There is so much talk about immigrants lately, their rights or lack thereof, their impact on society, their contribution to the economy, and while all of this talk is coming from various sources, the one source that is most concerned is remaining relatively quiet.
That source being the immigrants themselves.
No, this is not a piece about our borders with our southern neighbors, nor is it about the struggle of illegal immigrants, whether they came here as children or adults. This is simply a piece about what is it to be an immigrant living in the United States.
You see, I wasn’t born in America. I am one of many lucky citizens who were naturalized and became Americans, by choice. I didn’t have a need to immigrate, my country of birth was not at war, and I didn’t grow up poor. Deciding to become an American was a matter of conviction; it’s as simple as that.
There are many facets to immigrants in this country. We are not a “one-size-fits-all” group, we don’t all have an accent, we don’t all look ethnic and we don’t all congregate strictly with people of similar backgrounds. Some of us do not have friends from our home countries, either by choice or by chance. Some of us were lucky enough to learn English at a young age and unless we tell you we’re immigrants, you would never know. Some of us have very dark skin and others very light and most are of one of the many shades in between, and not all of us are exotic looking, though we’d certainly like to think so.
It’s important to understand the many reasons why people immigrate: some fall in love with an American, marry him or her and end up staying. Others are running away from one of many problems, in most cases poverty or war. America is a dream destination for anyone who feels as though their home country hasn’t offered them an opportunity to thrive professionally and personally. Think about it: why would anyone from, say, Mexico, leave home and family behind and risk their life and freedom to immigrate to America? The answer is simple: they’re taking a chance at a better life. Many North Africans, for example, cross the Mediterranean sea in small unsafe boats with the hope of making it to Europe. Many die from sever weather, drowning or suffocation (the smugglers sometimes stuff them in boxes or big suitcases), and very few of them make it to the other side and are able to run away before getting caught and deported, and to all, the financial cost alone (from paying the smugglers) drives the families back home to go bankrupt, but many still attempt it, every day. Again, the cause is desperation. Those who are able to either cross the Mexican-American border or the Mediterranean sea will live the life of a fugitive, for all intents and purposes, and work menial jobs, happy to make a few bucks and to feel useful, perhaps even normal. Still, their situation will never be, or feel, ideal; it is only a little better than the situation they ran away from to begin with. Life for them will be tough, perhaps indefinitely.
The other reason to immigrate for some might surprise you: social persecution. A very simple example is for you to imagine being Muslim and gay. I think you get the picture. A day in the shoes of one of many gay Muslims will make you thank your lucky stars … and stripes. A related story will follow in a future blog.
My story is not a sad one. My journey as an immigrant started when I was a teenager. I came to the Midwest as a tourist and met an American man I ended up falling in love with and marrying. That juicy story is for another time.
I ended up living in the U.S. even though I had no intention to when I first visited. What I am sure helped me assimilate easily into the American society are many factors, three being at the very top: I came to the U.S. legally, I was young and I was fluent in English.
Many years later, I still believe those three factors made a world of difference in my experience as an immigrant. Throughout my years in our beautiful country, I have heard and read countless stories from others who spent many more years than me in the U.S. but were unable to assimilate as easily as I have, either because of their illegal status or poor language skills or any one of a myriad of reasons, and I have always been very sympathetic to their suffering, because even though my experience had been easier, being an immigrant will always be a bit of a challenge.
How come, you ask. Well, for starters, homesickness never leaves you. It doesn’t matter how good of a life you’ve made for yourself. It doesn’t matter how much love you have for your new adopted family of friends in your new adopted country. The fact of the matter is, your roots are elsewhere. Please, do not confuse homesickness with loyalty. I live and breath red white and blue. My loyalty to the American flag and what it represents is robust. Homesickness is simply the longing to the things – and mostly, the people – that you left behind. It’s the perfect portrayal of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”. The ironic thing to me is, when I do visit my home country, my homesickness is even greater; as soon as I hug my parents and the rest of my family, I start daydreaming about my return to America and how much I miss home.
Home … what a concept.
Homesickness is at an all-time high on holidays. No matter how surrounded with friends you are all year long, your friends will most likely be with their families on holidays, which is their absolute right and privilege. In my early years as an immigrant, I used to accept all invitations on holidays. I remember hopping from one’s friend’s parents’ house to the other on one particular Thanksgiving, which was stupid and exhausting. I stopped doing that sometime ago; I eventually stopped accepting holiday invitations all together, not just because I was exhausted from the hopping, but because one of two things ended up happening: I would feel like a third wheel, not because anyone made me feel that way, but simply because I was reminded of my own family and how we gathered on holidays, or, the host family, my friend included, would get into an argument or a fight or an alcohol induced airing-of-dirty-laundry match, which usually resulted in my friend being embarrassed, as anyone would be in that situation. Instead of putting myself and my friends through any of this, I started planning something fun for myself on holidays, usually at home, alone, and usually including food and movies, and a spoonful of homesickness, whether I wanted it or not.
