who seek entry with the equally worthy needs of those who arrived before them. The immigration debate in this country is so highly charged because it is an argument over what our national values are, and over who can lay claim to them. Such arguments are not quickly resolved. But they are vital.

With these awards, the Vilcek Foundation honors two immensely successful immigrants, people who took the chances this country gave and blazed spectacular, nationally prominent careers in science and the arts.

But the millions of others who have moved heavens and earths to find ways here, who have labored in obscurity to make lives for themselves and their families despite immense odds, are equally striking testaments to this one unassailable fact: The promise of this place endures.

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The Immigrant as Adventurer

Ken Chen, Executive Director, The Asian American Writers' Workshop

When people ask me about my family, I say, “It’s complicated.” I start by telling them that my father’s parents (a Fujianese man and a Taiwanese woman) and my mother’s parents (Beijing expats) came from two countries that have conducted an unofficial war for the last half century. My parents themselves were born in Taiwan, but they traveled to America, where they worked as engineers in the early days of tech, married, and divorced. I was raised by a rather atypical extended family: my dad’s girlfriend, a Korean American anesthesiologist; my Taiwanese older cousin, the benevolent older brother I never had who possessed an uncanny fondness for Garfield cartoons; and my mom’s boyfriend, a dour engineer who later absconded to Chicago to join the Maharishi Yogi, leaving behind both the Bay Area and the temporal world. My mom subsequently married a white guy from Denver, a chiropractor who hauled a device into our living room called the Spinalator. My dad married my stepmom, an Oracle engineer who fled the Cultural Revolution and possesses Cantonese eating skills that allow her to debone a fish with the dainty effectiveness of a cat.

This cast of characters shows how the people we often view as stereotypical hard-working immigrants - say, the Silicon Valley engineers who took up computer science because they possessed neither English fluency nor business connections in America - are also idiosyncratic, individualistic, and passionately human. We are accustomed to praising the faceless immigrant for stolid virtues - for his ruddy hands that hammered down the railroads, picked the fruit trees of California and Florida, and built postwar New York. And yet as I grow older, I notice that I have begun to reimagine my parents - as we often do - as not just being my mother and father, but as being friends, peers, comrades, who were once my age. I find myself wondering what motivated them to travel across seas and languages to a country as large and strange as America. I notice that they begin to appear in my memories less like workhorses and more like adventurers. In other words, I would like to compliment my parents for a different, far stranger skill set than programming in C++ and Perl: not for their labor, but for their imagination.

The enemy of imagination, the Russian critic Victor Shklovsky once said, is the habit. Our daily routine, Shklovsky hyperbolically wrote, “devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” until we find our entire lives automated forward by the pacifying conveyor belt of habituation. The purpose of art, Shklovsky wrote, was to “impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” And who would be more aware of the strangeness and contingency of life than the migrant, the sojourner, who is always conscious of how the details of his identity - the way he speaks and looks, the food he cooks, and TV shows he watches - differ from those of the people around him.  I think of my father, who found himself surprised when he discovered that American financial news indicated stock depreciation by the color red - the color of prosperity in Taiwan. The color red glowed with a different familiarity for him. He had what you might call an anthropological moment, a moment of bifurcated awareness whereby he could perceive a simple color through the eyes of two cultures.

This imaginative act is the manifestation of another or former life that seeps beneath even the most banal moments. Many immigrants I know have led an imaginary life. My parents imagined what America would be like while studying in the TOEFL language classes of Taiwan. They arrived in America carrying a few hundred dollars and an imaginary suitcase, packed in their minds for when they would of course return home. They did not return home. And now that she has retired, my mother occasionally visits with old school friends from Taiwan. I suspect she sees in them a parallel mirror, an apparition of what her own life might have looked like if she had never left.

Such imagining usually finds its provenance in the world of the novelist, who spends his time wondering what it’s like to be someone who is not himself. Let us, then, think of immigrant and ethnic writings as the literary equivalent of bifocals. They give the reader an upgrade in perception, an ironizing parallax view that can see two things at once. Such literature also bestows another, deeper way of looking: it can induce readers to look at someone who does not look like them with empathy.

We live in a nativist age in our country, a time when many people lack the ability to look at immigrants as fellow human beings. We look at immigrants as illegal aliens, permanent residents, nonresident aliens, enemy noncombatants. This is the way we have looked at the nearly twenty thousand minors have been deported across the Arizona border in the last year - and the way we have looked at the South Asian and Muslim Americans who have been shackled in detention centers, or simply lost the free exercise of religion. This is why at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the literary arts nonprofit at which I serve as Executive Director, we seek to provide a home for stories by immigrants and children of immigrants. We believe the intended audience for literature by immigrants is not just the immigrant himself, but the rest of America, which we hope to show that immigrants are not merely tired, poor, and huddled masses. In our political climate, it is a radical act of empathy to view immigrants as fellow humans, people who possess mothers and fathers, as well eclectic cousins and crazed stepparents. We hope to do something more - not merely look at them as individuals, but as writers and intellectuals, our entrepreneurs in culture and perception. And so I would like to thank Jan and Marica Vilcek and the Vilcek Foundation for this special night, when we can honor a deserving writer and scientist and honor the immigrant’s fundamental act of invention.

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Transcript of speech from the 2011 Vilcek Prize Awards Dinner

Maria Freire, President, The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

Thank you, Jan, for that generous introduction.  It wonderful to be here tonight reunited with old friends and, I hope, having made some new ones tonight. 

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

When Jan and Marica graciously asked me to introduce two of this year’s winners, I accepted with great pride and with humility – what a task! 

