I am a Bad Immigrant
I read somewhere that long-distance couples often fight just before one of them is about to leave. Sort of a self-preservation thing or preference to feeling angry instead of sad. Vietnam and I were doing that, I thought. What with all the cockroaches, cheeky geckos, broken house appliances going on I was sure he was trying to pick a fight. But seems he’s reconsidered his strategy. Now that our departure date nears Vietnam is pulling out all the stops to make sure I miss him.
As if reminding me of his beauty while hosting guests and traveling around weren’t enough, he’s managed to make the weather cooler than normal. I love him all the more. And I’m all the more reminded of how bad I’ve been to him. I moved here to be with him, but I have not done it gracefully.
I am a bad immigrant.
As I watch my own country struggling to balance our history as a nation of immigrants with the trend toward ignorant intolerance, and as JD and I work like hells to begin his mountain climb of immigration-hood, I reflect on how I’ve done at the job here.
What’s the difference between being an immigrant and being an expat? Some say skin color; some say necessity vs. opportunity. I say nothing. I live in a country where I am not from. I work in that country. I pay tax in that country. I consume space, consume resources in that country. I am an immigrant. Yet, when I hear the rants about what immigrants to America “should” do I continue to fall short. Here’s why – and here’s why it’s understandable.
I don’t speak the language.
Why not? Because it’s too hard. Entitled? Yes. True? Yes. I assumed I would “pick up” Vietnamese the way I picked up Spanish while living in Costa Rica. I forgot that I had actually studied Spanish for six years and it’s in the same linguistic family as English. Vietnamese is not. As a tone deaf human surrounded by a tonal language, I’ve struggled. And quickly stopped really trying. The little bit I thought I spoke could not actually be understood and I learned that speaking English with gestures made me feel less stupid. It’s not meant as disrespect; I just learned quickly how to live without it.
I don’t eat the food.
I do, actually, but I still eat a lot of Western food even though it’s more expensive, less readily available and inevitably less healthy. But it’s comfort food. It’s a literal taste of home that can be easier than chopsticks and more soul satisfying than exotic.
My friends aren’t local.
In order to be my friend you must speak English because I don’t speak Vietnamese. It’s the simple truth (but it does look terrible on paper). Therefore, there are many, many wonderful Vietnamese people who I will never truly get to know. Of course, some of my absolute best friends here are Vietnamese but they have to accommodate my linguistic shortcomings. By default of that – and by the comradery of shared experiences with other ex-pats – I often find myself surrounded by more foreigners than locals.
I make of fun things.
Vietnam is an incredible place and I truly respect it. But it’s different from home. And sometimes those differences are funny. Babies wearing crotch-less pants? Funny. Women shopping in pajamas? Funny. Keeping roosters for no reason? Funn – no wait, annoying. Pointing out these oddities doesn’t mean I disrespect the place; it means I see it as a real place with much good, some bad and some funny.
I expect things to be the same here as at home.
I came here to experience Different but when fatigue or sickness or hunger come I just want a bit of the familiar. I even demand it. I expect to my bubble in a third world country operate like first world, without power cuts, construction or thousands of crying neighbor babies. Rationally I know that’s ridiculous, but that doesn’t always change how I feel.
Immigrants are people, often scared, often uncomfortable. Often looking to make their lives better. So what if they are reluctant to speak in a language they mispronounce and can’t joke in? So what if they want their kids to learn that language in schools? So what if they crave their own food? So what if most of their friends are also from their country? Who else understands their background and their experience? Assimilation doesn’t always mean success. Success means success and immigrants can’t be judged with elementary adjectives any more than anyone else. Even bad immigrants can be good.