The other thing about being an immigrant that I’ve noticed about myself is that I hate moving. I am not just talking about the logistics of moving, which most people dread; I am talking about moving after I have put down roots somewhere. Again, it has to do with the notion of leaving home and immigrating and getting used to a specific scenery and specific neighbors and having to do that all over again. Aside from moving, I hate change in general, sometimes to extremes. For example, my neighbor moved the location of our shared recycling bin and I almost lost it over the incident, then had to remind myself that it was a garbage can and that getting attached to its location was a little … crazy. From the way my neighbor shook his head, that was most likely what he was thinking too, but, hey, some of us are particular about the location of their garbage cans!!! Plus, had you dealt with my neighbor for as long as I have, you’d understand.
Now that the drawbacks of immigration are out of the way, I am delighted to talk about the many advantages of being an American and living in America, from an immigrant’s standpoint. I have to start by saying that the national anthem moves me like no other song does; it was one of the first songs that I learned by heart when I first settled in my new country. It’s not just the song, but what it represents, along with the flag and the constitution and the many rights and liberties.
Another thing that I appreciate about living in America might take you by surprise. Unlike my many friends who were born and grew up here, I find government services to be very efficient. Trust me when I tell you that you do not know what snail mail really is. Try living in any third world or developing country and you will understand what that expression really means. I don’t complain about the lines at the BMV because, at least here in the U.S., I don’t have to bribe anyone just to get a piece of paper that I am entitled to. I appreciate knowing that the FDA will do its very best to ensure that everything that goes into my mouth, whether it’s food or medication, has been tested and approved. I never complain about traffic since most citizens know how to follow the law and don’t drive like maniacs, as is the case in many other countries around the world, and public transportation in my opinion is fairly punctual, all things considered. I also appreciate knowing that when things do go wrong, I can call or write to complain and voice my opinion. Again, it’s a matter of comparison. You don’t really know how good you have it until you’ve tried the alternative. Things are not perfect, but believe me, things are pretty good here in America in comparison to most other countries.
What else do I love about being an American? I love the freedom of being exactly who I am and not having to apologize for it, the right to free speech, the right to have my day in court if I ever need one (and I hope I never do), the privilege of voting, the right to get a college degree no matter who your parents are or the number of digits in your bank account’s balance. I absolutely love the contrast that I see in the many couples that I know, how a fiery red-headed republican Catholic from Arkansas can marry a laid back Jewish democrat from New York, and how you can have Canadian bacon for breakfast, Mexican tacos for lunch and Polish pierogies for dinner with your Irish grandparents. This is the only place on earth where you can be German, Black, British, Chinese with a hint of Indian, and no one would bat an eye. You can name your dog after your aunt and your daughter after your favorite fruit and people will think it’s cute. You can be gay and proud and find many allies and supporters. Being different in America is celebrated, not frowned upon. Being an American woman from a Muslim background myself, I especially love the fact that no one will ever force me to dress a certain way, practice a religion or marry my cousin. I feel peace knowing that if I call the police, the fire department or the emergency services, they will actually show up, and that if someone hurts me, abuses me or steals from me, justice will be done. In America, you can dream as big as you want, and have the audacity to believe that you will live those dreams; buying a house, traveling the world, making money in an honest way: it is all within your reach. Being an American means that we made it through slavery, civil war and financial crises, and were still able to achieve greatness, land on the moon, invent the light bulb and revolutionize the automobile. Our work ethic is unparalleled and we come together like no other nation does, in a joyful event and a crisis alike. Americans donate and volunteer more than any other nation on earth, and our generosity is world renowned.
What I love most about being an American and living in America are my friends, the ones who cheer for me when I make it through a difficult time; the ones who bring me orange juice and chicken soup and wipe off my runny nose when I have a cold and do my laundry when I break a leg; the neighbors who watch my dog and pick up my mail when I am on vacation and bring me red tomatoes from their garden and cherry pie from their oven, just because; the friends that I can disagree with on a number of issues and still be friends with the next day, with no hard feelings. America, to me, is the people, the cheerleaders, the trailblazers, the dreamers, the unique individuals, the movers and shakers, the caring loving souls you cross paths with; that is the strongest weapon we have in our arsenal as Americans.
I don’t know about you, but this is a great place to call home, and there is certainly enough room for all of us, natural-born and naturalized. Next time you see that neighbor of yours, the one from that far away country, don’t worry about his or her immigration status, just smile, say hello, and get to know him or her. You’d be surprised to find out that you both waive your American flag proudly, drive a Chevy, play baseball, eat hot dogs and apple pie, and occasionally miss home … wherever that might be.