|LJ-versary: The Five Best Things About Being an Immigrant
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
And now, my friends, the 15-year LJ-versary celebrations continue, with the flip side: The Five Best Things About Being an Immigrant.
5. You get to act as sole representative of your entire country
If you’re thinking, oh hang on though, don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a pattern for the entire list.
I have discovered, after many years of developing thick enough skin to see this as an opportunity to get a little of my own back, how to turn people’s perceptions to my own advantage. For instance, if I tell an English person I’m from Hawai’i, there is a 35% chance they don’t realise that Hawai’i is part of the United States. I’m not kidding. Americans have a reputation for being bad at geography, and deservedly so. But even though the current US President is from Hawai’i, there are a lot of people who think, “fabulous foreign holiday destination!” and don’t connect it to the USA. So they get to tell me, “I thought you looked exotic/Polynesian/etc” and then squee to me about beaches and honeymoons, and I sit there smiling and imagining what I could get away with telling them now that they have literally no idea that I’m American. I don’t do it, but it is fun to think about.
Assuming, however, that they do recognise I’m American, I can get into conversations about their perceptions of the USA. 90% of the time, if they’ve been there, it’s to New York or Florida. Their memories of those holidays are almost overwhelmingly positive. If the conversation is long enough, I sometimes have the opportunity to point out gently that prejudices about Americans don’t correlate well with their actual experiences of the people or the country. Or, more subtly, by sharing my love of England and travels in Europe, I can in a small way help to combat the assumption that all Americans are nationalistic xenophobes who believe blindly in the superiority of their way of life.
4. Your relationships with natives are hard-earned and incredibly precious
As you no longer have local friends with whom you’ve grown up, gone to school, worked, played sport with or otherwise spent leisure time with, you are starting from the beginning with everyone you meet. You have to build on the shared experiences you generate from the moment of your arrival. You also have to be conscious that the cues you’ve used in the past to pass judgement on, for instance, how welcome you are in a gathering or how worthy a person is of your confidence and affection, might need re-calibration for your new culture. And of course, the usual general social rules surrounding not being too clingy or emotionally demanding of your nascent circle of acquaintances still apply, at a time when you’re probably feeling intensely lonely. So you tiptoe cautiously around, hopefully reaching out to people, sometimes being rebuffed or ignored and trying not to take it to heart. Eventually your weekends are booked up and you have people you can ask to the pub or the theatre or the cinema without hesitation. Or who might even desire your company enough to invite you along. Perhaps you won’t recognise that you’ve made friends until you start to be able to choose to be alone if you want to be, rather than having solitude be your default state.
I can still very clearly remember the first time that I realised I had actually succeeded in acquiring a group of trustworthy, kind, generous British friends whose company was richly rewarding. I’m not going to write about it in a public post, but suffice it to say that it reduced me to tears.
3. Your resilience and adaptability are strengthened beyond what you thought possible
It’s commonly believed that among the most stressful occurrences in adult life are moving house, changing jobs, ending relationships and having children. Immigrating lets you inflict the first two of those on yourself simultaneously whilst putting tremendous pressure on your relationships. (It doesn’t force you to have children, thank goodness.) And - assuming you’re not a refugee or victim of forced migration - you’ve volunteered for it. On the positive side, you have time to prepare as much as possible in a physical sense. If you’re moving at the behest of your employer, you likely have financial and practical relocation support. Once you’ve arrived in your new home, though, you’re largely on your own. You have to forge a way forward into the vast unfamiliarity that stretches around you on all sides. So you do it, every day. You wake up and the wave of uncertainty and panic and isolation crashes over you, but you shower and dress and you make yourself go outside into that unknown territory full of worryingly unknowable people. With the right combination of determination and luck, eventually you win yourself a measure of comfort and a sense of community.
The most difficult test of my own resilience and adaptability with respect to the decision to immigrate permanently is ongoing. Every day that passes is another day in which my children are immersed in my adopted, not native, culture. I am hopeful that the environment that my partner and I have created for them is a rich and diverse place, and that they will be able to pick and choose elements of their nationalities and associated cultures that make them kind and happy people. But only time will tell.
2. You get to redefine yourself
As you learn about your adopted culture, you can embrace the elements that you enjoy, from tiny things like putting milk in your tea and going to the pub after work (without setting off a slew of concern trolling about what must be incipient alcoholism), to big ones, like believing in the ultimate good of a socialised health care system. You can revel in the pleasure of throwing off the oppressive shackles of your native culture and past experience. You can carve out a new identity, one which integrates the desirable remnants of your old self with the traits and behaviours you admire in your new culture and are trying to emulate. While striving to understand those around you, you are becoming more accepting of yourself.
Before this descends into a morass of woo (maybe it's too late...): you also get to smoothly and relatively painlessly sever communication with those irritating acquaintances and relatives whom you could never shake off when you lived thousands of miles closer, as part of this redefinition. I’m definitely not advocating immigration as a first-choice method for selective bridge-burning, but there is a certain petty satisfaction in it being an inevitable side effect.
1. You are living your dream
I must caveat this as well: it does not apply to refugees and victims of forced migration. However, for those of us who have always wanted to live in our adopted countries, it is a hard-won accomplishment and an honour and a pleasure to be admitted into it. You have achieved a thing: immigration. It was a difficult and painful thing as well as a joyous and a valuable thing. You made a dream into your reality.
This entry was originally posted at http://nanila.dreamwidth.org/1032020.html. The titration count is at .0 pKa.