What it’s like to be an immigrant

So, I started this post several months ago, wanting to talk specifically about what it’s like to be an immigrant. But then summer vacation got in the way, and work got busy, so it fell to the wayside.

Now, it’s been a full year since I officially immigrated to France. I haven’t stepped foot in my homeland for 12 entire months, and while I still talk to friends and family regularly, it’s kind of a weird feeling having been away for so long.

This year has brought so many changes, as you would expect from someone who moved 3,600+ miles away. Change is good, but it’s not always easy. And installing myself in a new country definitely hasn’t been an easy change.

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve had a few friends on Facebook make some snarky comments to the effect of: “Stop complaining, you’re living the dream!” or “You left the U.S. so you have no right to complain about what’s happening here.” Some people tend to see our adventure as a permanent vacation, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Plus I haven’t given up my citizenship in my home country, and I still vote and pay taxes (yes, I still have to pay US taxes), so dammit, I’ve got a say!

Anyway, I wanted to write about what it’s like being an immigrant. The truth is that immigration is really, REALLY hard, even for someone like me who’s been fairly fortunate in life. There are many challenges that immigrants face on a daily basis that citizens simply don’t have to contend with.

Not the least among the challenges are dealing with the bureaucratic hurdles immigrants need to jump through in order to live in the country where they’ve moved to. Sure, many of these are necessary. And yes, France is particularly known for its bureaucracy. I’m just glad I married a French woman, which has made it slightly easier with slightly less paperwork. But even so, there is still a maze of paperwork, institutions, and organizations, that I need to navigate on a regular basis. My wife, who left France as a young adult, is often just as befuddled as I am, never before having had to contend with the French system as an adult. Not to mention that some of their systems are so complex, even the people working there can’t always answer our questions. It’s common for us to speak to multiple people while trying to figure something out, only to get four different answers. Part of this is because our situation doesn’t really fit neatly into any of the French “boxes,” and boy do they love their boxes!

Perhaps more to the point is learning and navigating the different social settings in a new country. The US and France aren’t that different, of course, but they’re different enough. These differences can range from seemingly minor pains (like almost always having to make an appointment in advance for services like banking) to how people behave on public transportation to even customs about being invited to someone’s house for dinner. And, depending on who you’re dealing with, more formality may be expected. Except, as a foreigner, it’s not always clear when it is and when it isn’t. It’s not a comfortable feeling always wondering if you’re behaving in a socially acceptable way or not.

All of this is compounded by the language barrier (for me, of course, not my wife). I spoke a little French before coming here, and I also speak Portuguese and Spanish (to varying levels of fluency), which have some similarities. And after a year, I’ve reached a decent level of fluency to get by. Yet, when it comes to official business, getting a job, etc., my level of fluency isn’t quite enough. I almost always have to have people speak slowly and repeat themselves multiple times. The result is that people don’t always take me seriously, or I often get written off. When I ask them to repeat, sometimes they seem to think I’m not intelligent because they have to use more simple grammar and words. Of course, there are plenty of things I can do myself to improve (and I am doing those things when I can), but that’s more of a process. I can’t flip a switch and be fluent.

And perhaps the hardest thing caused by the language barrier isn’t just communication, but the occasional feelings of isolation it causes. I remember when I was 19 and living in Brazil, at some point, I just wanted to hear English. I get those feelings here, too. Sure, I have English speaking friends and we speak English at home. But after so many months of being surrounded by a foreign language, my brain often feels like it’s on overload because it’s always working a little harder just to understand what I’m hearing. From time to time, I can shut out other people talking, but that really leads to feeling more isolated. It’s basically a vicious circle.

Lastly, while I’ve made some great new friends here, I really miss my friends and family back home. I don’t get to talk to them as much as I’d like, and our interactions on FB really aren’t a good substitute for a call or video chat. And even that isn’t a substitute for hanging out.

Of course, I’m focusing here on a few challenges I’ve had, and certainly others have had it worse (especially refugees). Like I said, I’ve been fortunate enough to have done pretty well before moving, and that’s given me some space (almost a whole year’s worth) to adjust. Other types of immigrants aren’t so lucky. Recognizing my luck, I sometimes wonder how long it will last. I mean, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs this year, and to be honest, our finances are in a slightly precarious situation as a result. We haven’t been able to do even half the things we’ve wanted to, but that’s ok. Part of this transition, for me at least, is learning how to live more modestly with far fewer resources.

The point I’m getting at here with these examples is that it’s easy to write off immigrants as uneducated, uninformed, or uninterested in integrating. Just as it is with some natural born citizens of a country, these characteristics are sometimes true and sometimes not true when describing immigrants. There is a violent tenor about immigration in both the U.S. and Europe right now, with a lot of stereotypes being thrown around. Really, though, most immigrants are just like anyone–people who are working to build a better life for themselves. They just have a lot fewer advantages while doing it.


  1. Robyn Waldman

    Thanks for sharing, Daniel. We always think of living abroad as glamorous but clearly there are lots of hurdles to overcome. And, as you said, you are lucky to have a family and resources. Imagine being an immigrant with no money, no help, no language skills. Truly frightening and heroic at the same time. Hope all is well with you and your ladies.

  2. Gordon

    And of course, what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. A bad saying, considering the plight of the refugees.

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