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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Telling Our Stories in Our Own Words

Mawuna Koutonin's article in The Guardian was the perfect catalyst for me to re-examine my own feelings about those words and my own life trajectory.  When I was a college student I had no intention of leaving Seattle.  I assumed I would travel because that's something my family does.  But I never anticipated packing up and moving to another country.  Not in my wildest childhood dreams did I think that the words migrant or expatriate would ever apply to me.  How did it happen?  It was just one damn thing after another that led to one move and then another, and now here I am in Osaka, Japan.  

Koutonin's words touched a nerve in me and thousands of other people.  The words we use to describe ourselves are a signal to the world about how we interpret our experience and what kind of person we think we are.  When someone uses a word we don't like to describe us, we get really bent out of shape.  We have this horror of being misunderstood or misinterpreted - of having someone pin a label on us and make assumptions about our motives and who we are.  

Putting aside the arguments over the precise meanings of expatriate, migrant and immigrant/emigrant, another way to approach it is for each of us to explain what we are trying to say when we apply these words to ourselves.  This is not about right or wrong - this is Allow Me to Show You What I Mean by Telling a Story.  So let me tell you the story of how I've used those words (which I realize has never been consistent).  And then I'd like to hear yours.

When I first left my home country, I was very young and scared.  I had just finished university in my hometown and the only trips out of the US I had ever made were to British Columbia, Canada.  The ideas that I had about France and the French were informed by the language classes I took, the one or two French citizens I'd met, and the many books I read.  The word I might have used at the time was adventurer - here I was going off to this exciting, exotic place to live with high (and as it turned out) unrealistic expectations.  I would not have used the word expatriate to describe myself.  

Expatriate, in my mind, meant famous people like Hemingway, and this young woman from Seattle could not even pretend to be in that class of individual.  I was simply off to have a fine adventure and I didn't want to think too much about what that meant at the time and would mean to me over years.  

Migrant or immigrant would not have worked either because that implied to me an intention to stay in that country and make it my home. Even after I landed in Paris, I simply was not ready to make a long-term a place I knew so little about. I was young and in love, the family was more than welcoming and I thought the country was beautiful.  Good enough.

The differences between my vision of France and the reality became apparent quite quickly and the awareness of just how hard it was going to be to make a life there was almost overwhelming. I would describe my feelings at the time as alternating between anxious and angry.  Finding a job was difficult since my French was poor and my credentials frequently misinterpreted.  Obtaining my residency card meant going to a clinic that resembled a factory processing cattle for a medical exam - the sheer humiliation of being part of a human assembly line waiting to be x-rayed and being asked intrusive personal questions by the immigration officials.  I may not have called myself an immigrant but I was treated as one and that was that.

And then there was the sense that my entire world had turned upside down and I could no longer do anything right. Life seemed to be an endless series of encounters where I was corrected or admonished for using the wrong words, not doing the proper thing or simply not understanding fast enough for the people around me. In this sea of uncertainty I clung to what I was, an American abroad, with all the desperation of the survivor of a shipwreck clinging to a lifeboat.  

Things got better.  I learned to revel in being different and I finally started expressing some of my repressed anger.  If the French weren't going to allow me to integrate (and that was the impression I had) and I had no chance of becoming one of them, then I was going to give them exactly what they seemed to want.  The word I used at the time with a sort of perverse pleasure was Exotic Beast and even guest:  this was a statement of superiority and an in-your-face expression of difference. 

That didn't last because who wants to live forever separate from the people around her?  It takes a lot of energy to keep saying to everyone, "I'm not like you."  Feelings aren't facts and I admitted to myself that maybe I misinterpreted the native citizen's motives. The resentment washed away and in its place was a strong attachment to the country and its people. I started thinking about becoming a citizen and eventually made my way down to the prefecture to ask about it.  It was at that time that I began to call myself an immigrant or migrant.  This was me saying that I was ready to make the commitment I avoided so many years ago.  

It was also an expression of solidarity - an admission that I am no different from all the other people from Algeria or China or Canada that I meet in the prefecture   I am not special, my experience is not unique.  Talking with them as we wait for the wheels of the French bureaucracy to spin,  I've learned that we have a lot in common. 

Yes, that was a revelation to me and who the hell did I think I was to assume otherwise?  And it is this experience that made Mawuna Koutonin's article so meaningful to me.   Yes, I've done that - the distancing dance.  And I directed it both toward my fellow migrants in France and against the native French as well.   It came from a place of anger and insecurity.  It was driven entirely by fear.

Today I'm living in Osaka, Japan.  This was something of a surprise but here we are.  My spouse is an inter-company transfer and we will be going home (that means France) at some point.  This is temporary and that changes everything for me.  I don't feel angry or anxious.  I'm not worried about integrating.  I will learn as much of the language as I can but it's not a matter of survival because I can't work here.  

