On Being An Immigrant

Growing up in Alabama, I knew the rules: I knew when to say “yes, ma’am” and how to order a Sprite by asking for a Coke and waiting for the server to say “What kind?” I knew what was expected of me, and I knew what to expect from others. I knew how to say things so that people would listen, and when I needed opportunities, I was confident that doors would open and people would give me trust. And I was right. Even when I made mistakes, the trust remained and I knew I would have the help I needed to get back up and try again. Alabama was good to me, and I learned to expect it. I didn’t even think about it.

It wasn’t until I moved to Ireland that I learned what it means to be an outsider. All of a sudden I was an immigrant who was totally unfamiliar with the deep assumptions and unwritten consensus of my new home. I made a lot of mistakes, following the rules I grew up with instead of the unfamiliar rules of Ireland. People were forgiving, but I soon began to realise that something was different. In Alabama, I was a homegrown local boy the community had invested themselves in. I was one of them, and they wanted me to succeed. They cheered me on, and I can still hear those cheers now, all the way across the ocean. In Ireland, I appeared out of nowhere as an unknown, a “blow-in” with no roots, no investment, no history. People were friendly, yes, but many were also suspicious, and how could I blame them? Who wouldn’t be? It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was going to have to prove myself, and that all my qualifications and experience from America would do nothing to help me. I was going to have to start over from scratch, and this time I would have natural suspicion instead of natural trust from many of the people around me. If I had to describe that realisation in one word, it would be this: Lonely. I could no longer have the underlying confidence that I would always be supported by a wide community where I had deep roots. I was on my own this time. 

Ten years later, I’ve learned a lot about how to fit in Ireland, what is expected of me, and what people mean when they say “I will, yeah” (they won’t). Ireland has been working her way under my skin, while I’ve been working hard to win her trust. In many ways I’ve gained it, and she’s given me great opportunities. I also have deep friendships with people I know will help me whenever I need it, even when I mess up. Without a natural reason to trust me, they have chosen to do so anyway. These are blessings, and I know it. I also know that I will never have in Ireland (or anywhere else) what I had in Alabama. I won’t be able to relax in the natural camaraderie of a shared cultural history. I won’t be able to draw on a reservoir of native goodwill like the one I left behind with those who invested in my growth, those I grew up to resemble. I live in a land of other people’s reservoirs now. None of this is Ireland’s fault, so how can I complain if I’m treated differently sometimes? I know it isn’t deliberate. It’s just the natural result of not having natural ties. Wouldn’t I do the same? Haven’t I? All things considered, Ireland has gone out of its way to be welcoming and generous to this blow-in. And yet, there are still occasional reminders of my status. There are times when I know, without having to be told, that my words have less weight than those of others. Other times, people find ways to tell me. Sometimes it comes from strangers, like the time I was in a slow queue at Lidl and the lady in front of me explained the delay by saying: “Sure, they’re all foreigners anyway”. I kept my mouth shut, because I knew my accent would give me away as a foreigner, too. I can’t always keep my mouth shut, though. Wherever I go, I bring my accent with me, not only on my words, but also on my ways of thinking and my basic assumptions. I know I’m different. I know it can be hard for people to understand where I’m coming from, and I know that means I will always have to work harder to earn their trust.

I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m genuinely thankful for the experience of being an immigrant. It has reshaped my heart in ways I wouldn’t trade for all the natural trust in the world. Knowing I have to work harder to get the same hearing and opportunity that is freely given to others (as it was freely given to me in Alabama) has humbled me and shown me how I took that trust for granted and thought of it as my birthright, never considering the experience of those who didn’t enjoy the same advantages I had. Overcoming the natural suspicion of others has strengthened my resolve, while simultaneously softening my attitude towards those I naturally tend to suspect. Experiencing the trust extended by people who have no natural reason to give it has taught me what grace looks like, and spurred me on to do the same for others.

I know my experience is not unique. I wonder how many Irishmen in Alabama could tell a similar story in reverse? Anyone who has left their home and their roots in order to replant their lives in a new place has likely tasted some of the same things, whether in a new country or a new county. As for me, I love my new home, and I’m proud to be able to call myself a citizen of Ireland, where being a blow-in has made me a better man.

3 thoughts on “On Being An Immigrant”

  1. “ I know my experience is not unique.”- yes, you’re not alone Seth, and in the same way as you I’m very thankful for the opportunities, very good article!

    Like

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