Unexpectedly, I found myself considering my own immigrant journey and speaking with others who had left their homelands for this country – and, in doing so, appreciating profoundly the history of these two remarkable individuals, Marica and Jan, and the extraordinary way in which they celebrate second chances, opportunity and freedom. 

As immigrants, it is natural to be indebted to the country that has embraced us, nurtured our creative spirit and given us the opportunity to flourish – things often denied to us either by political turmoil, discrimination, or because the option to pursue our calling was simply not available.  Indeed, as immigrants, we are acutely aware that this country is “the land of the free” and we celebrate this fact with our commitment to see it thrive and prosper.

It is less usual to flip the logic, to shift the frame and celebrate the immigrant men and women who came to this “land of the free” and helped make it “home of the brave.” 

In celebrating the achievement of immigrants, the Vilcek Awards shed a light on the contributions of awe-inspiring scientists and dazzling artists.  Each story is different and as varied as the protagonists, and yet, remarkably, the experiences inevitably lead to a shared sense of appreciation and wonder of the opportunities given to us and that we hungrily embrace. 

Thank you, Jan and Marica, for your leadership and generous support that allows us to celebrate recipients of the remarkable Vilcek Award – those past, present and those yet to come.

As we honor these foreign-born individuals who have made outstanding contributions to biomedical science, we must remind ourselves and the general public that their research was possible through this country’s commitment to medical research.  And, that it is because of this support that their discoveries provide amazing possibilities to expand our understanding of biology and push the frontiers of medicine for the benefit of mankind. 

Today, more than ever, with competing priorities in times of economic uncertainty, we must continue to champion investment in basic and clinical research and to demand enlightened public policy that strongly supports exceptional education at all levels. 

As we know, some of the most critical advances in biomedical research do not begin with a specific end in mind.  Rather, they are the result of asking very basic, fundamental questions and being open to quite unexpected answers.  Tonight we honor two scientists who embody this experience by having made awe-inspiring contributions to our understanding of fundamental principles in biology, knowledge that charts a path to tackle human disease.

Dr. Titia de Lange, the Leon Hess Professor at the Rockefeller University, receives the Vilcek Award in Biomedical Science in recognition of her groundbreaking research on mechanisms that help maintain genome stability and protect cells from becoming cancerous.   

Here is the simple and profound question that puzzled Titia – one that has stumped scientists for years: Our DNA, which is packed into chromosomes, is linear.  This means it has exposed ends.  So, why don’t these ends simply unravel or fuse together?  How is it that the repair mechanism of the cell, ever ready to mend broken DNA, does not confuse the ends of our DNA for breaks in the double helix? 

Is it that the ends have something akin to an “Aiglet” – you know, the snug plastic caps at the end of shoelaces? 

Or, perhaps, is it that the DNA cleverly winds around and ties itself into a hefty knot? 

Moreover, how do these ends know when they need to unwind the double helix and allow cells to replicate our genetic information?

Titia answers in one word: TELOMERES – clever repetitive strands of DNA, covered with specific proteins, which sit at the end of our chromosomes. 

With wonder, she describes telomeres as marvels of engineering – smart and beautiful.   Long telomeres are healthy telomeres.  And, with grace and wit, she tells us of her discovery of a group of proteins that sit upon the telomeres to protect them from erosion and delay the natural process by which the telomeres eventually whittle away. 

Titia’s studies have also informed us on what happens when telomeres are shortened or when their numbers are depleted, shedding a light on the processes that can lead to cancer.  You see, unlike our normal cells, cancer cells have a way of preventing their telomeres from shortening.  This allows cancer cells to continue to grow and thrive.  Because of her work we have a beachhead upon which we can develop clinical interventions to stop the growth of malignant cells.

Telomeres have been Titia’s overriding passion, her hobby, her driver.  Her journey from the Netherlands to London to San Francisco to New York speaks of courage and determination.  Those of us who have the pleasure to know her can attest to her contagious sense of humor and flawless sense of style – as in art, science requires great taste.  Titia has impeccable taste. 

It can be as frightening as it is exhilarating and enriching to cross boundaries, to meet different people, to taste foreign spices and discover previously unknown sights. 

Tonight’s recipient of the Vilcek Award for Creative Promise in biomedical science, Dr. Yibin Kang, can tell you that you don’t need to cross borders to experience dramatic change.

Yibin was 15, a junior in high school, when he was selected to attend a special class in chemistry at a university in Beijing.  Encouraged by his father, he left his village in the Fujian Province and traveled by train for 3 days and two nights, with no seat.  This was February 1989. 

On April 15, barely two months after his arrival, the protests in Tiananmen Square started.  Incommunicado and desperate to get word to his family, he finally was allowed a one-word telegram.  He chose to say simply: SAFE. 

Given this history, adjusting to the move from China to the US was relatively trivial and Yibin is now an Associate Professor at Princeton University. 

His guiding light, his passion, is to use molecular biology to make a difference in human care. 

He has decided to focus on cancer and, specifically, on understanding the molecular factors that drive cancer metastasis. His premise is that understanding the mysteries of metastasis may allow us to find a cure.

Yibin, too, asked a seemingly simple question: Advances in our studies of the human genome allow us to identify those breast cancer patients who are at high risk of relapse and metastasis.  But having done so, why do some of these patients fare worse than others?  

By developing a sophisticated computer-based method, Yibin has identified a small, troublesome region in chromosome number 8 of patients who succumb early to metastasis.  He noticed that in this region the gene processes were frequently flawed and that a protein known to help the progression and development cancer was produced at abnormally high levels, making the tumors of these patients more resistant to treatment.  Importantly, he observed that these tumors were also more adhesive to the blood vessels in the organs to which the spread.