My expectations are low and I'm learning to just accept what the universe offers me every day.  The word I use to describe myself now is expatriate which to me means temporary resident for a limited purpose and on someone else's dime.  And I feel a sense of deep relief when I use that word because it means I can relax.  I have nothing to prove here and I can kick back and enjoy the ride.

Reading over what I have written, I can see that the way I use the words guest, expatriate and immigrant is always dependent on my personal context and whatever meaning I was trying to convey at the time.  I went from thinking of an expatriate as an Ernest Hemingway when I was a 24 year old college graduate, to using it to describe myself at 50. I won't even try to convince you that it makes any sense at all.

It's just my story and I'm sticking to it.


Tim said...

Perhaps I am complete wimp but I literally broke down in tears the first time I tried to buy a ticket to ride the Paris Metro(just a "visitor"). I couldn't figure what type of ticket to what zone I needed and not being able to speak the language beyond a couple of words I just lost it. I had never until that point in my life ever felt that utterly helpless with a feeling of absolutely no control over my surroundings.

Unknown said...

Having moved to France when I was 23, as a new wife of a french man, I had no idea what was in store for me, and didn't speak a word of french. I think I was angry for about two years.
Then it took me several more before I finally did the mental transition to accepting that I will never go back, I am an immigrant, and I need to open up and learn to integrate.
I still have moments where I feel like Alice in Wonderland, unable to understand the intents and mentality of those around me, and just how to interact effectively with them.
But it really was an important mental event when I embraced the term "immigrant" and all that it entails. Took me 13 years to actually get a french driving license (drove illegally with my Calif. one all that time) because I was obligated to take 20 hours of driving lessons, with a bunch of kids! It meant embracing that I had to start everything, everything, all over again. I had to delve into my deepest depths to reach the parts of human being that we all have in common, underneath language and culture, and start from there.
I started off on an adventure in the exterior world, unaware at the time that it would end up being an internal adventure into self at the same time!

Inaka Nezumi said...

Before coming to Japan for the first time, I’d been to a few other countries, as either tourist or exchange student, and that is what I thought of myself on those occasions: tourist, or exchange student, as the case may be. When I was first sent to Japan, I expected to be here for only a couple of years or so, so did not consider myself an immigrant. I suppose I might have considered myself an expat, here for a fixed purpose and limited duration, had that word been in my customary vocabulary. But if I think about it, that is not actually a word I have ever really heard anybody use much until recently – and at that, mainly in the context of tax issues. I guess I simply thought of myself as a gaijin (or gaikokujin), which is how non-Japanese typically refer to themselves in Japan, using the Japanese word for foreigner. Thinking about it, there is not much distinction, terminology-wise, between different varieties (race, class, national origin, visa status) of foreigner in Japan. Which is not to say there is not a wide range of different circumstances and experiences (and occasionally invidious comparisons), there just isn’t any commonly-used terminology employed to distinguish them, as far as I am aware. We’re all generally just gaijin.

Indeed, in Japanese itself, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of established terminology used to differentiate foreigners. There is a word for immigrant, though it is used mostly in historical context (referring to Japanese immigration to Brazil or Hawaii in previous centuries, for example) or in the context of other countries, such as when referring to immigrants from anywhere to Canada or Australia, say, but it doesn’t seem to get used much to refer to immigrants in Japan itself. There is also a word for refugee, but that covers only a very small subset of foreigners in Japan.

When I got married and changed visa status from an occupation-related one to a spousal one, then I started thinking of myself as an immigrant, at least on a provisional basis at first; who could be sure we might not leave some day? The provisional status in my mind faded away over the years as I became settled in, became a legal permanent resident, etc., and eventually (after many struggles and frustrations) started thinking of myself, and being treated, primarily as a member of Japanese society.

I've also gradually come to feel less and less connection to where I came from, other than as a source of some fond childhood memories. Instead, the feeling of commitment to society here has grown over time to the point of being able to contemplate becoming a citizen here. In the case of citizenship, I guess I’d still be an immigrant one, as opposed to native-born, and with a background consisting of all the countries that I, and my ancestors, have come from. Whatever the word for that is.

Blaze said...

Don't forget the American term: Aliens

Whenever I visited the U.S. before my mother's death last year I always felt like an Alien.

I always breathed a huge sigh of relief when I passed under the Canadian flag at the top of the Peace Bridge on my way home.

Since my mother died, I will never again travel to the U.S.

I will remain in the country where I am not an immigrant, emigrant, expat or migrant. I am a citizen.

I just hate that Canada is now treating those of us born in the U.S. as second class citizens and allowing the U.S. to claim us and our Canadian financial records.

Donna said...

