On being an immigrant

Today is the day of the immigrant — and this is something I can identify with, as I too am an immigrant. It is something, that once started can be passed on from generation to generation: I emigrated to Cordova due to my husband’s health; my mother immigrated to London from Italy with her parents because of financial reasons — though first they tried their luck in Australia.

When my grandfather went over to Australia a second time with his brother (which entailed a long, arduous journey by boat, lasting a month), my grandmother and mother were due to follow, but unfortunately WWII broke out and they were separated — seven years passed before they were finally reunited, by which time my mother had grown into a young woman and felt her father quite a stranger. In his absence, my great grandfather (her mother’s father) had adopted the role of father and she grew extremely fond of him: he was a loving, sensible and very wise man, so much so that he was elected to be the mayor of their town in the Piemonti region. When he died a few years later, the whole town and neighbouring villages turned up at his funeral; but my mother and grandmother felt their world had collapsed.

After a few years had passed, my grandfather, or ‘nonno’ as we say in Italian, decided to up and leave Italy once again, looking for a better fortune in London. So my mother, together with her mother (my ‘nonna’) and uncle emigrated to London. They left their whole life behind them: friends, family, customs, climate, traditions, way of life, education… and so much more. My mother, being the only child just like her mother was an only child, felt the sharp and harsh contrast of the loneliness and lost feeling that an immigrant can feel. However, in the end, my grandparents had to go back to Italy because my nonno suffered from bad angina due to the smutty, London fogs. My mother was left behind in London where she had a stable job and where she had already met my father. Her future in that cold, grey city was soon signed and sealed.

Meanwhile, the story was much the same for my father and his family, with the exception that my ‘nonni’ (grandparents) went straight from the Trentino region in the Dolomites to London, with no detours. However, many relatives did head for America instead; hence my family is distributed far and wide. It was hard for my paternal grandparents too. When the war broke out, my father, grandfather and uncles were all interned in prison for a while until it could be proved that they weren’t Mussolini’s spies. So they also left behind everything they had, while trying to anglicise themselves (though my grandparent’s English was fairly poor as they always preferred to speak in their Italian dialect). The contrast between living in Italy and England was stark, what with the better weather and more laid-back approach of Italy as compared to the then colder, frostier climate and sterner way-of-life in England.

So when I look back and remember my earlier generations, I can sympathise with them: I too had to leave my country in search of a dry, arid climate. Though I am very fortunate in many more ways than one, I still feel the pinch after all these years of being an immigrant, always different to the rest, to not having your family round you nor there to support you and to mostly going it ‘alone’; this is felt even more so when you live in a small community like a village, where you see that most people have their ‘extended’ family around them. It is not easy either if you have had to give up your career or studies and adapt and retrain, redirecting the course of your life, or when you see the best friends you had gradually fade in the background due to not being able to physically meet up as often as before, or when you notice that part of your character may sometimes become muted by the sense of wistfulness and nostalgia… though, needless to say, much worse are those who leave because of wars, political instability, poverty and natural disasters — this is no comparison to my case.

However, I know that neither I nor my past generations were the only ones in this situation. Just in my catholic secondary school alone there were various nationalities and all were immigrants, also experiencing the same feelings. In my class there were Irish, Italians, Spanish, Czechs, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, Hongkongers, Indians, Sri Lankans, Africans, South Americans etc., etc., etc., (As you can see, I grew up with a wide mix of people, and great fun it was too, learning about other cultures and ways of life!) I know that their parents also felt the pinch of leaving everything behind. Many never grasped the language too well and continued to speak to their children in their mother tongues so the kids grew up learning their original language fluently. Even here in Cordova, which is much smaller than London, I know many immigrants: Moroccans, Syrians, Algerians, Dutch, Canadian, Chinese, Ghanaian, Senegalese, Turks, Colombians, Hondurans, Romanians, Pakistanis, Indians, Georgians, Israelis etc., etc., etc.

They and I are grateful for the opportunities, friendliness and accommodating ways that the host countries offer, as so too are our former generations, though generally when you are an immigrant, you do always feel a bit different… or at least those are my sentiments…

The important thing I have learnt from all this is:

  • to not to consider yourself too much,
  • to be ever-grateful of all you have,
  • to view other people as your family and to be like moving water, being able to flow past obstacles and always adapt, and
  • to be a child of God, a child of the world and another child, brother or sister in what is this, our vast, worldwide family.

Well, that’s it from me for now, but to end with, here’s a moving poem about immigrants:

 “THINGS WE CARRY ON THE SEA” BY WANG PING (born 1957, Shanghai, China)

We carry tears in our eyes: good-bye father, good-bye mother

We carry soil in small bags: may home never fade in our hearts

We carry names, stories, memories of our villages, fields, boats

We carry scars from proxy wars of greed

We carry carnage of mining, droughts, floods, genocides

We carry dust of our families and neighbours incinerated in mushroom clouds

We carry our islands sinking under the sea

We carry our hands, feet, bones, hearts and best minds for a new life

We carry diplomas: medicine, engineer, nurse, education, math, poetry, even if they mean nothing to the other shore

We carry railroads, plantations, laundromats, bodegas, taco trucks, farms, factories, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, temples…built on our ancestors’ backs

We carry old homes along the spine, new dreams in our chests

We carry yesterday, today and tomorrow

We’re orphans of the wars forced upon us

We’re refugees of the sea rising from industrial wastes

And we carry our mother tongues
(ai),حب  (hubb), ליבע (libe), amor, love

平安 (ping’an), سلام ( salaam), shalom, paz, peace

希望(xi’wang), أمل (’amal), hofenung, esperanza, hope, hope, hope

As we drift…in our rubber boats…from shore…to shore…to shore…

Thank you for reading. Goodbye for now — take care! xxx