These studies provided the basis for the concept that metastasis is enhanced through cross-talks between the tumor and the surrounding cells.  To test this, Yibin and his colleagues have now developed biological tools that will allow them to visualize this conversation.  If successful, Yibin will have created a pathway toward the development of therapeutic agents that may potentially stop the spread of cancer.

When he left his home at 15, Yibin’s mother told him, with pride and sorrow, knowing she may not see him again: “You belong to the country now.”   With these contributions and many more to come, Yibin has proven his mother right, except he not only belongs to the country - he belongs to the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a round of applause for these two remarkable scientists!

We shall now proceed with conferring the awards, first to Dr. Yibin Kang and then to Dr. Titia de Lange. May I ask Yibin Kang, Marica and Jan Vilcek to please come to the podium?

Maria C. Freire, President of The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, is a biomedical scientist and expert in technology commercialization. A Fulbright Fellowship took her out of the lab and into Congress, where she realized the "importance of permeating science through all of society." Today, as head of one of the most prestigious private foundations, she oversees programs that support biomedical research dedicated to conquering disease, improving human health, and extending life.

Born in Lima, Peru, Dr. Freire earned her BS from the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, and her PhD in Biophysics from the University of Virginia. From 2001 to 2007, she was President and CEO of the Global Alliance of TB Drug Development. She also served as Director of the Office of Technology Transfer at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and established and led the Office of Technology Development at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. For her work in the public interest, she has received the DHHS Secretary's Award for Distinguished Service, the 1999 Arthur S. Flemming Award, and the 2002 Bayh-Dole Award.

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The Spiritual Dimension of Immigration

Ha Jin, Novelist

In his poem "Facing West from Californian Shores" (1867) Walt Whitman presents a prototype of the immigrant, who has come to America from the tyranny of his "God," "sage," and "hero."  Having reached the end of his journey, its "circle almost circled," the man is full of misgivings about the promised land.  He wonders, "But where is what I started for so long ago? / And why is it yet unfound?"  Yet despite his doubts and despite the ironic upshot of his adventure, he is "pleas'd and joyous."

Whether forced or voluntary, immigrants are essentially travelers, having left their native lands in search of a true homeland.  In English the word "homeland" has two meanings: first, the land of one's origin; second, the place where one's home is.  Conventionally it was easy to reconcile the two meanings, since most people did not migrate and would use "homeland" to refer to their native lands.  But nowadays, the second meaning of the word, the place where one's home is, has taken priority over the first. We often hear people say "my new homeland," "my adopted homeland," "my second homeland," and even "homeland security."  As travelers looking for home, immigrants have to reshape themselves to fit the arduous, life-transforming journey.  They cannot possibly carry with them the whole shebang of their past and can take along only what is essential and most useful to them.  In other words, they have to abandon some of their heritages to become a capable traveler.

What they have brought with them may be "foreign" in the eyes of native-born Americans, but this foreignness is vital for the immigrants' existence and cannot be separated from their own being.  This foreignness also defines them as valuable individuals in American society, and it is a source of nourishment that helps sustain and enrich American life and culture and the English language.  The metaphor of "a melting pot" would be inadequate if it meant only to melt away the immigrant's foreignness. Similarly, the phrase "the land of opportunities" can be problematic as well, because many people come to America not just for material opportunities.  Human beings are not animals that follow food.  Many people come to America to seek fulfillment, to find out what they can become, and to build a true homeland.  They see America more as "a land of possibilities," where one can start anew and dream of becoming free.

Indeed, freedom can be frightening, because it is conditional on uncertainty and self-reliance.   As a free individual, one cannot depend on officials or connections for one's survival.  Given the choice between freedom and security, I bet many people would choose the latter, especially those who live in an authoritarian society.  To some people in the world, freedom is an alien mind-set; pursuing freedom in America, in a way, is like forcing a domesticated animal to turn feral.  But the immigrants are brave souls who accept the challenge and the promise of this free land, although they know that a part of the promise can never be fulfilled.

Recently, immigration has again become a contested issue.  Patrick Buchanan even uses the phrase "the third world invasion" to cast a dire view of this country's future if the immigrant influx remains unchecked. His position stands as the antithesis of the American promise, just the opposite of the Statue of Liberty's welcoming gesture" I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"  One can argue that times have changed and that even Whitman realized 130 years ago that the American promise could no longer be kept.  Even so, where else besides America is there still the dream of possibilities that draws people from all over the world?  We ought to find ways to keep this dream alive.

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Others’ Skins

Yiyun Li, Author

The most memorable student I have taught was a young woman from a small town in Iowa. On the second day of the semester, she stood up and said that she grew up in a family of white supremacists, and as a white supremacist she had experienced discrimination.

I was a graduate student, teaching a freshman composition class for the first time. Neither the class nor I knew how to respond in the immediate moment after the announcement. Then a boy coughed. “Well,” he said. “That’s a lot for us to process.”

My white supremacist student frightened me a little, but mostly she fascinated me, so when my supervisor considered removing her from my class, I declined the offer. As a writer, I was interested in the young woman’s dilemma, her belief and upbringing running constantly into a reality that she had not yet known how to reconcile with. She must feel unhappy about being placed under a non-white teacher, which she openly expressed by always having a newspaper in front of her. Jenny, please put your newspaper away, I reminded her at the beginning of every class, and she would sigh and fold the newspaper meticulously while the class watched. Despite her defiance, however, her upbringing must have also given her an innate sense of respect for those with authority: if other students talked among themselves while I lectured, she would hiss indignantly and point to me and told the offenders to listen to the teacher.    

