Apr 23rd, 2018, 02:08 AM

Don't Call Me An Expatriate

By Lauren Morris
Immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station. 1907-1912. Image Credit: New York Public Library
A reflection on immigration.

I have a weight on my shoulders that I have been meaning to share for some time now. It's politically pertinent to understand, and very personal to me.

Immigration is one of the hardest processes a human can put themselves through. It feels like going from a hot tub to a pool in the middle of winter or fumbling around in a dark house during a power outage for weeks on end. 

The first time I lived in Europe, it was for a study abroad program in Denmark that completely surpassed my expectation of what life could be like if you let yourself be exposed to new environments.  It was the spring of 2016, and I had already made a Facebook photo album entitled "Places I'll Come Back to if Trump Wins." It was my fault I didn't knock on wood. I hadn't traveled much outside of the United States and with this journey, I became the first person in my family to see Europe. When I walked out of the airport in Copenhagen alone, the icy January wind that hit my face was figurative and literal. As a Californian, there was a lot for me to get used to in Scandinavia.  

January morning from my dorm room, Aarhus, Denmark. Image Credit: Lauren Morris

I never expected to feel the sense of inclusion that I did prior to leaving Denmark. My peers and I were in a demanding journalism and global politics program, and our smorgasbord of backgrounds lent itself to great camaraderie and love for one another. We drank, we verbally sparred, we barbecued. We wrote. It didn't matter who we had been before that, where we came from, or whether or not we liked pickled herring as the Danes do. We belonged to each other. That is the gift of community - if you fall into one, you become more immune to the hardships of being away from what is familiar. 

A month and a half before school ended, I met my partner, who was in another program at the journalism school, the good old-fashioned way: over beer. He is Dutch and speaks perfect English, and it didn't take long for him to fall into my good graces and that of my protective friends. When I moved back to San Francisco that summer, we decided to do long distance, and after I graduated college, I realized it was time to come back to Europe to try a new rodeo. We live together in Paris now.

I am incredibly privileged in the sense that I have come to a first-world country from another, and this time, not alone. That being said, I have learned that even the fairytale idealism that Paris gives off does not eradicate the difficulty of being a well-functioning, independent adult in a country that is not your own. Immigration is paperwork you can't understand, illogical systems, ordering andouillette not knowing it's offal, missing your Mama, navigating a city alone and people you don't stop feeling 'different' from - all paralleled by a nagging sense of discomfort and inability to communicate and connect as you would in your home country. I have had countless panic attacks, unrelenting stress in my whole body and more embarrassing cultural misunderstandings than I can remember since August.

It is more than the Facebook photo albums and geotags on Instagram. It is more than the plane tickets and the museum pamphlets. It is more than seeing the Eiffel Tower on your way to school and more than correcting people back home on how they say French words. Macron, merci, mignardises. It is always more than it seems to be. Reality doesn't escape even the most mythicized places. 

It is a very humbling challenge. The rewards are great, but they still come at an emotional and monetary price, especially in Paris. I am older than I was in Denmark, and I have much less support: I was not ready when I left, but I felt like I was. I still can't call this home. I still feel that the lessons I have learned, academically and personally, have validated my choice. 

The first walk around our neighborhood in Paris, August 2017. Image Credit: Lauren Morris

I have the utmost respect for all immigrants that are not privileged as I am, the ones that feel they do not have a choice. The ones who do not speak English or a fetishized European language. The ones who are coming from lives of hardship in pursuit of better ones. I cannot imagine their fear and their sacrifice. 

There was one evening that I was walking home from work about to leave the Metro. I consciously yawned with my head bowed towards the floor because my hands were full and I could not cover my mouth. A Frenchman reached his hand to my face as if to cover my mouth for me, mocking my visible tiredness. Another man said, in a bullying tone, "fatigué." Tired. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to find answers on Google as to how this simple action validated humiliation and branding as an outsider from two men on a Tuesday night.

Cultural codes take a lifetime to learn, and in America, we expect immigrants to assimilate into things we don't even know how to explain. If they don't do so quickly enough, they are "resistant to our culture." That reaction in itself is ethnocentric - it implies that we believe ourselves and our society to be better than theirs.

I wish I could hold their hands inside a Bank of America when their debit card has gone into overdraft or file a police report for them when their bags get stolen. I wish I could find jobs that don't exploit them and tell them never to eat an In-N-Out burger without grilled onions. I wish I could cuss out telemarketers for them and tell them that Nair is not a regular shampoo and never to drink Fireball even if it smells like candy. I wish I could show them that they can rent their children's schoolbooks on Amazon instead of spending their rent money to buy them outright. I wish I could explain Oxford commas and semicolons to them. I wish I could give them the certainty of saying it will all get better, that they'll make friends that love them and stand up for them when their accent is made fun of and they will be able to find markets stocked with all their favorite ethnic foods. I wish the white picket fence and Labrador retriever of the 'American dream' did not inherently exclude them.

Immigrants being served a free meal at Ellis Island. Image Credit: New York Public Library

I hope that they will not be ostracized just because they are an immigrant, but I know that is in vain.

I went to high school in a small town where everyone knows each other. I had an Indian math teacher and the boys in my class made fun of his turban and the way he spoke our language, without ever considering they had never heard how beautiful his language was. They never considered our teacher's Indian dialect spoken naturally could usurp the abrasion of their teenage Californian slang with its melody.

I felt disgusted by them and did nothing. I would not be silent in this situation ever again; I know now that lack of reaction is just as much a contributor to vitriol. 

In one month, my partner and I have an appointment to register our partnership in the Netherlands. If successful, it would legalize my life there after we leave Paris. At this point, we are unsure as to whether or not our application will be approved. Money and the most minute details have the say in these situations. It's a horrible feeling to comprehend that borders and bureaucracy have the power to keep loved ones away from each other. I never thought I would have to personally experience that. I am humbled.

Image Credit: Lucas Jackson / Reuters

I am scared, both of being denied and being accepted. I am scared of making Europe my home, of becoming a stranger to my real home and the ones that I love. I know that it is a risk that I have to take in order to see if the life I want is waiting on the other side.

Please be cognizant of the immigrants around you. Treat them as a friend. Invite them over for dinner. Put yourselves in their shoes, even if they aren't the brand that the cog of mass consumerism is telling you is trendy that week. Don't support xenophobic administrations that seek to dehumanize the 'other.' Above all, show them that they are essential to the fabric of the community.

And please, do not call me an expatriate. It is a white-washed glamorization for immigrant, a way to be better than the others. 

But I am an 'other'.