Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Immigrant Life: Beginning Again

Culture Shock

“My father was an immigrant who literally walked across Europe to get out of Russia. He fought in World War I. He was wounded in action. My father was a great success even though he never had money. He was a very determined man, a great role model.”
Arlen Specter [1930-2012],
U.S Senator, Pennsylvania

Downtown Toronto’s Chinatown: In many major cities there exists concentrated areas of shops
and restaurants dedicated to immigrants, where they can comfortably feel at home.
Photo Credit: chensiyuan; 2009
Source: Wikipedia

I am not an immigrant to Canada, my land of birth; yet, I am deeply and emotionally familiar with the immigrant experience, from my upbringing, my choice of friends, and through my marriage. My father was an immigrant from war-torn Poland, arriving first in Toronto in 1951 and then settling in Montreal; he married my mother, a child of immigrants from the Transylvania region of Romania, a year later in 1952.

My wife is an immigrant from Russia, by way of Israel and the United States; she became a Canadian citizen in 2012. Many of the friends and persons with whom I attended high school, college and university were sons and daughters of immigrants.

It's hard for someone who's not an immigrant to understand the immigrant life. But I will make an attempt, however feeble it might be. I have also read many stories about immigrants, including those of well-known artists, writers, and photographers who left Europe for America, leaving behind what was known and familiar and finding what was unknown and new. In some cases, it was exciting; in many cases, it was not. Frustration. Despair. Sadness. All these emotions were shared by many immigrants trying to both retain a sense of their old identity and forge a new one in their adopted land. Think about such a difficulty, if you will; I have.

Immigrants often move, not only for themselves, but to forge a future better life for their children. And it’s a truism that children of immigrants tend to work harder than non-immigrants, chiefly as a way to prove themselves to the indigenous population, the so-called locals who in many cases are only a few generations removed from their immigrant forebears. “I'm very inspired by him—it was my father who taught us that an immigrant must work twice as hard as anybody else, that he must never give up,"”says Zinedine Zidane, an European football player whose parents immigrated to France from Algeria.

One of the complaints that long-time residents of a nation often make, usually out of ignorance, is that immigrants tend to stick together and fail to integrate well in their adopted land. There is some degree of truth in that statement, but it’s a truth that has some omissions in facts that begs for addition, if only to add some clarity.

Language is often the chief barrier to entering a nation's culture. This explains why immigrants in their adopted nation often congregate with individuals from their land of birth; it's a matter of comfort and familiarity, having at least an ability to communicate—until they learn the native language sufficiently well—in a language they now understand. My wife once remarked that immigrants often make friends with individuals in their new country who they, typically, would not be friends with in their country of birth. Newcomers often willingly live together in dedicated geographical areas, so-called ghettos. The reasons are simple enough to explain. The commonality of language and a shared history is often enough to united people, different in many other areas, to bind them in friendship, even if of a temporary or convenient nature.

Now, some people have an ability learning languages, others don't. It has nothing to do with effort or intelligence or willingness to learn. These are false ideas and ought to be put to rest. Many immigrants learn the language, have an excellent vocabulary, but speak with a noticeable “thick accent.” Again, that has nothing to do with intelligence. Yet, it can act as a barrier of acceptance for some immigrants, who become somewhat fearful to speak their adopted language. Too much judgment is made, by the listener, of the speaker’s intelligence, based on accepted accent and general speech patters—to wit, language abilities. On the face of it, it sounds absurd, yet it’s a very real (and painful) criticism.

I remember one of my friends remarking about my father’s accent when I was a high-school student; I felt embarrassed for him, which of course was wrong, but understandable for a kid who wanted to fit in with his friends. This story will be familiar to many.

A version of this article originally posted on Perry J. Greenbaum (March 26, 2013).

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