Apart from the white supremacist, I had a typical class, where the majority of students came from small towns and suburbs around the Midwest. A few were from farther places: a half Filipino and half Chinese girl from Honolulu; an Indian boy by way of London; a Guatemalan girl, who, as a first generation immigrant, was the only one among her extended family to attend college; a Japanese American girl, who told me that she had grown up feeling baffled with the question, “Where are you from?”—when she answered “Greensboro, North Carolina,” people would say, “That’s nice, my dear, but where are you from?”

For Halloween I assigned a project called “Others’ Skins.” I asked my students to get out of their comfort zones and dress themselves in a way that they could not see fit their self-images, though they were not allowed the simple solution of costumes and wigs. The students looked perfectly fine on the day of the class, and to each other perhaps, but most of them fidgeted when they did their presentations: a young man in his father’s suit, constantly rearranging the tie; a very shy girl, with a tight black top and pants, spiky bracelets and dark eye shadow; a football player sweating profusely under a baseball cap as his mother would never allow him to wear a baseball cap indoors. The girl from Honolulu put on a turtleneck sweater and said that she had never worn something that muffled her neck, and she already felt more Iowan than Hawaiian. The white supremacist student had her long blonde hair pleated into two obedient braids; the whole morning she worried that people would see her as a farm girl, she said.

It was one of the most satisfying teaching experiences for me. When one becomes an immigrant in America, the early encounters may lead him to feel self-conscious of his otherness—inevitably there are people who would take him not for who he is but by his skin color and accent. But it is also the collective otherness of generations of immigrants that has changed American history at all levels—waves of immigration and integration make America the country it is today. When my Guatemalan student asked me if she could switch to another class because she did not want to stay in the same room with a white supremacist, I told her that I would not hold her back but I hoped she could stay. She did, and after the Halloween class, she told me she was happy about her decision to stay. 

I am not naïve enough to think that I, or my other immigrant students, changed my white supremacist student’s view of the world, but at least on that day, she left my class with some sort of amazement written on her face. Perhaps it was the first time she realized that we could all be easily taken as someone we were not, or perhaps it was the first time she looked at her classmates more closely than before. In any case she nodded slightly, when she left the classroom, at the Guatemalan girl, who on that day also came with two long braids, a smock that resembled that of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and a discomfort at being looked upon as a character from a fairytale.

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The Legacy of Immigration

Helmut Nickel, Curator Emeritus, Department of Arms and Armor, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Leaving one's home is a heart-wrenching experience for anyone; leaving one's homeland, perhaps never to return, is cause for indescribable anguish even when done to escape the most dire of circumstances. For generations now, drawn by the promise held out by the words engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, written by Emma Lazarus (herself the daughter of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Portugal), the "tired," the "poor," and the "wretched refuse" of other countries have taken the often perilous journey to these shores.

In earlier times they came jammed on massive ships, with barely room to move or air to breathe, to escape political persecution, even genocide; later, they braved dangerous borders to be smuggled through thin cracks in the Iron Curtain hung by a now-dead regime. But no matter how they came, always the immigrants carried with them treasured reminders from their old home to take to their new. More important, they also brought intangibles that could never be contained in any box or bag, and that would ultimately become invaluable contributions to their new homeland: their music, their cuisines, their skills, their artistry, their faith, their intellects—and their memories. Over time, these cultural gifts, from the mundane to the monumental, became so ingrained in the developing American culture that many today don't realize their origin. Few cherished items of our American heritage—from apple pie to the Christmas tree to pizza and Halloween—cannot be traced to immigrant origins. These outside influences can be very subtle indeed; I suspect, for example, that Old Glory's were inspired by the nine red-white-and-blue stripes of the Dutch West India Company's flag that flew from the mast of Peter Minuit's ship, when he, a German by birth, bought the island of Manhattan. And it was the Swedish-born colonists in Delaware who introduced another American icon, the log cabin; and Pennsylvania Dutch gunsmiths made the first "Kentucky" rifles.

We tend to forget, too, that it was primarily immigrants who turned a fledgling technology into what would become the multibillion-dollar film industry; and that many of its earliest stars, in front of and behind the camera, hailed from other countries—Rudolph Valentino and Marlene Dietrich, among many others. It was an immigrant from the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton, who became our first Secretary of the Treasury and laid the foundation for the early U.S. economy. Engineers today continue to marvel at the brilliant foresight of John A. Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. Men and women such as Albert Einstein and Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori (the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine) put America at the forefront of scientific achievement. Architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen have, literally, changed the face of the American landscape. And immigrants such as Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright continue to rise to the top of the political arena. The list of foreign-born past and present contributors to America's greatness is, truly, endless.

