The day I realized I was an immigrant
My name is Nicole, and I am an immigrant.
You might not realize that about me right away — I elude most of the immigrant stereotypes. I don’t have an accent. I have the features of an all too generic central European ancestry. I use big words and have a PhD and have only been detained at the border once. Also, I don’t smuggle drugs.
Nonetheless. I’ve been waiting three years for permanent residency status, I don’t have health insurance and I’m underemployed. And sometimes I get randomly emotional because I miss my country, and it’s awkward.
I guess it’s only fitting that I ended up becoming a foreigner. Growing up in a small city in the Midwest, I was always fascinated by other countries, languages and cultures. In first grade, while my peers were still learning to read English, I could be found on the playground with my French-English picture dictionary, trying to teach myself French. This pattern continued until high school, when I met my first real, live foreign person. (OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration — but not really.) High school put me in contact with exchange students and teachers of foreign descent. I had already been learning German, but now I also took French, Spanish, and Japanese classes — and stayed after school sometimes to learn Russian with the exchange student from Moscow. My first year of college, I began taking Arabic, which I would continue for three years. These languages gave me the sense that the world was bigger than I could comprehend, and I dreamed of little more than being a part of it. All of it.
So my first time living in Germany came as no shock to my friends and family. I had snagged a research internship at a UNESCO biosphere reserve there, one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I went back to Germany often after that, and five years later, moved there to do my doctoral research in German history. As complicated and sometimes difficult as these relocations were, they were never intended to be permanent. I always imagined I’d come back to the US in the end. And by that point in my life, I was perfectly okay with that. As much as I loved other peoples and cultures, I was beginning to crave the social connections and groundedness of my hometown and country.
That’s when something strange happened: I never came back from that second stint in Germany. Instead, in 2013, I found myself boarding a plane from Frankfurt to Toronto. When I landed, I declared to the Canadian customs official my intention of seeking residency in Canada — to marry my then boyfriend, a Greek Canadian. Since his job is firmly rooted in Canada, I knew that this was likely a permanent or semi-permanent move.
Despite how it sounds, it never occurred to me that I was moving to a foreign country.
At the time, I pictured Canada as some kind of quirky extension of the US that I’d never thought much about before — sort of like receiving an inheritance from an eccentric great aunt you’d never met. And as eccentric as I assumed Canada was— what with its copious maple syrup and such— how foreign could it really be? As far as I knew, we were all one big, happy, North American family.
And my first few weeks here, my impressions held up. My boyfriend and I went to a baseball game, ate hamburgers and apple pie, I think we had a barbecue…. What could be more American?
But within a few short months, the tables turned. I became embroiled in the arduous bureaucratic process of obtaining “PR” — permanent resident status, the Canadian equivalent of a green card (a status I’m still waiting for, by the way, three years later). We were detained — literally — at the Canadian border once, returning from a cousin’s wedding back home. Thereafter, I developed a moderate phobia of borders, customs guards, and Canada more generally. Soon, my US health insurance ran out and I also turned into a hypochondriac.
But more than all this, I was learning in countless, subtle ways that Canada was (gasp!) not the US. Not even as an extension or strange distant relative. It was its own country with its own distinct culture(s). There were things I didn’t understand here — terms and idioms that stuck out like sore thumbs in conversations I felt otherwise at home in (like “tuque” or “washroom”). Pop culture references that fell on my own, deaf ears. The television stations were different, the coffee houses were different, the stores were different. Plus, I knew nothing about Canadian politics.
I’d felt out of place in Germany, but there, the foreign-ness of the country was always apparent. They spoke another language, and the sights and sounds of Germany never let me forget where I was. Somehow, the exotic-ness and quaint European vibe outweighed feeling out of sync with things. The taste and feel of Canada, on the other hand, is so close to the US — and yet so far. You forget where you are, and yet everything here is just a bit off — like walking on a floor that is imperceptibly slanted. For no apparent reason, I was beginning to feel a sense of cultural vertigo.
One day, about a year after coming here, I was listening to a story on the radio about immigrant women and the things they had brought to this country, and the lives they had left behind. Inexplicably, I started crying — an event that in itself isn’t all that rare. What was unusual was that I had to pull over to the side of the road because I was crying too hard to drive properly. The tears felt close, raw, personal.
Why am I so upset? I wondered. These women came here from Asia and Africa and Europe. They immigrated here, I reasoned, I just moved here.
And then it clicked. I, too, had left behind things in the US. I recognized in these women’s stories the odd tinges of distance and connection, grief and joy, awareness and confusion that hover around the corners of my own life. Suddenly, I had a name for all the vague stress and rootlessness I’d felt the last few years: immigration.
It was like stepping into a some kind of twelve step meeting for the first time. My ailment was not an addiction, but it was still a part of my identity I had to come to terms with:
“My name is Nicole, and I am an immigrant.”
