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More immigration angst

You might have noticed in the lower left corner is a new link to amazon.com. This is to give you easy access to the books I occasionally review on this site, which also means a tiny percentage for the souzek household. Yep, I'm totally making money off of you. There are no limits to my greed!

I wanted to review Hip Mama but I didn't like it (actually I loved the introduction, but that's it) and realized I don't really want to waste any time giving negative reviews. So I skipped that and am going straight to a book I got for my birthday and really loved. "Hidden Immigrants" are stories about sons and daughters of diplomats, missionaries and other ex-pats, who spent many years of their childhood in one or several different countries and describe in an interview format how it affected their lives. I was surprised how much I could relate although my situation was quite different (I wasn't really an ex-pat, because my family wasn't planning to return to their country.) Unfortunately there is no book about Croatian children, who grew up in Austria and then got married to goodlooking American men but in many ways the statements and experiences of these people are very close to mine.

The author writes about ex-pat children growing up to be in some ways "detached" from their communities because they have learned to stay on the surface: "... they are not joiners and are often most happy in their own company, they vote but are otherwise political observers, they are not blindly patriotic and in fact the notion of patriotism in any form bothers some a great deal. [...] They don't like being pinned down on that "where are you from?" question."

It was a strange feeling of relief to read that. I just didn't know that this is really that common. It feels good to get acknowledgement from a completely unbiased source. Oh that "where are you from" question! I dread it although it can't be avoided and I know I need to be asked that, because it is so much part of me, but still. With every country and every culture you build a new identity. It is a necessity to do that not only to survive in the culture but also to be able to relate to the people you are living with. Now as you move, you leave that life and those people behind and that identity stays with you, but in a sort of unused state. It usually describes an exact time of your life, of your past and you take it along but the new people you meet, your new surrounding has no knowledge of it whatsoever... so in a way you yourself are the only one, who has been around for all the changes for all new created identities. Only you are your only witness to how you were this in this place and then became that in the other and so forth. I think that's one of the big reasons why she says "they are often most happy in their own company". It is a lot of work trying to convey who you are when you have moved so much. There are so many pieces of the puzzle and although they are essential they can not be communicated. So what you do is stick to the identity that works in your current environment and the rest you might tell someone who really is ready to be a lasting friend. That gets tiring sometimes and so it's essential to stay away from people occasionally so you can be your full self without having to do much explaining.

One of the interviewed people said something that really really hit home for me:
"One of the things I've learned about myself from Global Nomads is, while the director kept trying to get me to join, I asked myself, why is it that I don't want to join? I finally realized I don't want to join anything! I don't want to join... I'm just somebody who likes to have individual relationships, but I don't like being part of groups."

Actually I thought I must have written that. All this time I thought I was just a weirdo and then I get my suspicion confirmed, that really my immigrant experience does have a lot to do with how I feel about "joining". Of course an attitude like that could be easily a character trait but in this context I think it isn't. I have never ever found a group I really wanted to be part of. Well, I did initially because it seemed such a great idea, but then very shortly afterwards I found them suffocating and unrealistic and boring and a little bit dishonest. I cannot bear the group identity. I cannot stand the pressure to conform, even if it's conforming to some really nice ideas. The idea of the group is just wrong in my eyes, even though I'm sure it's a blessing for some. In order to fit into a group there is a price to pay, you can't be one with everyone else if you aren't ready to give up a few of your idosyncracies or if you are not ready to be loyal beyond some of your personal convictions. And I can't go there. I just can't. My whole life I had to fight to nurture and maintain my own identity in changing environments. You can't ask me to give this up so that you can have your perfect homogenized group. Sorry. I'm asocial. Whatever.

One woman said: "I really believe that if you travel, your parents are your identity. They are the cohesiveness to your future and how you're going to develop. [...] The other roots - being in the same place, have the same friends all the time - just aren't there. So you have to have the same parents all the time."
That part really rang true for me too, although I would probably extend that to siblings and husbands and not just parents. I do think that a certain sense of culture is transferred more onto the close family than the surroundings and since your parents can't make the connection from their own way of life to the outside world, a lot of the characteristics of the outside world remain rather insignificant. Not insignificant as in not important but as in not permanent and therefore secondary. I think that is another reason why I have trouble with patriotism. I don't see the importance of things that to me are and have been exchangable. A particular language, lifestyle, culture - they are important yes, but they are not "values" to me on par with things like solidarity or dignity or compassion. And that brings me back to that identity issue again. If you have experienced yourself in different languages, lifestyles and cultures and you have not lost yourself on the way, then for you those take second place to other things and you simply cannot be patriotic, because it feels like every time you are you betray another part of yourself.

I highly recommend the book to those who have gone through similar things in their life or those who want to know what it's like. It's more a collection of thoughts and experiences than an analysis but because of that it gives a really good insight into what children go through as ex-pats and how it affects them later in life. I will probably reread parts of it occasionally, if for no other reason than to remind myself I'm not the only weird one.

Posted at 01:16 PM on December 10, 2004

I only held the "ex-pat" identity once for very short time in my life, but I can relate to much of what ws said here as well.
Especially this:
"I really believe that if you travel, your parents are your identity. They are the cohesiveness to your future and how you're going to develop."
I'm not sure if simply living overseas for a bit formed that, or because my family is sort of on the outskirts of normal americn society being mixed and all...

Posted by Pansy Moss at December 10, 2004 2:33 PM

Dinka, you may want to check out literature about "Third Culture Kids" (TCK's) (if you haven't already) - this link is helpful: http://www.american.edu/ocl/iss/programs_events/pr_act_globalnormads.htm
I can't always relate firsthand to TCKs, but it's really interesting to understand the perspective....

Posted by Shannon at December 13, 2004 2:40 PM

This is really interesting. I had a normal childhood and am only now an expat, so it doesn´t really describe me, but still. I don´t know to what extent my kids will feel like that-- probably not much. I think of them as half-American, but they may well grow up thinking of themselves as Spanish, with an American mother. Which I suppose it what they are, unless we live in the US for a few years, but at this rate that doesn´t seem likely. They do have dual citizenship though...

Posted by kate at December 13, 2004 2:40 PM