As we move past the halfway mark into the first decade of the twenty-first century, perhaps it is time to remind ourselves and others what we owe immigrants, especially now that immigration is once again an issue of hot debate among our politicians and fellow citizens. Too often, I hear the term "illegal alien" used—it seems to me—with little or no regard to its human aspect. As an immigrant myself, I may be forgiven for taking a very personal view of this issue. I came from what had become East Germany; my wife Hildegard came from West Berlin, where for three years I lived as an "undocumented refugee." Hildegard owes her survival—and freedom—to the Americanled Allied airlift of 1948-1949. One of our family's prized possessions is an American flag, the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory—a gift from Marica Vilcek to celebrate our citizenship. Marica, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, and a White Russian baroness, were witnesses during our U.S. citizenship interview. All four of us serve as classic examples of immigrants who were helped by other immigrants to integrate into America, answering the call inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

Today, the yearning for freedom and a better life continues to drive millions to risk their lives and the lives of their children. They cross large bodies of water in leaking, overcrowded, ill-equipped boats—or, indeed, anything that floats; they climb over or crawl under barriers of cement or barbed wire; they brave the perils of parched deserts; they swim rushing rivers in the dead of night. No danger is too great if only to be given their chance to fulfill the promise that America signifies to them. Even as they struggle to blend into the proverbial melting pot, knowing they are viewed with suspicion, they continue to come, believing that America is the land of unlimited opportunities, and that any immigrant can make his or her way—if given the chance. Who among these millions might be the next Einstein, Saarinen or Albright?

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Every Wave of Immigration…

Francine Prose, Novelist

Every wave of immigration, every country of origin, has enriched this country since its very inception. What has drawn people here is not only the promise of opportunity, of freedom from political tyranny and religious persecution, but also our relative willingness to consider the possibility that a nation can be composed of people who--recently or generations ago--have come here from somewhere else.

In a perfect world, this would be a constant cause for celebration. Every ship that brings immigrants, every plane that arrives--everyone should break out the champagne and toast the incoming geniuses and decent, hard working human beings. But human nature being what it is, territorial instinct being what it is, that is not always what happens. There have been, as we know, damaging freezes and eruptive overboilings in the culinary history of America's so-called melting pot.

An alternative scenario to the constant welcoming party is this: the population is asleep when the boats come in. By the time day breaks, and everyone wakes up, the new immigrants have already faded seamlessly into an American landscape that now includes the Laotian-Italian trattoria in the middle of Kansas.

In theory, that's an ideal route: the body politic growing, in its sleep, on the model of the way our bodies grow: steadily, gradually, without our conscious assistance, and generally painless. The problem occurs when we are rudely awoken by some shock that makes us want to turn away from the world, and in the process forget that the world beyond our shores is where we and our neighbors come from. 

History is perpetually drawing up travel itineraries for men and women and children who may not have planned to go anywhere at all, had history not intervened. And so it seems fitting that this award--evidence that someone is paying attention to and valuing the efforts of foreign-born Americans--should have been founded by two people, Jan and Marica Vilcek, who have themselves experienced both the costs and the rewards of living first in one country and one language, and later in another.

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Transcript of speech from the 2011 Vilcek Prize Awards Dinner

Francine Prose, Novelist

I was fan of Charles Simic’s brilliant poems long before we become friends in the early 1990s. Sometimes it still surprises me that I actually know him.  I’ve never stopped thinking that it is a privilege to be Charlie’s friend, to have the benefit of his humor, his intelligence, his enthusiasm for, among other things, poetry, books, film, jazz, food and wine, though not necessarily in that order.

I can’t remember when I didn’t know he was born in Serbia, nor can I recall when I first read the passage in which he wrote that Hitler and Stalin had been his travel agents. That alone—the wit, the sly surrealism, the depth and imagination—tells you any number of things you might want to know about his work. The beautiful early paragraphs of his memoir, A Fly in the Soup, describe not only his own history but, I would imagine, that of many recipients of the Vilcek prize.

“’Displaced persons’ (DP) is the name they had for us back in 1945, and that’s what we truly were.  As you sit watching bombs falling in some old documentary or the armies advancing against each other, villages and towns going up in fire and smoke, you forget about the people huddled in the cellar. Mr. and Mrs. Innocent and their families paid dearly in this century for just being there…My family, like so many others, got to see the world for free, thanks to Hitler’s wars and Stalin’s takeover of east Europe. We were not German collaborators or members of the aristocracy, nor were we strictly speaking political exiles. Small fry, we made no decisions for ourselves. It was all arranged for us by the world leaders of the times. Like so many others who were displaced, we had no ambition to stray far beyond our neighborhood in Berlin. We liked it fine. Deals were made about spheres of influence, borders were redrawn, the so-called iron Curtain was lowered, and we were set adrift with our few possessions.”

Years ago Charlie called and said he was coming to Manhattan and wanted to go out to dinner to celebrate the anniversary of the German carpet bombing of Belgrade. It was his first conscious memory; he’d been knocked across the room. The plan was to eat at a German restaurant in the East 80s, but we couldn’t find one, cholesterol-conscious Americans having shunned the pigs knuckles and sausage, a dish about which Charlie has written sublimely. So as a logical alternative, we wound up at a Turkish restaurant in Gramercy.

Once I heard Charles Simic read with the Slovenian poet Tomas Salamun, and after the reading I thought, Maybe there is such a thing as an Eastern European poem. Yet when you extract from a Simic poem the images that seem Eastern European—grandmothers, black cats, snow, roast lamb, fortunetellers, the offhand or calculated wickedness of the powerful, Mr. and Mrs. Innocent huddled in their cellar--they begin to seem like American things, or French things, or things from anywhere, really. They come from the particular country that is a Simic poem and that we are allowed to inhabit for the length of time we read it, at which point we are returned to ourselves, changed by the visit.

Charlie has asked if I was planning to read his complete works tonight. I could go on for almost as long, telling you what I admire about his poems—their alchemical melding of the surprising, the illogical, the inevitable, the fantastic and the historical. The way you can never predict how one line will lead to the next, but every line reveals that it is the best and only one it could possibly have been.

As everyone knows, Charles Simic has written more celebratory, life-loving poems than any other serious and important modern poet. But something, some perversity, makes me want to read one of the dark ones, even or especially on this warm and festive occasion, perhaps as a reminder of why many, if not most, of us are in this country tonight and of what is out there beyond this bright and beautiful room.