Not unlike an alcoholic, I had denied my immigrant-ness for quite a while. Perhaps doing so helped me feel that I was not too different from the Canadians around me, with whom I was trying to build friendships and a sense of community. Perhaps it was because I already walked and talked like a Canadian — except for a few words when my long, deep vowels betrayed my Midwestern roots (I definitely go “out and about,” not “oat and a-boat”!)
Or perhaps I simply didn’t want to be associated with the political and emotional baggage that immigration represents. To be branded an “immigrant” made me feel like a second-class citizen. Then I realized I was even lower on the totem pole than that: not a citizen at all, not even a permanent resident.
And so, I had lived for a year as a “functional immigrant.” Not unlike a functional alcoholic, I went about my business. I lived as normally as I could and tried not to draw attention to the “foreign” aspects of myself. I kept my immigrant life a secret, even from myself.
Shortly after coming out of the immigrant closet, I realized I had kept my secret so well that even some of my closest Canadian friends didn’t know I was an immigrant. I mean, they knew I was from the US. They knew I didn’t have provincial health insurance. They knew I nursed a somewhat neurotic obsession with obtaining my PR. But, like me, it had never dawned on them that when you add all these things up, what you get is an immigrant.
Once, I was talking with a Canadian acquaintance about a colleague — from Russia — who was having problems with her PR and adjusting to Canadian life in general. “We’ll never know what that’s like,” this acquaintance said, “getting used to things here. No wonder she’s so emotional all the time.” I had to remind her that I do know what our colleague is going through, because I was living through the same predicament. I, too, was an immigrant.
“No you’re not!” My friend laughed, as though I had just claimed to be a toad or the Eiffel Tower. I persisted, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
Something similar happened in a room full of native Canadians discussing the country’s immigration policies — most of the people there were advocating for stricter laws and fewer immigrants. For a while I sat there, feeling a rock grow in my gut, and vaguely wondered if I’d eaten too much smoked salmon. Then it dawned on my why I was sick to my stomach.
“Well, I’m an immigrant,” I reminded them — and myself. “Should I leave?”
Again, everyone laughed and asserted that I didn’t “count” as an immigrant. Why? Because English was my native language. Because I had my PhD, therefore I’d have no trouble fitting in here and contributing to life in Canada. Evidently, being an “immigrant” had more to do with an inability to fit in or properly acculturate.
But however smoothly you can manage to assimilate, and however far away your home country is or isn’t, an immigrant is simply someone who has left their country of origin to live elsewhere. Period. I don’t consider my friends to be closed minded, at least not any more than I am — after all, I’d failed to realize for a full year that I was an immigrant. We all have our blind spots.
“My real problem,” said one person, “is with the people that come here, they don’t know a word of English and they can’t find jobs, so they end up just being a drain on Canadian taxpayers’ money.”
“Yeah, but I can’t find a job here, despite being fluent in English and having several degrees,” I countered. “In fact, I’ve lived here for three years, have paid taxes with the little money I do earn, without any benefits like health insurance.”
“But that’s not because you’re an immigrant,” someone else replied. “The job market is just tough right now.”
“You’re right. The job market is tough for Canadians. But it’s nearly impossible for non-Canadians — permanent resident or not.” This, by the way, is because of preferential Canadian hiring, a widespread and fully legal labour practice in this country. The only reason I’m not totally jobless is because my (now) husband helped me get a part-time job in the same office he works in, and I started my own freelance business. I have yet to earn a full-time salary.
Of course, my friends knew all of this information — they just hadn’t connected it with their feelings about immigrants. And if I am totally honest, I’ve shared these same immigration concerns for most of my life .
But now, I’ve come to realize that being an immigrant is a very vulnerable state. It is a trauma in the truest sense — a breaking with the past. For me, this trauma was comparably gentle. Some have left family behind in war torn countries, some feel isolated because they don’t know the language. As “easy” as my own immigration experience has been, even I have found the whole process difficult to navigate — emotionally, financially and bureaucratically.
We are in the midst of a refugee crisis and the question of immigration is not going to get any easier. I don’t have many answers, but I do know there’s a lot that can be done to soften the blow after the trauma of immigration. When people feel at home, and when they have the resources to heal from traumas, when they begin to feel a part of something bigger than themselves, they want to contribute. No one wants to be jobless, isolated or traumatized, just like no one wants to watch their country’s resources be drained on unemployed populations.
For even the most well-adjusted immigrants, beneath the veneer of apparent acculturation, there’s usually some untidy loose ends we try our best to keep hidden.
Some days, I think I’ve got it down pat — I can do this whole Canada thing.
Then there are other days.
Like when someone holds out a five dollar bill and asks — with a perfectly straight face — if I have “two toonies and a loonie,” and I just wonder what a seriously weird universe I’ve migrated to.
Like when I get a really painful ingrown hair and wonder if it’s the beginning of skin cancer. But I’ll probably never know because by the time I’m entitled to health benefits in this country, I’ll have probably died of it.
