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An Immigrant's Tale

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An Immigrant's Tale is simply the story of an immigrant, an immigrant family, or a refugee, coping with life in a new nation.

A very common setting is late 19th or early 20th century America, with a heavy emphasis on The American Dream, but the trope works in any time and country. A recent theme is the plight of illegal aliens and migrant workers from Mexico working in America, and Africans and Middle Easterners in Europe.

Typically includes overcoming a Language Barrier, sometimes in a fun or funny way, instances of the Funny Foreigner, and Generational Sagas.



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  • "Budweiser - Born the Hard Way" is a commercial telling the tale of how Adolphus Busch left his native Germany to travel to America, facing hardship and anti-immigration prejudice to make his fortune, all the while carrying a notebook detailing his plans for the beer he wants to manufacture. Upon surviving a steamboat fire on the Mississippi and trekking into St. Louis, Missouri, he shares his musings with another German national at a local bar -- Eberhart Anheuser.

  • Played for laughs in one of the British "Compare the Meerkat" adverts, in which Alexsandr and Sergei's identical ancestors are forced to flee the Kalahari due to the terrible Grub famine, and endure a perilous sea journey before arriving in Russia.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Manga Yonin Shosei ("The Four Students Manga") by Kiyama Yoshitaka aka "Henry Kiyama" is a semi-autobiographical manga spanning about two decades, following four Japanese working students who arrive in San Francisco in 1904. Unlike modern manga, it emulated American Newspaper Comics of the time in its art style and left-to-right orientation. It was first published in San Francisco in 1931, then rediscovered in 1980, translated to English, and republished in 1999 as The Four Immigrants Manga.

    Comic Books 
  • The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, particularly the first, second, and tenth chapters, tells the story of how Scrooge McDuck immigrated from Scotland to America to (very successfully) make his fortune.
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan tells the story of an immigrant in a foreign country, foreign for the reader and the protagonist and how he's helped by both other immigrants from different countries and the locals until he manages to bring back his family. Notable in using a fantastical visual spectacle to metaphorically capture the emotion rather than literal details of migrant experience.

    Fan Works 
  • Rose goes through this many times over in the Doctor Who fic Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, after discovering that due to time disparities, each jump can take decades. Every time she jumps to a new universe, she has to spend years learning the language, the culture, etc.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Brooklyn: Eilis ultimately does find a happy and fulfilling new life in America but only after tremendous homesickness and being seriously tempted to return to Ireland for good. The film does not pull any punches about the grimmer side of this trope either whether it be immigrants who never truly find a home in their new country or the family and friends left behind who essentially lose someone for good.
  • Vito Corleone's subplot in The Godfather Part II, which details how he fled his Italian hometown (due to being targeted for a hit by a mob boss who eliminated his family, when he was still a kid) to live in New York City, eventually growing up to start his own family and becoming a career criminal himself.
  • Moscow on the Hudson, featuring Robin Williams as a defector from the Soviet Union making a new life in America
  • Ruggles of Red Gap doesn't start out as this, as Ruggles comes to America against his will—he's an English valet who was gambled away to an American tourist—but he becomes enchanted by the people in the little town of Red Gap, and by the new country he's in, rattling off the Gettysburg Address from memory to the delight of the townsfolk.
  • Far and Away, about two Irish people migrating to America.
  • Gangs of New York
  • The Al Pacino version of Scarface (1983)
  • The Italian, directed by Thomas H. Ince, was a 1915 film that followed the life of an Italian immigrant - and this was during the latter part of the major immigration to the US in the late 19th/early 20th century.
  • The Immigrant by Charlie Chaplin
  • Also a later movie, also called The Immigrant released in 2013, featuring Marion Cotillard as a young Polish woman forced to turn to prostitution to rescue her sister from quarantine on Ellis Island.
  • Avalon touches elements of this in the grandfather's flashbacks.
  • How the West Was Won begins in the early 1800s with a group of settlers from the east encountering the hazards of the wilderness, both natural and human, and traces their families through to the later part of the century.
  • My Name Is Khan follows the journey of an Asperger's-suffering Indian Muslim immigrant in the post-9/11 sociopolitical landscape.
  • The Namesake is about Indian immigrants to the U.S. and their son's journey to accept his culture.
  • Amreeka is about two Palestinian immigrants, a mother and son.
  • America America by Elia Kazan, all about Kazan's uncle, an ethnic Greek in Turkey, and his desperate struggle to get out of Turkey and make it to America.
  • Hold Back the Dawn is about a European gigolo who scams an American schoolteacher into a Citizenship Marriage, only to (of course) fall for her for real.
  • The Molly Maguires deals with Irish immigrant coal miners in 1870s Pennsylvania.
  • El Norte is about as dark as this trope gets, as two Guatemalans fleeing persecution find their way across the border to the United States, only to find tragedy and suffering and dashed hopes.
  • Icebox is a 2018 drama about a young boy from Honduras who tries to get into America illegally to escape a violent gang. Before he can make it to his uncle's, he gets caught by immigration and spends the rest of the film trying to seek asylum.
  • Spanglish is the story of Flor, a Mexican immigrant who gets a job as a housekeeper for a mildly dysfunctional upper-class family in order to support herself and her daughter.
  • Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is about a struggling, undocumented family's search for their autistic son after he runs away.
  • Official Secrets: Katharine Gun's husband Yasar is a Kurdish refugee working in a coffee shop and trying to get permanent residency in the UK. He's nearly deported two-thirds of the way through the film, seemingly to punish Katharine for leaking a memo embarrassing to the Bush and Blair governments.
  • Coneheads is more like an "accidental" version of this trope, where the immigrants are literally aliens from outer space assimilating into American society.

