First year in California for good, as an immigrant

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


I met other interesting characters at the Moulin Rouge (a bar in San Francisco where I spent much of my time after immigrating for good). One was a Frenchman in his early forties who told me he was a pirate on vacation. He said he owned an old surplus US Navy PT boat armed with a machine gun he used to prey on Chinese ships in the Celebes (Indonesia). “How come you are not in prison for 20 or 25 years? How about the police, the local coast guard, the navy?” I asked. “Nobody cares about the rich Chinese in Indonesia; besides, we never, never kill anyone. We wave big guns at them, my crew and I, and they always pay up. Sometimes, they bargain a little with me. I am not unreasonable,” he explained. He invited me to join him in a piracy campaign on my next summer vacation. I told him that I would like to but I would probably have to study in the summer, too. Even at a young age, seasoned as I was by military service, I had my values straight: junior college first, piracy second, and the latter, only if there was time.

Immigration and Jobs

A couple of thoughts about immigration. It seems that there is a widespread belief in the US that immigrants take jobs from Americans. It makes superficial sense if you also assume that the number of jobs to be filled is fixed and that just about anyone can do any kind of work.

Both assumptions are mostly false. Here is an example that illustrates why.

I keep hearing native-born Americans trained in various high-tech fields who claim that they are unemployed because of competition from low-cost H1B visa holders. H1B visas go to foreigners with skills deemed to be needed by the American economy. A large number of H1B visa holders are from India and many are from China; they also come from a wide variety of other countries, including Russia, France, Bulgaria, etc. The implicit affirmation is that were such visas stopped completely, those who complain would step right into the vacant jobs.

Two things. First the claim that foreign H1B visa holders work for less is largely unsubstantiated although it should be easy to investigate such abuse. Second, I think it’s illegal to pay H1B holders less than Americans. Why would many employers risk a distracting lawsuit? Of course, a few might because there are irrational people everywhere.

Next and last: Hundreds of thousands of high-tech jobs are going begging as I write. Are employers so vicious that they would rather have the work not done at all than to give it to a credentialed American? Or is it more likely that the unemployed native-born high-tech workers have skills that do not match demand? If the second supposition is correct, ending the H1B visa program would cause even more high-tech positions to remain empty. Of course, this would have a negative effect on everyone, on every American’s prosperity.

Missing from this narrative: the possibility that high power, accelerated re-training programs would bring unemployed Americans the skills the high-tech sector requires.

I have to begin a confession that’s going to make me even more unpopular locally than I already am. I mean unpopular among my conservative friends. I taught in an MBA program in the middle of Silicon Valley for 24 years, two quarters each year. It was an evening program squarely directed at the ambitious hard-working. During that span of time, I must have had 150 students from India. I remember only one who was a bad student. I was intrigued, so I made inquiries. Sure enough, he had an Indian first name and last name, and the corresponding appearance but he was born in the US.* I cannot report so glowingly about other, non-Indian students that sat in my classroom through the years.

This little narrative proves nothing, of course. Consider it food for thought. Do it especially if you voted for Pres. Trump – as I did.

Reminder: H1B visas are awarded to individuals with an occupational qualification deemed to be in short supply in the US. Right now, it’s likely that most of those who get an H1B are trained in some IT area but that’s not all. For a long time, farriers from everywhere could easily get one. (If you don’t know what a farrier is, shame on you and look it up.)

There are other – presumably non-specialized – categories of immigrants who are widely suspected of taking jobs from Americans. The truth is not always easy to discern, not even conceptually. Five or six miles from where I live in Santa Cruz, there are growers who are tearing off their hair. Their problem is that they can’t figure out who is going to pick the crops they are now putting into the ground. As I have said repeatedly, the Mexicans they counted on in years past have largely stopped coming.

A quarter of a mile from where I live, and in the same direction, there are dozens of perfectly healthy US-born Americans who are working as “sales associates.” The apparent conceptual issue is this: sales associates earn $10/hr while a moderately experienced crop picker earns $15. The question arises of why we don’t see a full exodus from the sales positions to jobs that pay 50% more?

I think it’s lazy to call the US-born sales associates “lazy.” The reality is that the Mexicans who came, and are still coming, to pick vegetables and fruits in California overwhelmingly came from a rural population. They were reared under conditions where almost everyone around them labored in the fields. When they arrive in the US – legally through family reunion – or illegally, they are ready to take picking jobs. They then just do here more or less the same work they would do at home but for five times the pay or more.

In American society that kind of population disappeared several generations ago through mechanization and, of course, through the importation of foreign labor, precisely. Native-born Americans won’t do the work because it’s alien to their background. I think US-born people of Mexican ascendancy whose parents labored in the field won’t do the work either. Their parents do what they can to make their own work experience alien to their children. I am not surprised, that’s another expression of the American dream. It’s  what many would do back in Mexico but then, why emigrate?

I am pretty sure that any immigration reform should include a temporary agricultural program, a sort of H1A ( “A” for “Agriculture”) visa. It would allow foreigners to come to the US legally, just to work in the fields and for a set period only. It would not lead to permanent residency, nor, of course, to citizenship. Such a program existed between the forties and the early sixties, if memory serves. It was called the “Bracero program.” I don’t know why it was terminated. (Perhaps a reader can tell us.)