Like when I meditate on what I would give for that tiny piece of paper that says “Permanent Resident” on it. My first born? Not sure. I never knew how unmoored the lack of a legal status makes a person feel, but I assure you, you don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone.
Like when this pathological loyalty to American spelling conventions comes over me. I don’t want any “neighbours,” I just want my old, familiar “neighbors!” And speaking of quotation marks with punctuation: I was just getting the hang of that in AMERICAN English! Now I’ve got to learn the Canadian way (hardly a moot point when you make your living as a freelance writer and editor). Thanks a lot, universe!
Like when we’re driving past a really beautiful cemetery nestled into the side of a hill in the middle of downtown Toronto — and I randomly start crying (like I said, not a rare event). And I realize, suddenly, that I will probably live the rest of my life in Canada — meaning I will probably die here and be buried here. Had I ever before considered where I might like to be buried? No. But suddenly, the Old Testament story of Jacob flooded my mind. In his 147th year of life, when on his death bed, Jacob requested that his body be transported from Egypt — where he’d moved because of a famine — to the land of his fathers. So he could be buried there. And in that moment, driving past that Canadian cemetery, the land of my fathers seemed so far removed from me and it made me feel sad and disjointed.
Like when I look back on my (admittedly short thus far) life and realize I’m baffled by my cultural identity. When I’m in the US, I don’t feel like an American. When I’m in Canada, I never quite feel Canadian. Or German, which is my ancestry and which I have spent much of my career being involved with. Or Greek, my husband’s native culture. Or any of the other languages and cultures I’ve loved and studied over the years.
Everywhere I go, I just feel like an outsider.
But, as a friend pointed out, I’m also an insider. How many people feel equally comfortable talking to a smalltown Midwestern American as with a Palestinian, Ethiopian, or Ukrainian person? How many people in the world get to experience that ambidextrous feeling of finding a home in multiple parts of the globe? Only 3.3% of the world’s current population, to be exact. And I get to be one of them.
Shortly after I realized I was an immigrant, I visited my grandparents in rural Wisconsin. (If any place on earth constitutes the “land of my fathers,” surely it is there.) My grandpa and I stood in a vacant field in front of his house and he motioned to some idle construction trucks down the road.
“They’re trying to drill down, to install something for water collection or something, but they had to stop because they hit bedrock. Yes, I tried to warn ’em before they started, you know” he said with a wistful, if self-congratulatory, sigh. “I told ’em you’re going to hit that Niagara escarpment, but do you think they listened?”
“The Niagara what?” I asked him. The escarpment, he explained. Apparently it’s this vast geological landmass full of rich soil and a hard bedrock that stretches like a horseshoe from Wisconsin up around Lake Michigan, and through Ontario.
Later, when I looked it up online, I gasped. This obscure geographic formation traced a line from the exact micro-region of Wisconsin where my ancestors had settled generations ago to my new home in Ontario. Somehow, this provided worlds of validation to my living in Canada. My new life wasn’t a total break with the past after all — there were bonds, even geological features, tying the seemingly random dispensations of my life together.
This unifying theme is something I have also encountered in other ways by living in Canada. Here, I experience how one of the biggest countries in the world keeps its culture and population intact, despite its many inhabitants being strewn across endless kilometers of prairies and (literal) tundras. I’ve fallen in love with CBC radio, which historically helped foster and transmit a sense of Canadian culture across these wide spaces.
I’ve also fallen in love with Canadian storytellers whom I’d never have encountered otherwise. Alice Munro, for example, or my personal favourite: Ethel Wilson. These ladies mastered the short story and their work gives me a glimpse of everyday Canadian life — which, it turns out, is not all that different from life as any other kind of human being.
And then there’s the actual people I’ve met here. My (now) husband, for one thing, with whom I’ve united to make a life together — another tie that binds — and who has given much of his time to indoctrinate me in the ways of maple syrup and hockey. His family, a warm Greek clan that’s got enough hospitality and good food to last a lifetime. The friends I’ve made who, by now, are used to my occasional identity crisis meltdowns. Colleagues, clients, and people I continue to come across that are helping me make this place home. Canada may not be the place where I was born and raised, but it is the country I married in, the country I became an editor in, and the country where I have most learned to make a home in.
And when you look at it this way, immigration is not a curse but a blessing. The blessing of unexpected — and at times eerily profound — connections. Because when you immigrate, you experience life in new dimensions. You see through new eyes the ties that bind us all into this humanity thing.
Admitting to myself that I was an immigrant was an important step in my life here. It helped me explain my situation to myself, it gave meaning to the moments I felt out of place and confused. And on a deeper level, it gave me a narrative (and even a geographic) arc that grounds me in the wider experience of finding unity in the distances of life.
My name is Nicole, and I’m an immigrant.
I write about history, religion and identity. Learn more at nicoleroccas.com.
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