  • The Emigrants tetrology by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, about a Swedish family's migration from Småland to Minnesota in the mid-1800s.
  • Franz Kafka's Amerika tells the story of a young man's journey to a twisted version of America where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword.
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzo. Yes, that Mario Puzo. He actually bemoaned how people preferred a gangster story full of violence than the pains and joys of a single mother raising alone her kids in a foreign country.
  • The Joy Luck Club is a collection of stories about first- and second-generation Chinese-American immigrants.
  • The Jungle
  • My Ántonia, about various settlers in the 19th century American Midwest, including the Ántonia of the title who is Czech. There are other Slavic or Scandinavian nations present in the neighbourhood.
  • America Is Not the Heart, about Filipino immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • The Kite Runner, half of which is about an Afghan father-and-son duo who migrate to the States and settle in the San Francisco Bay Area; the son (and narrator), Amir, finishes college and marries a fellow Afghani there, and later on he also brings Sohrab, his nephew, to live with him and his wife.
  • Tis is the second of author Frank McCourt's memoirs and is about McCourt's immigration to the United States from Ireland (although he was already a U.S. citizen, having been born in New York to Irish immigrant parents who moved the family back to Ireland when he was a very young child).
  • Shanghai Girls is about May and Pearl Chin, sisters from Shanghai that are forced to immigrate to the U.S. with their husbands when their father loses all his money and World War II starts. May has a child in America, Joy, who is raised as Pearl's child. The sequel, Dreams of Joy, is about Joy's return to China to find her roots.
  • Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok, is about a girl named Kimberly and her mother immigrating to Brooklyn sometime in The '80s.
  • Vita, by Melania Mazzucco, tells the story of two Italian immigrants arriving in New York as children in the early 20th century.
  • Middlesex is one, albeit extremely unconventional, about immigrants Eleutherios "Lefty" and his wife Desdemona Stephanides (who are also brother and sister) who immigrate to Detroit from Turkey.
  • Marsbound starts out this way, with Carmen Dula and her family moving to Mars and struggling to fit in with the community there, but it takes an abrupt left turn partway through.
  • American Girls Collection:
    • Kirsten's series, set in 1854, about a Swedish immigrant family adapting to Minnesota in the pioneer times.
    • Rebecca, a Russian Jew whose family immigrated to Manhattan. Set in 1914.
  • The Crocodile God is an Urban Fantasy about a Filipino-Australian man called Haik who gets shipwrecked in California, where the Fil-American Mirasol finds him and takes him in. Turns out he's actually a Filipino sea-god who's been growing steadily more isolated after the Spanish conquest, and Mirasol as his reincarnated wife is now The Only Believer he has left. About a week after his stay in the hospital, his lack of records sends ICE officers out to deport him to the Philippines.
  • Two of the short stories at the beginning of The Overstory are this. The first short story starts out by telling the story of Jorgen Hoel, a new Norwegian immigrant to America, and follows his descendants. The second story follows Ma Sih Hsuin/Winston Ma as an immigrant from China to the US, and then follows his daughters.
  • You Look Different in Real Life: Felix's family were undocumented for many years and worked hard to become legal citizens.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Vanishing Son
  • Halfway Across the Galaxy and Turn Left metaphorically captures the migrant experience of kids by portraying an alien family settling on Earth as refugees. It deals with the everyday such as the kids settling into school, and their fear that the regime they've escaped will catch up with them (in the TV version it does, differing from the book its based on).
  • Welcome to Sweden.
  • The Master of None episode "Parents" has flashbacks to both Dev's and Brian's parents immigration stories (from India and China respectively).
  • My Name Is Earl features several flashbacks and side-stories involving Catalina's immigration from Guadelatucky to Camden. It's mostly Played for Laughs...or sometimes Fridge Horror (usually when her Big, Screwed-Up Family is mentioned).
  • Comes up from time to time with contestants on Chopped. One memorable one is Chef Hiep Le from Season 18, who mentioned that during or shortly after The Vietnam War, when she was 18, her mother placed her (and a younger sibling) on a raft, and directed them to go find their father in the US.

