Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Modern Emigrant

When I decided to move to a different place of the world two and a half years ago, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. My confidence was strengthened by the knowledge that I am adapting fast to new situations. Internet has been a big help for me to stay in touch with my roots, but there are still hurdles which emigrants will always face.

Deep in Swedish culture we find Wilhelm Moberg’s classic book “The Emigrants” (in Swedish “Utvandrarna”). It tells the story of a family’s decision to move away from hard times in Sweden to try their luck in America, and their subsequent lives there. The story is written in mid-twentieth century and takes place a hundred years earlier. The framework of the story can still today be related to in many parts of the world where people flee poverty or worse, seeking new golden opportunities elsewhere.

The situation for me, and others who decide to emigrate from modern western countries, was different. I didn’t escape anything; I had a good life in Sweden with friends, family and employment. I came here for the very modern reason of having met my life companion over the Internet. Coming here I left my entire family behind. In the days of Moberg’s story, moving to another continent basically meant being cut off entirely from relations with your old country. News and other communications traveled at a laughable speed compared with today’s global broadband networks.

Internet as a communications media has really transformed the life and experiences of the modern emigrant. Living in a different continent, I still have the possibility to listen to live Swedish radio, watch the latest newscasts and read the latest local news from my old hometown. I don’t miss one episode of my favorite Swedish reality TV show. I strike up a text, voice or video conversation with old buddies no matter if they are back home in Sweden or playing poker in Las Vegas. Tools like Miranda (IM), Skype (VOIP), Juice (podcast), µTorrent (BitTorrent), Firefox (web browser) are closing the distance between being home and away. All of this is of major importance because it lets me stay in touch with my roots and also use my mother tongue, to which I will always return for inner peace.

Internet as an e-commerce tool is growing slower but at a steady rate. I still buy my books from Amazon, just as I did before I emigrated. Amazon’s price, service and delivery time are the same here and there. I spent considerable time in my new country trying to locate book shops which carried the right books for me, but in the end it was a waste of my time. Amazon is simply what I am used to and where I feel comfortable browsing and buying books.

Still, some of the problems emigrants face are eternal. The language barrier is a major obstacle for every emigrant. Adapting to a new language is a hurdle that you got to pass in order to assimilate into your new society. Going to the supermarket and asking them in English (assuming it is not the country’s native tongue) where to find the mayonnaise is like putting a huge stamp on your forehead saying: “I don’t belong here”. Belonging and assimilation are equivalent for the emigrant, and the answer lies in mastering the language. And by language, I also include body language, which is just as hard to master as the spoken language.

There is still another hurdle the emigrant must pass in order to assimilate, and it’s a tough one once you have passed a certain age. You are not familiar with local celebrities in your new country, no matter if it is sports stars, singers, TV hosts, authors, business men, politicians or actors; you are simply clueless. It is similar to trying to solve a New York Times crossword puzzle for a non-American or a Guardian puzzle for a non-Brit. All those clues about “Jeopardy host” or “Folk singer Guthrie” make you put your pen down in despair.

What all of this boils down to is that emigration is and continues to be a great adventure and learning experience for me. Looking back upon my decision to live in Israel, I don’t regret it for a second.

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