Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Decade Migrant

"So ferry, cross the Mersey,
'Cause this land's the place I love,
And here I'll stay."

Gerry and the Pacemakers
Today, I've been living abroad for exactly 10 years. It's a time as good as any to share my first-hand experiences on immigration.

Immigrants are individuals like me, sustaining themselves in a foreign country. But, I am not an immigrant. I am an emigrant. On a good day, I'll agree to be called a migrant, so let's use that term going forward as it's neutral. The distinction between the terms is important, as it contains the crux of uprooting yourself and replanting your existence in foreign soil. An immigrant is identified with her new country, while an emigrant is identified with her old country. I am not an immigrant because I belong to my old country. Despite having chosen my new country out of free will, I am not integrated, and I don't strive to be. I fail the primary directive of any successful government immigration policy: assimilation; or to be less Borg-like: integration. My personal choice against integration is in essence a choice of isolation.

Everyone who migrates as an adult is to some degree disintegrated from the new country's society. Hofstede, in his landmark study "Cultures and Organizations", showed that we can change our behavior, but the core values of our upbringing always remain with us. The stripes of our motherland's culture never wash away. As a result, the migrant is constantly in conflict with her new environment. This doesn't have to lead to isolation, but it is the most natural consequence.

How do you achieve happiness in isolation? This is a big question that I believe all migrants are struggling with in one form or another. I consider it from two perspectives: (1) the migrant as a part of society, and (2) the migrant as an individual.

As a part of society, what does it mean that my choice is the opposite of how a country state envisions immigration? Does it mean that I am less valuable? Does my value derive from how well I perform in my new environment? And should this value decide which rights are given to me? Logic tells me that the value of any human is a given, something she owns by just being. But, the real world for a migrant looks very different. My environment makes me measure myself by my (lack of) language skills. This, together with my lack of shared historical, political, and cultural context makes everyday interactions challenging. As a result, my utilization in society is low. This lack of utilization, deriving from what you could call a migrant's inherent social handicap, must not be translated into lack of value. If we go against the grain of modern secular dogma and separate utilization from value, we will reach a healthier society. I like to believe that human value is always there. This is key for me to accept my separation from society. I like to think of this separation as a Thoreauvian Walden-experience of self-sustainability. As Thoreau wrote 150 years ago: "I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude." He shared the feeling, even though he was no migrant in the word's true definition. But you could consider Thoreau a migrant in his own country.

As an individual, once you accept isolation, happiness is achievable by creating your own space in where you can live life without the conflicts between your values and the society around you. In a way, you build your own virtual society in that space, similar to Viktor Frankl's theories about the space between stimulus and response, where your freedom always flowers. Even though his environment, as a concentration camp prisoner, is incomparable to a migrant's - there are lessons to be learned in his theories. If the environment doesn't allow for your happiness, you can still cater for it yourself. With modern technology, Frankl's space can be tangible. It's called the Internet. This space, which Frankl once defined as inside an individual's mind, can today stretch out into the online world. Even though we usually separate "online life" from "real life", the border between the two gets fuzzier everyday.

In the end, I take solace in the thought that isolation from society could drive an individual to connect back to society in some ways.

So don't blame migrants for living in their own walled gardens; real or virtual. This may be the only sustainable option for many of us.