Living in the UK for 15 years, I never once thought of myself as an immigrant—always an expat, as there was no doubt in my mind that I was going back to the US one day, and the sooner the better. It was my own choice to move to my new husband’s country, but immaturity overrode objectivity and common sense, and I disliked it from the start: never settled, never integrated, and fought it the entire time. “Protecting” my American identity became almost an obsession, and in hindsight, I suppose it was how I dealt with my feelings of inferiority and stupidity and fear in a very different culture that, in spite of its socially correct veneer, didn't like Americans much and didn't hesitate to point that out—although how my Americanism was supposed to help under the circumstances, I don’t know. But overall, I never forgave England for being England.

The turning point was actually coming back, and realizing that either the US was now a very different country from the one I had left 15 years earlier, or that it was actually just the same—but I had been so swept up in my country’s mythology and unaware of its inconsistencies, that I’d wasted 15 years despising my host country in favor of an unrealistic concept of my native country. Probably some of both. Neither of us were happy there, and I learned to regret my inflexibility.

After six years in the US, we moved to Ireland—no “home court advantage” for either of us this time—to see if we could settle and put down roots. Here, now, I choose to be an immigrant. I do not expect, hope, plan, or want to return to my native country. I went through the same process that you, Victoria, and the other comments describe, just in England, not Ireland. Anger? Yep. Fear? Check. And resentment, frustration, embarrassment, sadness, loneliness, all of it. But without the time and emotional upheaval in England, I couldn’t have gotten to appreciate Ireland. Whether I choose citizenship or permanent residency after my first five years are up, I don’t know—but if I had to decide soon, citizenship would be very seriously considered.

About the word “guest”—when we met our neighbor up the lane for the first time, I apologized for our being “blow-ins”. His answer was interesting, coming from the host country’s perspective: “We’re Irish, and we’re happy to share our country. You’re our guests. What we don’t like is when our guests start telling us how to do things.” Sort of a relationship of mutual respect, where both sides mind their manners and don’t make comparisons; sounds good. But where he sees “a guest”, I see “an immigrant”. Will we ever see “one-of-us”? Guess I'll find out.

Maria said...

I grew up in Boston, though I was born in Spain. When my parents retired, they dragged me back to Spain with them, having trained me with a special sense of guilt. I hated it here and for years I dreamed of returning "home". Even after I was married and had a daughter I still felt I didn't belong or want to be here. Recently I've come to the conclusion that despite some things I miss from Boston and some things I hate here, I have accepted the fact that I will probably live here for the rest of my life. I've realized that my home is where I make it, and that outside things, such as language, supermarkets, streets, television, etc., are all incidental and have no weight in deciding where home is. I like this place now, and am not sure if the Boston I left is the Boston that still exists anymore.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Yim, Oh I can relate. I had a few meltdowns myself. One as recently as a month ago. The subway stations here have many exits and when I was trying to get to a restaurant for a dinner and went out the wrong one and was completely lost. Couldn't read the street signs. I walked for 15 min and then called. They couldn't figure out where I was so I walked another 15. I was tired, hungry and jet-lagged and just about ready to cry. Rescue came after they sent out a search party.

@Leah, I love the way you put it - adventure in the exterior world versus internal venture into self. Your story and mine sound similar. If you're available let's talk when I come to France in July.

@Nezumi-san, That's the impression I have - that we are all just gaijin.
I met someone who has been in Japan for several decades and won't become a citizen because he doesn't feel the Japanese will ever accept him. What do you think? Perhaps we are unrealistic when we ask for total acceptance?

@Blaze, Yes, "aliens" is a harsh word. My sense is tht naturalized citizens are always a bit more vulnerable than native born ones. This is natives as aristocracy - a class you are born into and keep whatever happens.

@Donna, Very honest comment. Thank you. Acceptance/rejection. I've been very sensitive to this especially when I was going to a lot of effort. Immigrant rage. :-)

@Maria, Yes, the home we left has moved on and is no longer the same place. And we aren't the same people.

Inaka Nezumi said...


“I met someone who has been in Japan for several decades and won't become a citizen because he doesn't feel the Japanese will ever accept him. What do you think? Perhaps we are unrealistic when we ask for total acceptance?”

Some people say that, but I don’t think it is true. If I did think it were true, I probably wouldn’t stay here in the first place; why would I want to spend the rest of my life like that?

