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Children of Immigrants Share Experiences Of Being Stereotyped

Headshots of two women in a split screen
Alisson Klaiber (left) and Anja Thomas (right)

VPM is one of six stations across the United States partnering with StoryCorps for “One Small Step,” a nationwide initiative that brings together people with opposing political beliefs to have open, respectful conversations. In many instances, the participants discover they have more in common than they thought.

While living abroad, people assumed Anja Thomas, a dual citizen, was a racist because she was from the southern part of the United States. “The bourbon drinking, the cowboys - those are kind of funny things in terms of American stereotypes, but to be associated with being a racist because I'm from the south - that bothered me on so many levels,” said Thomas. Alisson Klaiber, who’s also a dual citizen, had a similar experience in the U.S. while attending college. “People hated me for just being French,” said Klaiber. The two sat down and talked about their family and experiences as European-American citizens.

As a child, Thomas attended 3rd and 7th grade in the Netherlands and often felt glorified for being from America by her classmates. “I'll never forget we tried playing softball or baseball, and everybody expected that I knew how to play the game,” said Thomas, a mother of three.

Klaiber, a mother of two, says she attended an American college during a time in which France did not partner with the U.S. in searching for weapons of mass destruction. “[They] assumed that I believed what the French President believed,” she said. “I am not my president, just as you are not your president.” Klaiber remembers feeling hated on campus with her peers slamming doors in her face.

Thomas understands the feeling of being looked at negatively. Growing up, kids made fun of Thomas for being different, calling her “onion” as a joke on her name Anja, but because of her parents, she learned to cherish her differences. Thomas’ parents met in the 1960s after her mother moved from the Netherlands to the U.S. “My dad was attracted to her [my mom] because she was different,” said Thomas. “Being different was not something to be afraid of.”

As a daughter of immigrants, Alisson Klaiber was told she would never speak or write English well enough to be a lawyer. “Sometimes it's positive and funny and cute, and sometimes it's really serious, and it takes away from a relationship you could have or an experience or opening that you could have,” said Klaiber on people’s assumptions of those from different cultures. She did become a lawyer, proving all of those negative assumptions wrong.

Even though Klaiber’s parents moved to the U.S. for the “American dream,” her father wasn’t that happy about Klaiber’s decision to be a lawyer. Having moved to Palm Beach, Florida, and starting a travel business, Klaiber’s father didn’t want her stuck behind a desk her whole life. “He thought he was instilling in me like fun into something profitable, and being a lawyer to him is not fun,” said Klaiber. “He turned what he loved to do, which is go on fancy trips and fly airplanes into a business.”

Her father’s passion for their family business instilled a drive in Klaiber to work hard each day. “He turned nothing into something very successful,” said Klaiber, who’s the first person in her family to attend college.

Similarly, Thomas’ father, who grew up “very poor,” built a successful life for himself and instilled a strong work ethic into her. “He went from literally putting cardboard in his shoes as a child to retiring at the age of 53,” said Thomas, who is also on the verge of retiring. Her mother’s courage to move at 18 by herself to a country she didn’t know fostered a great deal of independence in her.

Both Thomas and Klaiber have a college education, but the two agree it’s not the end-all-be-all. The two agree an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to do the hard work can lead to a successful life, whether in America or another country.

StoryCorps’ One Small Step is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.