Welcome Stranger

My five year old suggested that I give up sleep for Lent, since “it has to be something you really love.” He is nothing if not observant, that kid. I promptly informed him I’ve been fasting from sleep for five years and two months and I am still waiting for Easter. All that to say, YES, I am exhausted and no amount of concealer can hide it. But it’s not just the normal “I have three kids under five” exhaustion. There is an intellectual exhaustion, a sheer depletion of brain power that comes with being an immigrant in a country where they do not speak your language.

I looked it up on Webster’s to be sure and yes, we qualify as immigrants. I am “1 : a person who comes to a country to live there.” The adult definition included the word “permanently” and as we have no current plans to move back, we meet the requirements. So when I woke up this morning to word that the Trump administration has rewritten their executive order restricting immigration, well, disappointment would be a weak word for what I felt.

Prior to moving to Switzerland, when I heard the word immigrant, I thought of Mexican neighbors I knew in California. I didn’t know them very well but I went to school with their children or grandchildren and knew that some of my friends in grade school spoke Spanish at home. We celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe which, outside of my tiny Catholic school, is celebrated mostly in Mexico. Other than that, I did not have any idea what life as an immigrant was like.

Please forgive my ignorance. I am embarrassed to say I never really thought much about immigration outside of these friends’ parents who had moved to the U.S. a long time ago and led very All-American lives. I deeply regret my lack of empathy and lack of attempt to understand what life as an immigrant to America is like. We lived in Houston, Texas for crying out loud and still I was able to stay happily unaware of the difficulties immigrants experience when they move to America.

So many different kinds of people immigrate to America. Some of them speak English fluently. Many of them do not. Some of them come for jobs. Some come for their family. I do not know all the statistics but I do have tremendous empathy for how hard it is to live in America if you are not from there because I live in another country and it is hard.

We moved here because of my husband’s job. He works for a company headquartered here and when we were asked to move, we knew it would be great for his career. We dreamed of our children learning French from birth and becoming fluent. We hoped they would develop skills and cultural awareness that cannot be taught in America. We were told it was a very international city and that we probably would find many English speakers. Someone even said “You don’t need French.” They were wrong. I speak French every day not just out of novelty but out of necessity. I have sat waiting for deliveries on the wrong day or at the wrong time because I could not understand what the driver said before he hung up. I have showed up for appointments at the wrong place. I have lost my spot on waiting lists for public preschool because I did not understand the system described mostly in French. I have offended people by not saying the proper greeting or adding the proper title. And that’s the entry level stuff.

I cannot communicate fluently with my son’s teachers. I speak basic French and can understand more than that but when I try to speak it back, I do not sound native. I stutter and stumble over conjugations and vocabulary. It takes time to learn another language. In English and in my home country, I am eloquent, well-read, informed and witty. But, in French and here in Geneva, I am not. I am halting, timid, embarrassed and anxious. I read 156 books last year but when someone on the playground asks me how my daughters are doing, I can only reply with the French equivalent of “They are good. They go to school. They are 2 years old and 7 months. They are girls.” I worry every day that I will embarrass my son by trying to speak to his friends or their parents. So far he is either unaware or very patient.

And that’s just the language. The cultural differences are numerous as well. You say hello to everyone. You greet everyone with their title, “Madame” or “Monsieur.” You may never meet your neighbors because they are very private. Parents are exceptionally hands off at the playground. You do not speak loudly in restaurants. You do not mind when people bring their dogs to the table next to you. Short emails are considered rude. No one uses voicemails. You do not wear work out apparel to the grocery store. Even if you just worked out. Athleisure is not a thing here. You cannot say “But that’s not how we normally do it” because you do not know how they normally do it. And any time we eat a lot or buy large pieces of meat or wear bulky white sneakers, I hear the slightly snobby, “Ahh, tres Americain!”

And that is nothing about the feelings. All the feelings. We do love living here. Everything we hoped for has come to pass. My kids speak French. My husband is doing well in his job. We have built a community here. But, with all the great things come the tough things. I wish I could more accurately describe how exhausting it is to do simple things like get a drivers license or sign up for a class when you don’t speak the language. How lonely it feels to be unable to speak to anyone in the grocery store or cafe. How embarrassed I feel of my lack of knowledge. The simultaneous pride and envy I feel about my kids assimilating. The sadness of missing home. The guilt I feel for not being there and for enjoying being here.

As an educated, privileged American, I have access to all the resources in the world. I have apps and tutors and guidebooks. I can hire a babysitter so I can study a third language. But being an immigrant to Switzerland is exhausting. I am weary and tired and my heart breaks for those immigrants in America who are struggling with similar feelings and obstacles and especially for those who do not have access to all the resources I do. I can’t change anything about this immigration plan (or lack thereof) but I hope that when you meet a person who has immigrated to the United States, if they are speaking another language at the grocery store or they seem rude or cold, you give them the benefit of the doubt that they are intelligent, talented and a human therefore worthy of knowing. This new order may not seem like a big deal to you but it creates an atmosphere of unwelcomeness. If immigrants to America are anything like me, they are acutely aware of it.

I am reminded of the important words of Jesus, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” I remember each person who welcomed me here, who smiled at the children or tried to help me fill out forms or find things in the stores. The people who ignored my ignorance and treated me politely. I was a welcomed stranger and hope that my words here can encourage you to be a welcomer of strangers too.

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9 thoughts on “Welcome Stranger

  1. First of all, I’m a fan of your son- My five year old suggested that I give up sleep for Lent, since “it has to be something you really love.” 😛 😛 😛
    Secondly, what a great post! Wish more people could think in the same way…. I’m Polish living in the UK. I’m lawyer with two Master Degrees in Law. I speak fluent 2 languages and another two on the lower lever. Yet, I’m just an immigrant in Britain with all negative connotations to that word…. It doesn’t bother me on daily basis, but sometimes I wish people see something more than just a term given by government…

    • I’m a fan of him too 😀 I can imagine the U.K. is probably similar to the US. Did Brexit create the same unwelcoming atmosphere like this new immigration ban?

      • Hm…. I think there was already a bit ‘strange’ atmosphere before the referendum during campaign. Overall, I do admire all British people for putting up with such a huge influx of immigration for many many years. I’m not sure my home nation would be so tolerant and welcoming… I’ve never experienced myself any bad vibes, but I can feel there is something in the air. It’s not just Britain. It’s a world issue now. After second World War, there was a tendency to unite. Nowadays, countries want to follow in a direction of isolation and separation. Let’s see what’s going to happen in 50 years time 🙂

  2. Love your insights and your empathy Jane. Realizing who people are and what they know and what they can do in their native language and culture is so theoretical for most of us. It’s nice to see attention brought to that aspect of immigrant’s lives.

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