There are degrees of acceptance, and I don’t think “total” acceptance is a reasonable thing to expect anywhere. I think I have achieved at least a good enough level for me, though I will admit that it has taken much longer than I might have hoped. But I somehow seem to have at least reached a stage where the little “othering” incidents that gaijin often complain about have dropped off in frequency to the point where it is actually a bit surprising when they do happen. I’m not sure why, since my appearance hasn’t changed apart from age, but maybe it has to do with subtle body language adaptations, or maybe my Japanese ability, while still far from what I would consider satisfactory, has at least reached a point where I can keep up my end of an interaction without it being a distraction. Perhaps more generally, becoming sufficiently familiar with what is expected in various situations, and sufficiently able to respond in context. Or maybe it comes down to attitude – I tend to think of myself as a regular member of society, don’t expect to be treated as anything else, and perhaps people sense that. I do think that by and large, people tend to sense how one expects to be treated, and they follow suit. Note that I wrote “expects,” not “wants” – I think one tends to get treated the way one expects to be treated, but not necessarily the way one wants or demands to be treated. Subtle difference, but important. If the feeling of belonging comes to feel natural, then the treatment follows. But this can take years and years – more than ten, maybe closer to twenty? At least in my case. Someone else may be a quicker learner.

Now, there are always going to be dickheads, but that is true everywhere. But actually, I think I have experienced fewer serious incidents in Japan than in the US or Europe. I’ve never had a neighbor in Japan move away saying “there goes the neighborhood” due to the presence of my family, because they didn’t want their kids playing with us, as I did experience as a child in the US in a mixed race family. I’ve never had a stranger in Japan attack me and threaten to throw me onto the third rail from a subway platform due to my appearance, as happened to me in my New Wave androgynous days in college, when my appearance apparently set off some festering homophobe with poor temper control. I’ve never had the police in Japan suddenly turn very abusive and threatening when I needed help from them, upon discovering that I was of a certain ethnicity, as happened to me in a major, developed European country. Occasional incidents, perhaps, not daily ones, though ones that make one go shaky at the knees and think, holy crap, what is going on here? I’ve never experienced anything like that in Japan. So in a way, I could probably reasonably claim that there is more acceptance in Japan than in the US or Europe. Or at least, the dickheads are better at keeping their opinions to themselves here. And anyway, would one really want “acceptance” from such types?

Inaka Nezumi said...

Hmm, ok, now I am remembering that I have in the past had people refuse to rent apartments to me in Japan when they found out I was a foreigner. And some people I knew had trouble once getting car insurance for the same reason. While not good or pleasant experiences, there were at least alternatives available in the above cases. I’ll note that I’ve also had the availability of financial accounts denied or restricted due to being a US citizen, though that is the US government’s fault (or actual intent, in some cases), not Japan’s.

So, yeah, dickheads everywhere. Try not to let them ruin your life, and try not to become one yourself, is about all I can think. And don’t base your feeling of acceptance on them.

Allou said...

I come from a family of immigrants – I have family in Europe and various British Commonwealth nations.
I started my journeys early – when I was a small child my parents left the UK for the US.
I grew up in the US, speaking with a british accent cultivated by my mother, who hated having moved from everything she knew in England to a cramped apartment with too many children and not enough money in the US. I recall receiving ”care parcels” with clothes, newspapers and magazines from England.
As soon as I was old enough, I got a weekend job and saved enough to buy a ticket back to England, where I spent a glorious summer staying with relatives in nicer homes,.
I recall being about 14 and writing ”when I grow up I want to live in England/Scotland/Norway/Canada/Australia. Thinking back, I realize it was my ”shopping list” and a way remind myself there was an escape from where my parents move had landed me.
I suppose I could have had a better life in the US, if my parents had realized there were other options, but they were too overwhelmed by the situation they were in – it wasn’t always bad, but certainly made me feel trapped most of the time.
I just couldn’t see how to get out, until I started to return to the UK – buying my own tickets – as a teenager .
I met a wonderful man from a Scandinavian country and saw an opportunity to move to a cleaner, safer, calmer and more humane place than where my parents lived. I took the opportunity.
I had to learn a new language –practically nobody except my husband spoke more than basic English –so I was highly motivated to learn fast. After a year I had a job, later I trained as a professional in my new country. We raised a family and I thank my lucky stars that my children are healthy, happy and realize how lucky they are to be Scandinavians.
When I lived in the US many of my friends and classmates had parents and grandparents who had fled war and oppression in Europe. These parents struggled to attain a sort of middle class status and thought their children would do better. By the time I was a teenager, I felt that the ”American dream” was an illusion, at least for me– I worked in the health care system on weekends and saw how precarious middle class status was.
I have affection for the ideals that the US espoused – but the reality was different.
When I compare my life with those of my siblings who stayed in the US, there is I never think I should have stayed.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Nezumi-0san, I like your "degrees of acceptance." And isn't it true that complete acceptance was a chimera even in our home countries?

There is a wonderful French expression that expresses beautifully your "asses are everywhere." Il y a des cons partout. :-)

@Allou, Thank you very much for your story. Yes, we have options - we are not captives to nation-states. We don't choose where we are born or where we grow up. And other places may be a better fit for our temperaments. I read a wonderful quotation today and I am thinking about using it for a post. I think it's a good answer to anyone who asks why ever did you leave?

"A ship is safe in harbor but that's not what ships are for."