Like Charles Simic, Dinaw Mengestu  has the wisdom and perspective that comes from having been somewhere else. I loved his first novel. The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. I remember admiring how he made it look easy to create complex characters with complicated lives and to avoid, as a weaker writer could not, the surface and sentimental. His second novel, How to Read the Air, is even better. The clarity, the eloquence and the compression of the sentences is such you only have to read the first paragraph to be swept into the book.

“It was four hundred eight-four miles from my parents’ home in Peoria, Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee., a distance that in a seven-year-old Monte Carlo driven at roughly sixty miles an hour could be crossed in eight to twelve hours, depending on certain variables such as the number of road signs offering side excursions to historical landmarks, and how often my mother, Mariam, would have to go to the bathroom. They called the trip a vacation, but only because neither of them was comfortable with the word ‘honeymoon,’ which in its marrying of two completely separate words, each of which they understood on its own, seemed to imply a lavishness that neither was prepared to accept. They were not newlyweds, but their three years apart had made them strangers. They spoke to each other in whispers, half in Amharic, half in English, as if any one word uttered too loudly could reveal to both of them that, in fact, they had never understood each other; they had never all known who the other person was at all.”

Dinaw Mengestu’s novels take place here and there, Ethiopia, where he was born, the United States, and ultimately in a country that their author, that every author, creates with each comma he or she puts in and takes out.  The work of Charles Simic and Dinaw Mengestu testify to literature’s power to describe and transcend at least three countries at once: the old country, the new country, the country of the writer.

Thank you again, to the Vilcek Foundation, for honoring their achievement.


Best known for her novels - the latest, My New American Life is due out in May 2011 - Francine Prose's prodigious output also includes short story collections, essays and literary criticism, translations, children's books, and nonfiction titles, including the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, and Anne Frank: The Book, the Life and Afterlife.

Ms. Prose's list of her literary accolades is as long as her bibliography, among them: the 2010 Washington University International Humanities Medal, the Edith Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Fulbright Fellowship. Her novel Blue Angel was a National Book Award finalist. A  former president of PEN American Center, Ms. Prose is currently a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard College. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the New York Institute for the Humanities.

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The World on Our Plates

Peter Sellars, Professor, University of California, Los Angeles

The future of food on our planet is the most important question facing this generation, and the answer potentially holds the key to understanding the interlocking systems that link environmental conservation, social equity, human health and well-being, and even, possibly, human civility. The pleasure of sharing the tactile experience of breaking bread together, enriched by traditional wisdom, creativity, and the positive values embodied in food production (first in agricultural practice then in the combined arts of cooking and hospitality) is ultimately transmitted to human awareness. Culinary artists have the power to reach, nurture, and transform people across the broadest spectrum of humanity.
The Vilcek Foundation has chosen a particularly opportune moment to salute artists in one of the most advanced fields of human endeavor, and to confer awards on two culinary masters, one younger and one more experienced, who embody sophisticated traditions and knowledge, rarified imagination, and expert skill sets, while simultaneously embracing cutting-edge technical innovations and practices. These specialists delight in searching for essences, minutely weighing the most delicate substances, then inviting their delighted patrons to partake in a deeply memorable appointment with the past - memories that can be unlocked only by the palate - and to be carried away by tantalizing scents, gently alluring aromas of a world to come, a world we have only just begun to savor.
Their art form exists in time and space in a very specific and demanding way. It is very local. It is utterly and unforgettably of the moment. And it is a very distinct group of clients they serve: people seated at a table immediately in front of them or in a nearby room. The full inventory of their knowledge is tested every morning by decisions they must make in the moment and on the spot, in response to the food products that are available to them that day. Their individual gifts for radical improvisation join with the traditions they have absorbed across a lifetime of learning, and they begin to work, usually quickly, and under conditions of quiet, or not-so-quiet, intensity. It is a daily, electrifying act of creativity in a very local moment in a very local place, but with far-reaching implications, into areas that bear moral weight and have ecological and economic consequences. Most importantly, their work has implications for ethnic identity, cultural heritage, and the propagation of a new era of humanity that is, literally and metaphorically, being created by the food it is eating.  
Along with their culinary creations, an inspired chef can offer his or her patrons every political, social, and economic issue right on their plates. The power of food today is such that every day, three times a day, our meals tell the story of the way we’re really living - of our actual values. The virtuoso chef creates harmony, a piquancy, from an array of ingredients, each of which tells its own tale about how we treat animals, plants, soil, and water systems. Each plate of food is another crucial link in a karmic chain, reminding us that how we treat our food sources is, ultimately, an indication of how we treat ourselves. The world is on our plates, and what is on our plates is a key to the state of the world. Food offers us an extraordinarily rich opportunity to meditate more deeply on the world at large.  As we chew slowly, linger over tastes, scent the traces of fine and subtle ingredients, we engage in a moment of leisure, of quiet, of consideration, of thoughtful assessment and reassessment, and, sometimes, of surprise and delight. These epiphanies of the table often accompany another vital art of the table, the art of conversation. Culinary artists are the architects of these profound moments in our lives, but because they design to order for their clients, we tend to underestimate the depth of their artistry.
In the coming years we must ask ourselves to seriously reassess food in all of its aspects. Every delicious morsel that we, in the industrialized West, savor can serve to remind us that someone, in another part of the world or another part of our own community, has nothing to eat, or is eating something that will ultimately result in disease or dysfunction. Food scarcity and poor-quality food threatens future generations across our planet. Thus, the art and science of food calls upon us to address the major question facing our planet - the question of survival. After a good meal, it’s the least we can do.
But we do not eat only to survive. Food is culture. Human beings cook. It is one of the behaviors that distinguish us from other species; more, it is an important measure of our capacity to share, our ability to skillfully and fruitfully collaborate with the natural world, care for others and for the earth. Culture is the cultivation of human beings; agriculture is the cultivation of the earth. The joining of the two is the project of the ages, of this age.
Soil depletion and desertification caused by decades of bad practices, poisoning of water systems, commercialization of water rights, widespread farm failures, and famine are all clear signs that we are in the throes of a global food crisis, one that cannot be solved by top-down impositions. At the heart of this crisis are questions of land rights of indigenous peoples and of sustainable, equitable structures and practices. The hunger of so many across the planet is not just for enough to eat, but for justice, self-sufficiency, and human dignity.