  • "America" by Neil Diamond
  • Regina Spektor's "Rockland County" and "8th Floor"
  • "In Your Hands" by Charlie Winston
  • No Gringo by Vienna Teng is one of these with a twist: it's set in a world where America is somewhere people are desperate to leave, not to come.
  • "Thousands Are Sailing" by The Pogues has an immigrant from 1980s Ireland meet the ghost of an immigrant from 100 years earlier.
  • "Concrete Jungle" is a great hip-hop/reggae example by Diafrix.
  • "Paddy's Lamentation," a Civil War-era Irish folk song about an Irishman leaving Ireland due to the famine only to be forced to fight in the American Civil War, losing his leg. It was featured in Gangs of New York.
  • Tres veces mojado (Three times a wetback), by the Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte, tells the story of a man who left El Salvador, and illegally crossed the borders of Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States.

  • Hasan Minhaj's stand-up special/one-man show Homecoming King discusses his parents' journey to America and his life in an immigrant family.
  • Lenny Henry's Have You Seen This Man?, in which he tells of his parents and sister moving from Jamaica to the British Midlands.

  • Kristina fran Duvemala is a musical by ex-ABBA members Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, an adaptation of Moberg's novels.

    Video Games 
  • Grand Theft Auto IV stars Niko, a new immigrant to America.
  • Dragon Age II is the story of Hawke, a regular everyperson whose family fled Ferelden during the Blight and ended up in Kirkwall with no money, no status, and almost no connections or relatives. Over the next seven years, Hawke makes a name for themselves and is eventually the Champion of Kirkwall... before being cast right back down to refugee status by fate.

    Western Animation 
  • "The Great American Melting Pot" from Schoolhouse Rock!
  • The DuckTales (1987) episode "Once Upon a Dime" tells the story of how being tipped an American dime while shining shoes in his native Scotland, inspired Scrooge McDuck to cross the Atlantic and make his fortune in America.
  • Ed, Edd n Eddy: Rolf and his family, who are immigrants from an unspecified European country, which is intentionally kept vague to allow for Funny Foreigner jokes (though one episode implies it has a connection of some sort with Norway). Much of Rolf's character is based around the Culture Clash he's experiencing while trying to adapt to life in the U.S, and one Day in the Limelight episode shows how much he misses his first home. The character is loosely based on the childhood of series creator David Antonucci, who's parents were Italian immigrants to Canada.

    Real Life 
  • If you come from a family of (recent) immigrants, this happens at every family reunion. Or just every time your parents get drunk reminiscing. Or if you are a first-generation immigrant yourself.


Video Example(s):


The Great American Melting Pot

Song about immigration to the U.S. in the 19th century

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