On being an immigrant

On being an immigrant

by Janice Nigro

I have never been quite sure what exactly is the difference between an expat and an immigrant. My grandparents were Sicilian immigrants but I was a US expat when I was in Norway? One thing I can tell you is that I felt no different than anyone else in the Norwegian Directorate for Immigration waiting for my interviews to be approved for my work visas. In Norwegian, there is a single word for all of us-utlendinger-foreigners. In that office, I was no different than the Polish, Russians, or asylum seekers from various parts of the world. I had to come up with a valid reason to be in Norway.

I guess the distinction is based on whether you plan to leave some day. An immigrant is someone who goes to another country with the intention of living there permanently. An expat is someone who goes to work in another country for “a while.” My original plan was to stay only 6 months in Norway but that turned into 7 years. But in that time I got a feeling for what it is like to be an immigrant.

As an immigrant, you might expect on a personal level for things to be different. You might not speak the language. I for sure did not speak Norwegian. I worked pretty hard to change this but no matter how long I might have lived there, I would never be able to shake my US accent. Norwegians would always know that I was from somewhere else.

The food is going to be different. Yes, the food was different in Norway. I was shocked how different it was. I still remember the first time I realized that the aroma in the grocery store originated from dried lamb hanging on the wall. Fortunately I had found myself in the company of a lot of Frenchmen who not only knew what to do with the ingredients available (I can’t tell you how good it is to have fresh from the forest picked porcini and chanterelles cooked for you) but could take a quick trip home to find the other ingredients that were not readily available. And Norwegians and some utlendinger who knew how to cook the dried lamb.

You might dress differently. Most days I could not be distinguished from anyone else based on my clothes (unless I was wearing Lululemon), but I could never have pulled off wearing a bunad (the national costume) on Syttende Mai, the national day for Norway.

You have no idea what the customs of the culture are. No stores are open on Sundays and worse yet they can be closed for several days around holidays forcing you to, oh my gosh, plan ahead. It’s stressful to have to plan ahead, and if you didn’t do it right, you might find yourself with only a bag of potato chips remaining (and no chocolate) on the last day of a three-day holiday. There might be rules about what time of the day you can purchase beer for a Friday night at your friends. Or you might have to ask to share the chair lift on the ski slope…

It is part of the adventure of living in another country. I had never thought to light a candle at breakfast before I went to Norway, but it works to get you through the dark days in winter.

The one thing I thought would not be different was work. I thought I could just slip in quietly and do my job and be accepted for it. It didn’t work for me, even with a prestigious grant. So I had to wonder under less auspicious circumstances how hard is it if you are an immigrant?

We say us and them a lot. But I started to think about how the idea of immigration has parallels in our every day lives. We are all immigrants in a way, immigrants in our local worlds, every time we step into something new. In Norway, I was clearly from another country, but as a woman I also feel like an immigrant in my own chosen career of science predominated by men. I don’t look like them, I don’t act like them, and usually I don’t dress like them. I even only have a PhD rather than an MD to do medical research.

It may be your first day of school, a career change, your first day as a parent, you come from LA, you are underwater-it is leaving a place you know to be in a place you do not know. Feminists, women, men, physically challenged, Asians, Midwesterners, veterans, scuba divers…we are all immigrants.

After some point in time in Norway, I said, I don’t even fit in professionally and this will never change. My immigration “problem” was more of an integration problem. I maybe took the easy way out and went home (and that’s another type of immigration, returning home).

I was lucky though because I had a country I could go home to. It is not the case for many people today, which is why they are immigrants. But maybe we should see the similarities in our situations-that immigrating is something we all do whether for a job, a move to another country, or eating sushi for the first time-and figure out how to integrate rather than to close doors and build walls.

©2016 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

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