Mexicans would be the first to take advantage of such a program. As Mexico’s economy develops, they may be replaced by Central Americans and, eventually, by Africans. Such a program would sidestep the kind of assimilation problem France, for example, is facing right now with its North African population.

PS Personally, I think Mexicans make good immigrants to the US. I would bet than in ten years we will be begging them to come.


* Disclosure: I am married to an Indian woman. She is not in high-tech unfortunately.

The tortuous road to higher education

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


I spent nearly two years aboard a French Navy aircraft carrier between ages 19 and 21. What follows takes place at the end of my period of military service.

Concurrently with the beach-boy fantasies, I developed a more complex and more convoluted life plan, centering on journalism. There was one journalism school in Paris that would accept students without baccalauréat, the sacred university admission exam I had failed twice. The school relied instead on a personal dossier of achievements, a blatant abnormality in the frigid, constipatedly meritocratic French educational system. I thought I might qualify by becoming one of the few French people – aside from some language teachers – who could really write English. Looking back on it, it was an imaginative but reasonable project. I imagined I would go back to California and spend two years in community college, concentrating on writing and literature classes. Older California friends had sent me the catalog of College of Marin, situated near San Quentin prison. I noticed that the college offered many courses in “Penology.” Of course, I thought that those were about using a pen, about writing, in other words. I applied and was accepted on the basis of the social promotion high-school diploma I had obtained during my one year in the US.

As soon as I was discharged from the service, with a one-way train ticket to Paris and fifty of today’s dollars in separation pay, I went back to work at the hotel where I had labored during my teen-age years. I had left such a good impression there that the concierge tried to talk me into becoming his successor. That was not a trivial offer but a sure path to riches. The concierges of high-end hotels are in a position to do wealthy guests many favors, from finding rare theater tickets at the last minute to procuring call-girls in the wee-hours of the morning. Often, both sides of a transaction reward them. Even a prosaic service such as getting shoes resoled overnight generates income. In his early forties, the concierge owned a stable of race horses. His plan was that he would sell me his position and that I would pay him over several years from the graft generated by my talents.

I was absolutely poor so, the offer was tempting. Yet, I declined cordially because, by that time, the thought of studying had become attractive. I saved enough tips in two months to buy a one-way ticket, passage on a student ship to New York, and a little more. On the ship, I met a buxom Christian Scientist blonde who was not a very good Christian but had a lively interest in science, at least in Anatomy. She could not bear to part with me so, she made me detour through Saint-Louis, her hometown. She was sweet and had beaucoup de tempérament, as my mother would have put it, but her father, an Army officer, was soon on to me and I had to keep going. By the way, the same girl had made such a strong impression on me that I hitched-hiked back to Saint Louis in the middle of the winter to be with her. And, no, she wasn’t very beautiful. I cannot tell this story here because writing soft-core is not my purpose right now!

I left Saint Louis by Greyhound bus. I arrived in San Francisco two weeks before classes were to start at the community college. I had no money left at all because the bus had made several stops in Nevada. At twenty-one, after three senior years in high-school (two in France and one in the US), after a few months traveling around Europe and getting into nothing but trouble, after almost two years well warehoused by the French Navy, I was finally ready. Suddenly, I became a first-rate student.

The Latin American tropism

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


The Paris in which I grew up (outside of the long summer vacations), was a gray, dank and dark place. It was an easy locale from which to fantasize about the sun-drenched tropics. Palm-trees were our favorite trees because we never saw any except at the movies. Of all the tropics, the Latin American tropics took pride of place. Perhaps that was because France had negligible colonial entanglement there and therefore, no colonial retirees to mug our fantasy with their recollections of reality. Or perhaps, it was because, well after the emergence of rock-and-roll in France, close dancing was still taking place to the sound of Latin music: Rumba, Samba, Tango. One sensuous experience easily becomes grafted onto another; the clinging softness of girls’ flesh became associated in our minds with that particular kind of music and thence, with a whole unknown continent. This cocktail of sensations biased me until now in favor of that continent.

At one of the stops where several foreign student buses met, I became smitten with a Bolivian girl and she with me. We were to each other the most exotic thing ever touched. She had luscious brown skin, thick, black, lustrous Indian hair, swinging hips, and a lovely round chest. Our buses met again several times and the passion was renewed each time. Although those encounters involved little more than many sloppy deep kisses and some furious mutual groping, indirectly, they were to shape an important part of my mental life, a favorable disposition toward the otherness of others, “xenophilia,” if you will.

Illegal Immigration: Pres. Trump’s New Measures

I can’t wait for the raging assaults by the pseudo-cultural elite and by the media against Pres. Trump to stop to begin criticizing some of his decisions, as I would with any other president.