The question of food, then, must be approached not just by the numbers; it is not primarily a question of bioengineering, but of ethics, reciprocity, social fabric - the essence of life itself. Science must begin to work hand-in-hand with the humanities, for the answer lies far beyond the crude constructs of “food technology” programs that have been instituted over the last generation.
Perhaps the defining condition of our human potential is the development of “taste.” What we may offer to our children is cultivated discernment, a refined sensibility, an awareness of nuance, which starts by separating good from bad, by developing a moral sense, leading to an understanding of the complex interaction between ingredients and processes. All over the world, this is the triumph of food cultures, those rich in tradition and heritage, which often originate in the poorest communities. The link between grandparents and their grandchildren is on a plate of food. We each carry with us flavors, aromas, and textures from our childhoods throughout our lifetimes, from the places where we grew up, from our grandmothers’ kitchens. Those sense memories are imbued with a host of associations, an emotional resonance, and a deep appreciation of our ancestors’ profound understanding of the nutritional properties of certain foods in certain combinations at certain seasons.
Immigrants to this country bring with them new ideas, new ambitions, and old food cultures. They leave their homelands to realize their potential as individuals, and to contribute to a greater humanity. It is the contributions of these courageous and visionary immigrants that the Vilcek Foundation honors. The future of food is charged with the same urgency these immigrants have to achieve, and has critical implications for societies, economies, and human relations. It also is charged with pleasure, with joy, with flair and beauty, and a shared, delicious purpose. Food makes the most compelling case for realizing the world of our dreams, for putting it within reach, every day.
I salute the Vilcek Foundation for recognizing the pioneering work of cooks and chefs, researchers, scholars, scientists, and activists in the culinary arts.

Peter Sellars
January 31, 2010



Peter Sellars

Always cutting-edge, sometimes controversial, Peter Sellars - opera, theater, and film director, and professor in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures - frequently uses classic plays as the platform from which to challenge audiences to examine charged political topics: war, poverty, and the international refugee crisis. His adaptation of Euripides’s The Children of Herakles, for example, portrayed the struggles of immigrants and refugees. Sellars is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship Award and the Erasmus Prize for contributions to European culture.

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Gary Shteyngart, Novelist

In the late 1970s, coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in pure Technicolor. As an intensely curious child I remember pressing my nose to the window of the taxiing jet liner, watching the first hints of America passing by, and thinking: oh, that immense solidity! That finished, completed quality! The sweep of what used to be JFK’s Pan Am terminal with its “flying saucer” roof that told us we had left one century and landed in another; the purposeful, swift, but oddly humane stride of the first Americans brushing past us at immigration; the odd expanse of the springtime sky that didn’t press down on Queens as the Russian sky had trampled my stretch of Leningrad, but flowed past in waves, allotting a bit of itself to each red-bricked or aluminum-sided house, and to each of the lucky families that dwelled within.

The science fiction aspect, the intensity of arrival, did not leave me for the next hours, weeks, months. I felt like the convert to a new religion: everything was revelation. I will never forget the ride from the airport, my first highway overpass, the way the car (a private car, no less, bigger than three Soviet Ladas) leaned into the curve hundreds of feet above the greenery of Queens. Here we were floating through air as surely as the passengers of the airplane that had delivered us. And buckled into the back seat, with my parents also leaning into the airborne curve, I felt the same emotions I would experience when choking upon my first cheesy American pizza slice years later – elation, visceral excitement but also fear.  How would I ever measure up to the gentle, smiling giants strolling this land who launched their cars like cosmonauts into the infinite American sky and who lived like lords in their little castles on 40x100 foot lots in Kew Gardens, Queens? How would I ever learn to speak English the way they did? Informally, directly, with the words circling the air like homing pigeons.

But we found home too. The two unlikely words that I would learn in my new English: Garden Apartment. Our first place was modest by local standards, but it fronted a beautiful patch of trees and grass, where the friendliest of squirrels soon became my new friends. I shared with these squirrels many American peanuts, those salty, double-barreled nutritional nuggets, and together we shed our native furs to welcome summer in New York, our bodies sweaty, happy, strumming with possibility. The Americans we met were kinder than we had expected, kinder than any human beings we had known, and they furnished us with little gifts they thought Russians would like, for example cigarettes (my parents didn’t smoke), and little toy cars (as far as I was concerned, they have made all other gifts redundant). I remember lying on the grass with my loyal squirrels chirping in the trees above me, as I zipped a Hot Wheels Chevrolet Impala off a glossy pack of Marlboros. Those memories are my New World, because even to a child who knows little, there are some parts of the planet that are instinctively, intrinsically, more welcoming than others. And in the Garden Apartment above, I see my mother watching me from the window, the woman who had abandoned her own dying mother in Leningrad to bring me to America. Along with the individuals the Vilcek Foundation is celebrating this year, along with the first Americans my family had met who gave us their friendship and a foothold on their, now our, land, I wish to honor her.

