Immigrant Life – the untold story

I was recently invited to participate in an immigrant exhibition in my small town, featuring local residents who had moved to Canada from various countries. I felt honoured. I was also asked to speak about my experiences to the local audience, mainly comprised of people who had been settled in this country for multiple generations.

I decided therefore, not to focus on the usual rags-to-riches story, because that was kind of passé, overdone, and par for the course. Just the act of travelling in a plane from a third world country to a first world one is a passage from rags to riches, as long as one does not lose the thread. So, I figured on talking instead about the uncomfortable topics that immigrants tend to hide in order to fit in and scale the new social order:

  1. The Trauma of Dislocation:

I had bad dreams for several years after arriving in this country, in which my visa was being cancelled and I was being sent home, to a home where all bridges had been burned. The dreams eased and vanished soon after I received my Canadian citizenship. In fact, after that pivotal date, I used to argue (in the dream, if it still recurred occasionally) whenever the immigration official was about to raise his chop to cancel my papers, “Hey, you can’t do that, I’m a Canadian now.”

  • The Amnesia of Dislocation:

When moving from one domicile to the other, and I did this more than once, one forgets where one has met people before, as the background has been constantly changing and memory pegs have become fluid. In my case, I find myself asking the question, “Did I meet you in Sri Lanka, or Australia, or the UAE, or right here in Canada?” It leads to embarrassing moments during social intercourse.

  • The Temporariness of Permanence:

Nothing can be permanent anymore because that most hallowed of permanent places, the home, has changed. Home-grown Canadians move around a lot too, but the immigrant’s move is a more profound one: language, food, etiquette, politics, culture, climate, currency and flag change as well, in addition to landmarks. Therefore, if all this has changed so fundamentally, could it change again? Nothing can be taken for granted anymore.

  • The Absence of Entitlement:

Leading from point #3 above, nothing is owed to the immigrant by the host country. It is incumbent on the former to prove their worth to the new land, to claw back opportunity and build a meaningful and successful life from this foreign place. And there is no rich parent, uncle, or inheritance to bankroll that clawing.

  • The Sense of Urgency:

There is a great need to regain lost time and not waste it. I came to this country at the age of 31 and quickly found that my previous experiences abroad were of no consequence here, nor were my professional educational credentials. Local peers were 31 years ahead of me in the game. Even if I did things twice as fast, I would only draw level at the near-retirement age of 62.

  • Arriving at the Party Too Late:

Whenever I applied for a job or entered a new industry in Canada, I felt that I had entered a party where the best seats in the house had been taken and most of the food already eaten. The only way I could feed myself satisfactorily was by having my own party, whether that be by starting my own business, publishing my own books, or tooting my own horn – all of which I did with mixed levels of success and disaster.

  • No “Class of ’74”:

High school classmates are supposed to be lifelong friends, and they help each other out beyond the school years with jobs, social gatherings, business opportunities, and with making valuable connections to climb the stubborn social ladder that seems to be heavily greased against immigrant feet ascending its rungs. Some high-schoolers even marry each other. My Class of ’74 did not exist in this country, it was scattered around the world, because many of my final-year school class members also took the immigrant route out of a disintegrating homeland sinking into civil war and scattered to the far reaches of the world – Australia, America, Britain, New Zealand, the Middle East, Europe – I even ran into one fellow in the Cayman Islands.

  • Old rituals do not matter, new ones are needed:

I was a member of a cover band, acted in amateur theatre, read colonial-era books, spoke British English, and played cricket. None of that was consequential or even understood here (“short-square leg?” – what the heck is that, man? “Bowler?” “Batsman”? Forget it!”). I had to speak and write North American, take up golf, ski, skate, write my own music instead of copying others, swap “rice and curry” for “barbecue and burgers,” drink wine instead of arrack – the “switcheroos” were never ending, contributing also to the amnesia I mentioned earlier. Time rushes faster when you are constantly discarding the old and practicing the new – that’s why immigrants go grey earlier and have heart attacks, I’m told.

So, what’s the net result? A fuller life of varied experiences? A life of loss? A life of personal and spiritual growth? A life of tolerance for diversity? A life of combativeness to make up for lost time? A life on a treadmill where no matter how hard we run we cannot catch up? A life with hope that the next generation will take it a bit further up that slippery ladder? All of the above, I think.

I’m wondering whether, after listening to me, my local audience would say, “Well, you are welcome to your sorry life of struggle. We will stick with ours. Thank you very much for making us feel more fortunate and less miserable.”

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