I have heard and read reports that the president intends to launch a policy of accelerated repatriation of illegal aliens. It will single out criminals for priority deportation (as was the case under Mr Obama). At this point, almost everybody agrees about getting rid of illegal aliens who are real criminals, especially the violent ones. Again, the new policy sounds a lot like Mr Obama’s, with a few details different. The details often matter when it comes to human lives, also when it comes to traditions of government. Here are two such details.

First, I have heard that even traffic tickets qualify an illegal alien for quick deportation. Make a wrong u-turn and your life gets broken up.

Second, I have heard and read that even being merely charged with a crime places you at the head of the line for deportation. Someone who looks like you steals a car. You get charged by mistake. You are gone.

The first detail seems awfully rough to me. I would feel better if the word “recidivist” were included. A person who breaks driving rules repeatedly is a trouble-maker we can do without. A guy who is too distracted to interpret the U-turn sign (could be me – once) is not exactly a criminal in the real sense of the word.

It’s true that such extreme severity would improve the driving of all illegal aliens. The claim is probably also correct however that it would interfere with aliens’ (legal and not) willingness to cooperate with the local police. Aside from this, I would bet it would involve significant law enforcement costs just to process traffic tickets through to the Immigration Service. I am a conservative, I am against big government, even against big government at the local level. I don’t want tax money, federal, state, or local, to be wasted processing a U-turn violator. It seems irrational to me.

The second, detail concerns the treatment of people only charged with a crime. It’s simple. I just don’t want any of them to be included in the priority list. Having any branch of government treating the accused as guilty simply goes too strongly against everything I believe. It’s un-American.

Yes, I have not forgotten that the subjects have no right to be in the country in the first place. I don’t care. It’s not about illegal aliens’ rights. Immigrants, legal or not, have no rights as a category as far as I am concerned. They only possess the ordinary human rights of anyone under American jurisdiction.

It’s about a slippery slope for all. If we begin officially thinning out the traditional wall between “charged” and “guilty,” where are we going to stop?

I understand that a lawyer would argue that the person is technically not being deported for the imaginary crime of being charged but because he has no right to be in the country, period. Do you know the one about the lawyer….

Communist Yugoslavia

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


I was led into a large cell with an arching stone ceiling I would have called a dungeon except that it was harshly lit. There were about twenty-five men in the room, mostly in their late twenties. They greeted me loudly in their language. An older man who looked vaguely middle class because he wore a suit (without a tie) asked me in Italian where I was from. There were five or six blankets altogether. A tall, bony guy with the ravaged face of an operetta brigand requisitioned two and handed them to me. Then, we all lined up for whole-grain bread and soup. (Yes, whole-grain used to be the cheapest before it became fashionable, in the seventies.) The brigand pushed me to the head of the line. Then he showed me that you had to dunk the hard bread into the soup to soften it. After dinner, I had a long, civilized conversation with the old man, he speaking Italian and I, French. He told me that most of my cellmates were returning from Germany where they had gone to work without a proper Yugoslav exit visa, and that they were awaiting trial for that low-grade offense. “Why don’t they look more worried?”- I asked. (The mood was, in fact, downright merry.) He told me each would get a few months in the poker but that the cars they had bought in Germany with their earnings would be awaiting them when they got out. In fact, he said, the jail had a parking lot reserved for that usage. Real communism, communism as it existed, communism with a small “c,” was not simple!

As evening came, the inmates prepared for bed in their own rudimentary ways. There was tenseness when the brigand signaled for me to set down my two blankets next to him, on a raised wooden platform. I was old enough to doubt a free lunch existed. I perceived that I was the cutest thing in the joint, and the youngest! With no gracious way to escape, I did as he suggested. Tension turned into panic when he took my head into the crook of his arm. I withdrew brusquely. He delivered himself of a vociferous and loud speech that I guessed was at once re-assuring and reproachful. There was probably no ambiguity in his gesture. Yugoslavia was the beginning of the mysterious Orient, deep into Western Europe, with different customs. Later, I saw soldiers, and once, a pair of policemen, walking peaceably hand in hand. The brigand had just adopted me as a brother. He was no jail predator. For all I know, he had protected me from the real thing.

Tour d’Amerique

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


At eighteen, I spent one year in California. At the end of the school year, my group of “exchange students” was treated to a country-wide bus tour.

A big patch of attitudinal European-ness was stripped off me during the summer bus trip. I was in Virginia, the guest of a big-shot Washington lawyer. His family had a spacious, sprawling but elegant house on top of a hill, surrounded by white-painted horse corrals. We had dinner in silverware and crystal, served by a quiet black lady in a white uniform. The lawyer’s two sons, who were my age, lingered outside with me after dinner, smoking cigarettes. We were having an interesting conversation because they were curious about California and Europe, both. Nevertheless, around eleven, the guys announced that they had to turn in. “Why so soon?” I asked. “We have to get up at four.” “What do you do so early?” “In the summer, we have a garbage route; it pays really well.”

I am positive that no son of a rich French lawyer ever worked with his hands in the garbage industry, at any time in French history. Sorry for the cliché, but that brief exchange transformed me. It was a starting point to my turning me into a different person, more adaptable and more capable of the resourcefulness that my subsequent life demanded.