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My Parents' Dream

Christopher Vazan, Fourth-grader at St. Bernard's School in New York

Two days before New Year's Eve, my dad opened an envelope that came by mail. Inside were two little cards with a green stripe. They had numbers and letters just like most cards but these were different. These little cards have the power to give immigrants freedom in this country. I didn't understand the happy looks on my parents' faces because I see my mom all the time longing for her home country and even planting this love and bond in my sister and me. I was puzzled: Is immigration a good thing or not? Does it really offer people better lives? What does it mean for someone to leave his or her homeland and start again in a new place? 

There are different kinds of immigration. Some people have to run away to escape the tragedy of war, hunger, or persecution. Others leave with a hope for a better life or to pursue their dreams. But no matter how or why, they always bring the little pieces of their past with them: their traditions, songs, food, ideas, talents, and their very own special ways of doing things. I think that their happiness in the new place depends on whether they can continue living with all these things so dear to them. This country is a special place where talents of immigrants are recognized and supported, where people can speak their mother tongues, where they can live while still being connected to their faraway homelands, can share their memories with their children and preserve them for further generations. 

An immigrant is like a plant transplanted into new soil. That plant needs to be taken care of by a good gardener whose love and support makes it blossom. Two such gardeners are Marica and Jan Vilcek. We were really the lucky ones because by some strange twist of fate my parents happened to meet and become friends with them, which made the often-difficult process of adjustment to a new soil so much easier. As the occasion for tonight's gathering indicates, Jan's and Marica's generosity and friendship is so tremendous that many others may experience their blessing. God bless the Vilceks! God bless the immigrants in America!

Christopher Vazan was born in 1997 in New York City, one year after his parents came to the U.S. from Slovakia. Chris is currently a fourth-grader at St. Bernard's School in New York. Last year, he received the Junior School Roger Platt Award - the prize is given every year to a third-grade boy for excellence in academic achievement, personal character and integrity. He loves math, piano, and chess. Chris also loves to explore Slovakia, where he travels every summer with his mom and sister Terezka.

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February 4, 1965

Marica Vilcek, Cofounder, The Vilcek Foundation

All immigrant stories have similar threads, yet each is woven in a different pattern, creating a distinct fabric. In my case, those threads have sometimes clashed, have seemed at odds in my mind's eye - and I often wonder if this is because I have coped with the immigration experience through rejection, rejection of certain aspects of my past. But perhaps that, too, is a common thread among immigrants, for must we not turn our backs on our pasts, as least to some degree, if we are to fully face the future we have chosen?

By the time I left Czechoslovakia, rejection of life there did not seem difficult. Continuous political upheavals had already destroyed a long-established society; social contacts had crumbled in its wake, and life had become increasingly difficult. The members of my family had grown apart, too - increasingly after my mother died. My older brother had moved away, first to France and later the United States; my younger brother was sent to work in a salt mine, a horrible experience I still can't bear to think about.  So I was not leaving a supportive family structure or a network of close friends, and I had no feelings of national belonging. Leaving became synonymous with hope, inexplicable and unsure, and oh so alluring. But, as I was soon to discover, rejection is not simply a matter of walking away.

In retrospect, I think my awareness that my new life would raise new problems, even as it silenced old ones, emerged the first time I saw in front of me the Manhattan skyline, gleaming in the light of that sunny February afternoon in 1965. There it was, suddenly, a magic floating island of architectural madness, full of promise and opportunities. But it also appeared so fearlessly bold, so aggressive - everything reaching up and up and up - and very different from the low-lying scenes I was familiar with. Could I possibly match its level of energy, adopt its can-do attitude as my own? I was not, by nature, an assertive person, and so it became apparent to me very quickly that I had left my past but it had not left me. 

For a time, I seemed to live two lives, night and day. In my sleep, my dreams took me back to the place that had been my home since birth, the landscape inhabited by old friends and family. In the morning, I woke to a different reality, one of dislocation and readjustment. I could not even understand the weather report! How would I ever learn how to live and work in this place? 

It would take an act of will, the determination to integrate into my new homeland.

For me, that meant finding a place in the art world. Anywhere else, art history, my profession, would not seem a practical field for an immigrant. But this was New York, a center of the art universe, and within months, I had found my professional home, in one of the brightest stars in that galaxy - the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There I worked for more than three decades, years that were instrumental in shaping not only my professional development but my personal life, as well. 

Nevertheless, I find all these years later that the assimilation process continues for me. It did not end when I found I could at last understand the weather report, or when I felt myself to be a respected member of my professional community. Nor was it over when I began to think of myself as an "official" New Yorker, or even after I had become an American citizen. No, my immigrant experience continues to this day, in ways small and large. I still find that, though I love to travel, I am overcome by emotion in airports - feelings are stirred up that I am helpless to quiet. And the words to say things in English still sometimes escape me, or I question my ability to capture the right ones to express myself as I intend. To this day, it takes courage for me to press the Send button, to let go of my emails; I worry whether my grammar is correct - have I used the appropriate article, the proper punctuation? 

Yet I am grateful that my experience as an immigrant to this country is ongoing, for it has motivated me to begin my second career with our foundation. I want others to be aware of and inspired by the accomplishments of those who have come to these shores from elsewhere, and have more than "fit in"; they have triumphed.

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  • Ralston Crawford: Torn Signs

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