Immigration, integration, identity, culture, multicultural(ism): most people tend to approach these words with wariness, perhaps even anger and hostility. This may come as a surprise, but I can relate to these feelings completely. I totally understand that these topics in particular have been (over-)saturating our media landscape and the rhetoric of politicians in recent years. I am quite sure that writing about these topics won’t get me the highest views, likes, or readership; they may even attract internet trolls or put me in danger. Although most people probably click away immediately upon seeing these specific words. I don’t blame them.
So why do I keep writing about these controversial topics? First of all, my intention is actually not a political one. Second, I do not aim to convince anyone of anything or change anyone’s mind. Everyone has the right to form their own opinion. I do not see myself as a teacher or a guru of any kind. The impetus for my writing (and sharing) is not to show you how much more worldly I am than anyone or how much more I know. The last thing I want to be is condescending. I hate being talked down to, or told what to do or think, lots of people (often older) have always done this to me all my life. I want to encourage people to think for themselves, not suppress them from doing so.
The main reason why I write about these controversial issues is because they are deeply personal to me. Immigration, integration, identity, culture, multicultural(ism): For me, these words do not inhabit the political realm, but the social and private one. Being an immigrant is to enter a strange, new world—mentally, spiritually, artistically—in addition to the obvious physical one.
And yet, it’s often the people who have no idea what it’s like to be an immigrant—people such as radio hosts, politicians and lawmakers, that are often the loudest voices in defining these terms and who exactly the “others” are. A simple Google search on any of these topics will yield websites on the first search pages examining nearly every possible danger foreigners could pose to national identity, security, economy, or simple peace of mind. These days, you can easily find articles complaining of foreigners than describing what it’s actually like to be one.
Yet, it is not the existence of these sites that spurs me to write about these topics. Again, my intention is not a political one or to change anyone’s mind when it comes to immigrants or immigration policy. I cannot even sway any of my beloved family members to change their political views. I am well-aware of how deep, complex and intractable political divisions can be.
It was actually an article about immigrants in a prominent liberal magazine several years ago that prompted me to begin writing about my experience as a two-time immigrant. The magazine, which I won’t name, is a well-respected one and they are known for their investigative journalism and thought-provoking articles, so I was very excited to read the article. Unfortunately, I was very much disappointed. Although it seemed well-intentioned, it fell flat—it was very two-dimensional and reductive. It presented immigrants as people permanently jarred by their experience of being foreigners in a new land, victimized by xenophobia, prejudice and/or racism. The immigrants they interviewed seemed to idealize their homelands and waxed poetic of someday returning. It presented no solution to problems of intolerance, and worse, it took pity on the immigrants, as if they were people struggling with a new disease: the disease of “otherness” that could only be cured by going home.
It completely neglected to venture into murkier waters—those grey territories—which are way more exciting than the simple black and white photo of the sad, poor immigrant who deserves our pity. For example, asking the immigrants about their own personal growth, rather than what they expected from other people or from their new country. How did they see foreigners now being one? How were foreigners treated in the country they left behind? Did they or do they actually identify with other immigrants? If so, with whom and why? How about their children? The experiences of second-generation immigrants or those of child immigrants can be vastly different from their parents. Or how about the people who have immigrated more than once? Or what about these peculiar modern day wonders: people who travel long-term for work or school. Why are “expats” exempt from being perceived as immigrants?
You sense my frustration, I don’t think these topics are sufficiently explored and they always seem to be presented as a struggling minority’s problem, or just a nasty political issue. I could even imagine the reporter, at the end, exhaling deeply, thankful he wasn’t an immigrant and so relieved he was done writing about it. But I believe that everyone, at some point in their lives, can relate to immigrants and the immigrant experience. Profound life changes, feelings of alienation, identity crisis are human experiences—experiences that each of us can have, no matter who we are or what we look like.
In my internet searches on these topics it never ceases to amaze me how many people feel alienated by foreigners, how often they write about “feeling like a stranger in (their) own country” because they hate hearing their language being spoken wrong or strain to understand it spoken in weird foreign accents. And yet, they don’t realize that this kind of feeling—of alienation, of struggling to understand—is the same for the immigrants, too, only amplified. These mutual feelings could be a bridge to understanding and compassion, but they are not because of the fear and stigma surrounding immigration. Because it also carries with it shame, a sense of failure, fear of vulnerability, of not belonging—feelings to be avoided at all costs. I spent much of my childhood trying to hide the fact that I was an immigrant because of this stigma.
I want to show that immigration is not necessarily negative, it can be enriching, mind-broadening, bizarre and interesting. And if technology continues to advance, if the world continues to become more mobile and interconnected, immigration and long-term travel may even become the norm.
What is it then, beyond the politics and the fear? It’s a strange new world where the idea of home can become detached from a physical location—where home can instead become attached to a specific object, person, ritual or memory. A world where incredible dreams can suddenly become possible or tantalizingly reachable, and yet, just as easily turn into heartbreak and disappointment. It’s a place where identities die, where broken bits might be pieced together and reborn, or new ones created out of thin air; where identities can sometimes be as fluid as waves or painfully unyielding as a jagged, rocky shore. Where the self, reflected in the gaze of others, is not at all familiar.
Being an immigrant brings you to the shores of a strange new world. A thrilling place that can be jaw-droppingly brilliant in its vivid complexity, or as cold and desolate as an arctic wasteland—it is often both at the same time. A kind of grey territory where strangers can become closer to you than kin, or refuse to acknowledge you at all, or become instant enemies. A new world where the naked savage and the greedy conquistador is none other than yourself. A place where each of us may find ourselves—with no map or compass to guide us. Though, if I can help it, not alone.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker