Being an immigrant, even one as pampered as I was, isn’t easy.
I did not flee persecution. I did not run in the dead of the night, leaving behind my material possessions. I did not fear for my life. I did not have to board an overcrowded boat, and pray that I would survive the night. I already knew the language. I already had a job lined up. The internet was already a thing when I moved here, and I could instantaneously exchange emails with folks back home and not have to drop mucho dinero on international calls just to hear a familiar, much loved voice. Despite all these advantages, it was, and sometimes still is, not easy being an immigrant. You feel like an alien in a foreign land and, aside from the practical aspects of adjusting to a new country and lifestyle, there is the continuous ache of everything being unfamiliar and different that takes a very long time to fade away.
It is all too easy to focus on all the disadvantages of your situation as compared to your non-immigrant pals.
You have work permits and visa renewals to worry about and spend money on. You are subject to arbitrary visa lottery rules. If you get unlucky, you might be shipped home. You start contributing to your 401k much later than your peers (I was 30 when I got started). It is hard to imagine a future when you aren’t even sure which country will eventually end up being your home. You can’t merrily hop from job to job getting large raises every time you jump; switching jobs while on a work permit is much tougher. You can’t change your mind about what you want to work on, not unless you want to go directly home without passing Go or collecting $200; you were granted your skilled visa for a specific job and it is just too bad if in the decade or so that you are waiting in line for your permanent residence permit your interests happen to change. All your close relatives live half a world away and you have to spend large amounts of vacation time and money to visit family, with not much of either left over to explore the world. You worry constantly about aging parents ten thousand miles away from you. You may have to deal with tax situations spanning two countries, and figure out how to transfer money across international borders. The list goes on and on and on.
Instead of wallowing like a little piggy in your pool of self pity, focus instead on the incredible advantages of being an immigrant.
Growing up in a third world country as I did bestowed upon me a metric ass tonne of advantages. I am who I am because of it, not despite it. And who am I? For the most part, I am an ordinary, average person. But I have secret powers. My background is like a radioactive spider that bit me in the ass and bestowed upon me certain superpowers.
I Can Kindly Adjust
It is an Indian Thing. We are pros at Kindly Adjusting. When you live cheek by jowl with millions of other people, and resources are scarce, you learn to Kindly Adjust to grease the wheels of daily life.
Don’t have a reserved seat on a train, but you really need to get somewhere? Get on anyway, sit at the end of someone else’s reserved berth and ask them to Kindly Adjust.
Elevator full? No, not really. Everyone will Kindly Adjust so that their curves are fitting into each other like a beautiful jigsaw puzzle and we will get you and and your giant bag into the elevator too, no problem.
The government thinks that there is space enough here for two cars to park? Well, the lines they draw are clearly just meant to be guidelines. If you Kindly Adjust your car just so, we can park three motorbikes comfortably along with the two cars.
Years of making such kind adjustments, of rubbing up constantly against the life, dreams and aspirations of your fellow citizens breeds an ability to be flexible about life. Making the small adjustments and compromises that make life easier become second nature. You learn to bend like a motherfucking weed when the wind of life blows too strong. Others may break, but you will bend, spring right back up and keep on going, stronger than ever.
My Immune System is a Badass Motherfucker
My immune system spent years fighting off a barrage of mean third world germs. Those germs meant business and fought dirty. They were not above brass knuckles and ball kicking. In this relatively sterilized first world environment, when my immune system is faced with a meek, polite first world germ, it laughs maniacally and promptly stomps it dead. When flu season rolls around and knocks Mr. BITA (despite his flu shots) right on his ass, I breeze through my days stubbornly healthy. When our toddler brings back little bags of germs from the cesspool that is toddler daycare, again it is Mr. BITA who succumbs, while I remain annoyingly in the pink of health.
My Worst is Worse Than Your Worst
When I lived in Bangalore, India, I resided about 4 miles from my place of work. More often than not my commute took about an hour. Each way. And this is with folks honking almost constantly, motorbikes and autorickshaws cutting me off all the time, pedestrians leaping into the path of traffic willy-nilly. I now reside in the Bay Area, known for its terrible traffic. Well, I’ll tell you this – the Bay Area has nothing on Bangalore. I now reside about 15 miles from work and my commute takes about 45 minutes, all the while moving along slowly in orderly traffic with nobody honking. Compared to what I was used to, this is a dream commute.
Here is another example.
When I moved to San Francisco I used the Caltrain to commute to my place of work in the Bay Area. I asked a coworker who lived in the city already how crowded the train got during rush hour. “Oh very crowded”, he said, “It can get quite hard”. So on the day of my first journey I woke up extra early so that I could get to the station and find a good position for myself, elbows akimbo, stomach muscles tight and ready, adrenaline flowing, ready to jostle and wrestle my way on to the train. Imagine my shock when I discovered that a crowded train meant that after the first two stops every seat was taken and there were maybe five people standing in the aisle. In India, this is what a crowded train looks like:
More often than not the worst case scenarios of my upbringing are far worse than the worst case scenarios of my adopted home. And so I am able to deal with the worst case here with aplomb and grace, and thus appear to be much more badass than I actually am.
My Expectations are Low
When we first started house shopping here, Mr. BITA and I would enter a prospective house and have the following reactions:
Mr. BITA: “Eh, this is kind of cramped.” or “The backyard is really small”.
Me: “This is humongous. Are we royalty? Why are we looking at this palace? What are we ever going to do with so much space?”
And then we would both proceed to look at the other like they were crazy.
My background of less is a big advantage. I perceive things that are considered ordinary or even sub-par here as luxurious. My first car purchase after I moved here was a Honda Civic. I remember proudly sending a picture of the car to my father who had long lusted after that car but not been able to afford it; 10-15 years ago in India a Honda Civic was a luxury vehicle that only the rich could afford.
Where I come from gives me the superpower of acquiring a thing most ordinary and feeling like I’ve won the goddamn lottery.
Give Past You Mad Respect
Turn around for a moment and face Past You. Focus on all the experiences Past You has endured and survived that make Now You a badass motherfucker, a force to contend with. The next time you feel yourself about to bemoan your humble origins and lack of advantages, stop and take stock of your superpowers instead. And give Past You the mad respect you deserve.