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On Being an Immigrant

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Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago, we received our "Indefinite Leave to Remain" (in the UK) visa. We had a lawyer helping us with the application, and we know we are the kind of immigrants countries want (White, educated, wealthy). Still, when we got the cards delivered, when I saw our appalling, unsmiling pictures on them, I felt a low-level tension dissipate, like when you turn off the fan and you realise it's much quieter now.

Being an immigrant means always worrying about being wanted; about belonging. It may not be conscious all the time, but it's there, lurking in the back of your mind. Do I belong here? What if I don't like popular TV shows, do I still belong? What if I have criticisms about the way the government handles things, do I belong here? Do I have the right to criticise the government, or should I be grateful they're letting me stay? The kids make it more prominent, mostly because at this point they don't know an alternative. "Why do we eat supper so late?" They ask. "Why don't we have a nanny?"

Being an immigrant means you're always catching up. It means laughing when everyone else does, and when you get home frantically looking stuff up on Google. It means you’re the last one to understand the joke. It means you’re the slowest reader in the room, which sucks if you’re a writer. I have a reading challenge set up on Goodreads, and whenever I’m behind, I grab some books in Hebrew. I read twice as fast in my first language, even after living over 15 years in English speaking countries, doing my PhD in English, and writing in English most days.

Being an immigrant means your friends are from your home country. You don’t do it on purpose. Both in Ottawa and London, we have deliberately steered away from the “Jewish communities” because we want to assimilate. We want to be a part of the society we live in, not create a segregated community. Still, our friends grew up in Israel, speak Hebrew, and deal with similar issues such as how we encourage a close relationship between kids and grandparents, and what the hell is “fancy dress” (it’s not dressing up in suits, we have discovered!)

Being an immigrant means people find your name fascinating. They see the fact that you served in the army as exciting. They think your cooking is exotic (it’s called spices). They think you should write about being an immigrant, or you should write about the society you live in from an outsider’s point of view. And you want to scream sometimes, even though you’re typically a reasonably calm person (children’s shenanigans aside). I’m more than an immigrant. What I bring to the table isn’t merely about where I was born. And you don’t because a) you know they know that and they’re generally kind people, and b) because you don’t want to be perceived as confrontational.

Being an immigrant means you’re never 100% sure about your behaviour. Was I too apparent that time? Too loud? Did I miss something? Is that how things are done here? Especially in countries that are less direct than your home country, where chances of people correcting your misperceptions and foot-in-your-mouth moments are slim. I spent years telling students: “If what I said isn’t a sentence, let me know, and I can clear it up.” No one ever did, but they did write in the evaluation that I’m difficult to understand because of my accent (I have a minimal accent, honest).

Being an immigrant means you’re always fighting to keep that part of your identity from taking over everything else.


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