2010-02-12 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

An Immigrant’s Tale
by Stuart W. Mirsky

A friend of mine came to this country from China back in the eighties. China had little opportunity for people like him, he tells me, especially after Chairman Mao had destroyed the country. To get anywhere you had to know people and pay them off. Everything, he adds, was corrupt and there was no freedom. America looked better and so he emigrated, married and raised a family here. Today he works for a city agency as an air conditioning technician making a very good salary with an excellent benefits package (including a health insurance plan and a government pension). And he gets lots of opportunity for overtime, which supplements his already substantial regular income and contributes to the baseline against which his pension will eventually be calculated. He’s also active in the stock market and is a fairly successful investor.

Still, he’s soured on this country of late. Americans live beyond their means, he complains. They spend more than they can afford and finance the difference by borrowing from countries like his former homeland. But why should China keep len-ding to us, he asks. The Chinese have to be crazy to do it because we’ll never be able to pay them back, he points out. Americans are living off the largess of the rest of the world, is how he puts it – someday we’ll have to pay the piper.

In fact, he’s so frustrated over the recent turn of events that he has found himself wondering of late whether he made the right decision in coming here. When he did, America looked like the future to him, but now it seems China is where the economic growth is. America is too full of financial inequities, too, he argues. A confirmed Democrat, he despised George Bush and the last Republican administration. Bush, he insists, spent too much. That’s why we’re in the hole we’re in!

And Obama? In fact he is a fan of the current president, especially his health care initiative. We need national health care, my friend tells me. When I protest that most people in the country are already covered, one way or the other, he responds by pointing out that there are still some who aren’t. When I remind him of the good coverage he has for himself and his family under the current system, he reminds me of those who don’t. You forget, he insists, how expensive it is for some people, how much more they have to struggle than you to make ends meet. I agree that it isn’t uniformly easy.

What’s wrong with America, my friend goes on, is the big gap between the wealthiest and those who have less. On a personal level, he objects to the fact that, while he is as competent as, or more competent than, the electricians and stationary engineers in his department, they get paid much more than he does while not having to work as hard. That’s a discrepancy that really galls him. It’s due, of course, to the clout of the unions that represent these workers and the contracts they have extracted from the city. Although my friend is a one-of-a-kind tradesman in his agency, the sole staffer on board equipped to maintain and repair sophisticated refrigeration equipment in-house, an essential to that organization because of its heavy reliance on lab equipment, computers and air conditioning, he has no powerful union to represent him as these other workers do and so watches with envy as people he believes less qualified than he is, work fewer hours while out-earning him.

Weren’t there inequities in China, I ask? Isn’t that why you came here, to find new opportunities? Sure, he says, but in China such gaps are not so obvious. In this country, he says, you have all these Wall Street bankers and insurance industry executives making way more than the rest of us. That, he points out, simply isn’t fair. Are they really worth hundreds of millions of dollars while he is barely worth $80,000 a year before overtime and all the extra work his job requires of him? And this is to say nothing of those electricians and stationary engineers, the latter of whom basically sit and monitor electronic signals on various pieces of equipment all day while he is running from site to site, getting his hands dirty. Why should others make more than he does if he’s just as smart, just as qualified? Is the head of Wellpoint Insurance worth the kind of salary he gets considering how hard my friend must work for his more humble income?

Americans need to level the playing field, he says, and they need national health care like they have in other countries, including China, so everyone can have equal access to the same level of medical services. It’s all part of his current critique of his adopted nation.

But how can we afford to nationalize the health industry, I ask him, never mind the question of better or worse care that may result. If it’s America’s debtload that really has him worried, how can we do what the Obama administration wants without putting ourselves further into hock to China? Wasn’t that his original complaint against Bush and the Republicans, even though the Democrats have already blown the budget sky high, since taking over the levers of power in Washington, and adding universal health coverage, with mandates for participation, can only add still more to the ever expanding deficit? I should have stayed in China, he answers despondently, that’s where the growth is now, that’s where the future is. But don’t they have rich people there, too, I ask him. Isn’tChina now basically a capitalist country? Isn’t it “glorious to get rich” as Chairman T’eng Hsiao P’eng once told his people – after Mao was gone?

There aren’t so many rich people there, he says, not yet. You mean we have more here? He nods in agreement. Then aren’t you really complaining that there are too many welloff people here, that they’re too visible, while in China there aren’t enough to notice yet? Isn’t the real problem troubling you that America’s been too successful? You see the well-off all around, wherever you look. But in China, because the country isn’t yet where America is, you wouldn’t feel deprived because there are so many others with more than you have! But doesn’t that also mean your opportunities here really are greater because wealth is so much more widely spread, so much more available?

Consider this, I urge him. Sure you’re a salaried worker but look at what you’re making. Look at your investment portfolio. Maybe you’re not in the hundred million a year category and maybe you’ll never be but does that really matter? You’re not starving or in want. And it’s all because of what you’ve been able to do for yourself since coming here. If you take money away from the giant earners do you become like them or do you just hope to make them more like you?

Why shouldn’t they be more like me, he asks.

Because, when you left China, I remind him, wasn’t it because you wanted to be more like them?

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