Thursday, 1 October 2009

Immigrant Trap

Here is a brief explanation of just how most immigrants manage to end up isolated into their own little circles, and as a consequence unhappy, not to mention never truly integrated into the societies they themselves chose as their new homes. I've seen it happen myself, and I have also heard similar tales from others. I may also have a few words of advice on how to avoid this trap. I have.

So, you've moved to a new and strange country. It doesn't really matter why. The key thing is, you're there and you have to try and live as normal life as possible. A few things make this difficult. For one, it's very likely that you'll have to speak a language you're not used to, and which you probably do not know very well (or at least you think you don't). Also, as every other place, this country has at least slightly different customs, its own little ways of doing day to day things. You also find yourself without easy access to your usual family and friends support network, something you've been carefully building all your life. More likely than not, you panic. It's almost understandable.

Now, what too many people tend to do is retreat into safety of the known. Assuming you came with at least some family, you probably find yourself staying at home a lot, or going out just as a family. If you came on your own, and after a while even if you came with a family, you start seeking people like you, especially the ones who speak the same language. The path of least resistance is sometimes irresistible. Before you know it, pretty much all of your social life starts revolving around the same small circle of people, all of whom hail from the same country of origin.

You may now be asking yourselves what's so wrong with such a life. It's not as if you don't have any social life at all, and by keeping yourself you surely do not do any harm. So, let me tell you what problems lie in this kind of set-up.

First searching question you need to ask is: are all the people you socialise with the people you'd have chosen had you not emigrated? Would you befriend them back home? Or at least would you be spending so much time with them, to the exclusion of potentially more compatible ones? I bet that for quite a lot of your immigrant "friends" an honest answer would be "no". So why do it? Why torture yourself when in different circumstances the fact that you share language and origin wouldn't have been enough to put you in the same room?

The second problem is the consequence of the one described above. By spending all or most of your time with "your own" you automatically segregate yourself from the rest of the society you live in. This makes you, and your compatriots, look suspicious, or at least unfriendly. You can't be seen to have positive opinion of your hosts if you're so visibly avoiding to socialise with them. This in turn makes you feel unwanted and seen to be more of a foreigner than you'd probably like. But all that's of your own making. Surely, if you noticed a closed group of foreigners, you'd also start seeing them as at least a bit strange, and you'd start asking yourself why they're avoiding you.

The above two problems tend to reinforce one another, and can also spiral in a really bad way. The more you stick to "your own" the more you're seen as not part of the society. The more you feel not part of the society the more you feel the need to stick to "your own". And so on, until it escalates into really hating the place you live and the people who inhabit it. You also start spending the time with "your own" mostly complaining about the hosts. Almost certainly you are deeply unhappy.

So, what is my advice for avoiding the immigrant's trap?

It's as simple as it is blindingly obvious. You only need resist that path of least resistance. You chose to live where you are. Why not try giving the place a chance? Other people live there, and are happy. You can't be so much different to be totally incapable of doing an odd thing the local way. And if you are so sure your way is better, explain it to the hosts. You may be surprised when they see your point. Provided, of course, you do not try rubbing their nose in it. You may also be surprised how you may be allowed to have your way while they have theirs as long as nobody has to suffer. Next, choose your friends in exactly the same way you ever did. Why should you lower your standards just because you moved abroad? And if you allow yourself to try these two pieces of advice, you may also find that some of your hosts may be good friend material after all. Please note I am not urging you to stop socialising with "your own". I'm urging you to just treat all people without prejudice one way or another. It's easier than you think.

Does any of the above work? Of course it does, and it worked like magic for me. Do I have friends from back home? Of course I do! And I'll keep them even if I move somewhere else. Do I have friends from where I live now? Yes! And I intend to keep those, too. An added bonus from being country-of-origin-blind: I also have friends who came here from various other places. I feel my life is enriched by all of them. Touchingly, I have also been told, repeatedly, that by moving here I have enriched both my friends' lives and their home country. I feel that, in a very small way, I have done better service to my home country than many an ambassador in the recent years.

And so I ask you: why won't you be an ambassador, too?