The immigrant time capsule

MIT’s time capsule. Buried in 1957 to be opened in year 2957.

As an immigrant myself, I’ve been thinking about the idea of a time capsule and how it could be a useful tool to understand the immigrant experience. What is the immigrant time capsule? Let me introduce two characters based on people I know to help illustrate the idea.

Alice is 40-years-old and immigrated from China in 1995.

Bob is 80-years old and immigrated from China in 2015.

If you had to guess, who is more likely to know how to withdraw cash from an ATM in the United States? If you answered Alice because she’s younger and likely savvier with technology, you might be wrong. Alice could be stuck in a time capsule.

In the U.S., ATMs were popularized in the 70s and 80s, but they were very new in China when Alice immigrated in 1995. The Bank of China installed the first ATM in 1986, and by 1995, there were fewer than 9 ATMs per 100,000 Chinese citizens (I couldn’t find the number for 1995, but in 2006 there were only 9 ATMs per 100k people in China). Chances are, Alice has never seen an ATM in her life.

For 80-year-old Bob in 2015, it’s a completely different story. The Chinese economy grew like gangbusters in just twenty years, and modern banking services like ATMs became increasingly commonplace. By 2015, there were 50 ATMs per 100,000 people in China. That number is still well below what we see here in the United States (~200 ATMs per 100k people), but growing rapidly. 80-year-old Bob would’ve benefitted from seeing ATMs get promoted in his native language. He would’ve known friends who magically got cash out of a machine, and perhaps even tried it with assistance from the banks that installed them in an effort to educate their customers to the new technology. When Bob lands in Los Angeles in 2015 and sees the first ATM at the airport, it’ll look familiar to him and he’s more likely to know how to operate it.

Shenzhen’s dramatic transformation.

For Alice landing in Los Angeles in 1995, the ATMs don’t look like anything to her. Unfortunately for Alice, the United States has already moved on from the introductory period of ATMs. No one is going to bother explaining to her what an ATM is. She may not even be familiar with banking services in general and might still be stashing her money under the mattress. Alice is several steps behind because she was plucked from her timeline in China and shunted into a new timeline in the U.S., with a significant gap in technological progress. Alice missed all of the developments in the U.S. that were ahead of China at the time, and unlike her peers who stayed behind in China, she doesn’t get to learn alongside the rest of the Chinese population, in her native tongue, at her own pace. Alice is stuck in a time capsule that is China in 1995. Do you know someone like Alice?

Our immigrants face significant challenges like having to overcome the language barrier, culture shock, loneliness, securing employment, just to name a few. However, I suspect most of us are overlooking the fact that many immigrants are stuck in an immigrant time capsule, making it even harder for them to assimilate. In the most fortunate case when things significantly improve in their home country, the immigrants don’t get to experience that development first-hand. Instead, they are stuck in the United States, belonging to neither here nor there.

Too often, our immigrants simply turn inwards and stick with what they knew when they arrived. Alice would see the U.S. in 1995 through the lens of 1995 China, ignoring ATMs and rejecting basic services like banking because trusting an institution with their money was inconceivable to them. Imagine moving to a new country to start a new life, and seeing unfamiliar things like ATMs everywhere you go.

Alice: “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”

This blog post was inspired by the documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a story about a community bank in New York’s Chinatown that was the unfortunate target of an Manhattan District Attorney looking to make an example out of a bank following the financial crisis. Abacus Federal Savings Bank was built by an immigrant to serve the underserved Chinese immigrant community, which was a tremendous challenge that required Abacus to employ different techniques to help the community feel comfortable with banking services, especially since New York Chinatown consists primarily of immigrants who moved shortly after the 1968. Below is a clip about how Abacus got people to deposit money directly with the bank by first introducing safety deposit boxes to ease the community into the idea. The clip doesn’t really do it justice, so I recommend watching the entire film. Start watching at 3:58.

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