Since the last presidential election, there has been a palpable shift in the other Washington in terms of urgency and attitude toward immigration reform. And in this Washington, Microsoft has been at the forefront of a vigorous campaign to expand the visa program that would allow for the hiring of more foreign workers.
But not everyone greets these initiatives with enthusiasm.
Of course, immigration issues are nothing new for this country - ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, newcomers to these shores have been greeted with reactions ranging from hostility to hospitality.
A new book from University of Washington Press, "Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest," provides a perspective on one sector of immigrants who have been coming to this corner of the country over the last century-plus.
The book stems from a project initiated by the first person to hold the position of South Asian Studies librarian at the University of Washington. Irene Joshi was a white woman married to Indian immigrant Rajnikant Joshi, an urban planning professional. As part of Irene's vision for building the South Asian Studies collection, the Joshis funded a project to collect oral histories from the South Asian community living in the Pacific Northwest.
The resulting interviews were so rich in life experience and so telling in diasporic drama that two women who subsequently became involved in the South Asian Oral History Project, Amy Bhatt and Nalini Iyer, have collaborated to share some of these stories in book form and provide context for them within the bigger picture of Pacific Northwest history.
Perhaps because both women are academicians - Bhatt earned her PhD at the University of Washington and now teaches at the University of Maryland, and Iyer is an English professor at Seattle University - the tone of this book is rather dry, particularly at the outset.
In the chapter that delves into the reasons people left their home countries, the oral history excerpts that were selected are surprisingly rote. Even when these are memories from people who were political refugees, for example, we might get a basic recitation of the number of days spent in a refugee camp, but no details were elicited to paint a picture of the experience. Stoicism may be a necessary tactic for survival, but it doesn't make for compelling storytelling. This is a matter the authors take up in the epilogue, explaining the "many silences and gaps in any history that relies on oral sources."
Later chapters - on employment, identity, generational differences and the perpetuation of traditional cultural values in a new country - pick up in vibrancy.
One of the lessons that many of these newcomers had to learn was "thinking of America in multiplicity." The American ideals of tolerance and equal opportunity - although not consistently practiced, nor generously demonstrated to the newcomers themselves - still made a qualitative difference on the type of life immigrants have led in the United States in contrast to the countries of their birth.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org