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Immigrate? Emigrate? Migrate?

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Photo by Julia Craice on Unsplash

I had a chat with a friend the other day, and she told me she doesn't see herself as an immigrant but as an emigree. This was odd to me because I see myself as an immigrant and didn't understand why she was offended. Perhaps the word immigrant comes with a negative connotation of being poor and have no other choice, almost a refugee.


But, according to the English dictionary, an immigrant is someone who enters a foreign country to live there. An emigrant is someone who leaves his own country. Obviously, to immigrate, you must first emigrate. And, sure, you can emigrate without settling down anywhere, but then you are more of a migrant, a traveller, if you will.


I've definitely emigrated out of Israel, and it was for political reasons (no way in hell are they taking my kids to the army). So I'm technically an émigré which sounds fancy, so why not. But we lived in Ottawa, Canada, for ten years and here in London for the last seven, so are we technically migrants? Maybe. We definitely love to travel. And what does that mean? I'm a Canadian citizen, so I get to vote here, and soon (we hope), we'll be British citizens. But I don't know the rules, not yet. I mean, the unwritten rules. The written rules you get tested on, and I passed that one. So does that mean I'm still an immigrant?


Emily Kwong over at NPR had a great story about how she's learning to speak Mandarin Chinese. She talked with her father, whose parents switched to speaking English when he was a boy, to improve his performance in school. She talked about the tension between assimilation into the dominant culture and keeping your "home culture" alive. I'm not sure if there's a way for immigrants, regardless of what they call themselves, to ever have only a single identity. You can't run away from your past (ask Joyce, he tried). You can't be segregated from the culture you moved into. I mean, you can, but then what was the point of emigrating? Sure, in special cases, you have no choice, but most of the immigrants I know have a choice, and they made this choice: to immigrate into a country that doesn't speak their language, that doesn't necessarily want them, in which they will always play the catch-up game.


But, my point is that none of us has a single identity. We are all friends, and children, and colleagues. Some of us are also parents, and partners, and siblings, and PTA members (I said some). Our different identities—the different roles we play—are a unique combination that makes us who we are. We are all immigrants. Or migrants. Or emigrants. I don't know; English is hard and it's Friday.

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