[31 July, 2011]

on being an immigrant 2

Because I work in an agency that specializes in providing social and mental health services to immigrants in San Francisco, we talk a lot about issues of loss, nostalgia, otherness, and identity. Many of the staff are immigrants themselves, which helps us to think about, personally analyze and relate to these topics and experiences. So people at work recommended that I read Salman's Rushdie's Imaginary Homelands, and when I was buying it online, a list of authors they thought I would like popped up, including people like Nabokov and Milan Kundera. I laughed out loud because these are some of my favorite authors and it's true, many are transplants and most write about the concept of home and life somewhere else. I guess I relate to their stories and look for answers on how the characters resolved their unbearable feelings of not belonging and living in a world that is so unfamiliar.

So I am reading Imaginary Homelands and after every word I want to jump up, throw my hands in the air and shout, "Yes!" He totally gets it. He gets what it's like to be a foreigner in the country of citizenship and yet to have a familial connection to the country of birth. He is eloquent and good at putting a finger on that struggle of finding, or having to invent, a homeland. I wanted to quote some things here, to bookmark, to remember, but then I would be quoting the entire book. So instead I decided on this snippet about dreams and reality and the basis for social status of foreigners:
In common with many Bombay-raised middle-class children of my generation, I grew up with an intimate knowledge of, and even sense of friendship with, a certain kind of England: a dream-England composed of Test Matches at Lord's presided over by the voice of John Arlott, at which Freddie Trueman bowled unceasingly and without success at Polly Umrigar; of Enid Blyton and Billy Bunter, in which we were even prepared to smile indulgently at portraits such as "Hurree Jamset Ram Singh", "the dusky nabob of Bhanipur". I wanted to come to England. I couldn't wait. And to be fair, England has done all right by me; but I find it a little difficult to be properly grateful. I can't escape the view that my relatively easy ride is not the result of the dream-England's famous sense of tolerance and fair play, but of my social class, my freak fair skin and my "English" English accent. Take away any of these, and the story would have been very different. Because of course the dream-England is no more than a dream.
I can't espace this view either, because it has to be true. My fair skin and my American accent have gotten me places. But they also create some internal conflicts:

1. They render me invisible. Sure, at times it's good to pass, to not be recognized or picked out of a crowd or questioned. But invisibility can be damaging in that I never know where to stick myself, or how to behave, to how to let people know I may not be who they think I am.

2. Because of this invisibility, there is no community. Because I don't know where to stick myself and because other people don't always know what to do with me once I am stuck there, there is no support or sense of belonging. It's possible that other white immigrants resolve this by conforming to the dominant culture and feeling a part of it. But for me both external and internal forces must have prevented this, so I am left without a home and only with imaginary homelands.

I know there were other points, but I just became exhausted with all this and embarrassed at sounding so emo. So I guess I'll just leave it at what it is. 

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