Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Immigrant Life Is Often A Hard, Sad & Lonely One

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

Arriving at Ellis Island in New York City (early 20th century)Physicians examine a group of Jewish immigrants who are gathered in a small room, two with their shirts off. Note the eye chart with Hebrew letters that hangs on the wall.  
Photo CreditUnderwood & Underwood; 1907
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.
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 universitiy 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 while forging 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 better life for their children. And it's a truism that children of immigrants tend to work harder than non-immigrants. "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 abilities, based on accepted accent and general speech patters—to wit, language abilities. On the face of it, it sounds absurd, yet it's very real.

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.


  1. A nice post, Perry. It is interesting to see how important language can be in order to forge an identity. In Europe the language-issue can be quite tricky. The German nation --and therefore also the German nationalism-- was built just on the base of a common language, longtime before a German unified State came to an existence in 1871.
    And still, no matter how many languages we speak, we tend to feel closer to somebody speaking in our mother tongue, no matter how different he/she may be. As somebody born between boundaries and languages, I actually hate that feeling when I identify it on myself. I keep fighting against it. Sometimes I succeed.

    1. Your point is well taken, Rosa; it's an interesting insight regarding Germany. If you have written an article on that particular area, I would be happy to post it here for my international audience, many who are from Germany.


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