On being an immigrant

Hello all. If you’re a long-time Doper, you might remember me. I joined in '99, and then six or seven years ago I took an extended break from the boards.

In the intervening time, I relocated my family from the United States (Pacific Northwest) to Europe.

This is intended to be a permanent move. We’ve been here going on four years, and have no intention of returning to the US. My wife and I are actively pursuing citizenship. Our children are enrolled in local schools; they have achieved fluency in two of the three local languages and are functionally capable in the third (on top of their native English). I myself am employed by a local company, outside the ex-pat bubble.

This is our home, and we are immigrants.

It’s an interesting adjustment in mindset, making this realization. Considering what a hot-button topic immigration is in the US (and no, this is not a political thread), our time here has given us some pretty fundamental insights into what life must be like for people trying to carve out their own little piece of the American dream.

So I decided to start this thread, in case anyone wants to ask questions and learn firsthand about uprooting one’s whole world and transplanting oneself thousands of miles away. It’s not quite an “ask me anything” — there are a few areas I’m going to be vague about, such as the specific country where I’m living. There are personal reasons for this which I can explain via PM for the curious.

The first observation I’ll share is this: Being an immigrant means you feel stupid all the time.

No matter how capable you might have been in your home country, almost everything in your new country is done at least a little bit differently. Whatever you might have learned before, you have to unlearn it and do it again, for the first time. This applies to nearly everything in your day-to-day life. Even the most mundane tasks, like calling for service on your washing machine or buying stamps at the post office, can be intimidating and frustrating. It’s not just the language barrier, though that’s part of it; there are lots of little differences in procedure and expectation that trip you up. You ask the wrong question, and you get laughed at, or you fail to ask the right question, and things don’t happen the way you expect.

When you first relocate, you blunder ahead in ignorance, but you realize in short order how little you know, and how frustrating literally everything will be. At that point, your coping strategy becomes a choice between stubbornness and avoidance. Every time some new obligation arises — aw, crap, I gotta replace the tires on the car — you have a little conversation with yourself about how important it actually is, weighing whether you can postpone it a bit to save yourself the headache and embarrassment of being stupid about yet another thing, versus feeling okay in the moment and choosing to grind through one more unpleasant learning experience, because goddammit I live here now and I gotta know how to do this.

Eventually, over time — and this takes years — you acquire some confidence about the new culture, and about how to navigate its challenges. You learn a bunch of specific tasks and procedures, and then you start to generalize, recognizing the social rules that govern everything, which gives you the ability to predict, roughly, how new experiences will go. This makes a huge difference, and I can’t overstate it. And then, after even more time, you begin to feel, very slightly, less stupid.

So that’s my initial bit of wisdom. I hope it’s interesting.

Anything else anyone wants to ask about?

(And if there are others who have the same experience as me, relocating and adjusting to a new country with a significantly different culture, please feel free to join in and comment as well.)

Belated postscript: On further review, it appears that my break was a lot longer than six or seven years. My goodness, what happens to the time.

Might be quite different for you as for the typical immigrant to the US.

Biggest thing that comes to mind is whether you’re part of a community of immigrants or are pretty much on your own in the New World.

Being on your own forces you to learn the new language in order to function and interact with people, but if you’re part of a community, then you can largely function in your native language, though learning the language of the host country would be quite helpful obviously.

Beyond that, the various nuances of cultural and administrative differences that you refer to are much harder to navigate if you’re the only one around who naturally expects things to be the way they were in your country of origin. But if you’re part of a community of immigrants, then not only do you have a source of information about how things are done here, but it’s a source which itself is attuned to the nuances of how things differ, having been confronted with these same issues.

On the flip side, a lot of the immigrants to the US are at the lower end of the economic spectrum, and they have pretty hard lives here especially since they’re not eligible for many of the social assistance programs (especially if they’re illegal). Not sure if/how that applies in your case.

Re questions, the only thing that comes to mind is whether you’ve considered how things will shape up down the road. For one thing, it’s likely that your kids will go native, and you will be the only “immigrant” members of your family. (I know of a couple who moved overseas, and their children were all born in that foreign country. The day eventually came when one of the daughters was having some friends over and she kind of suggested to her mother that perhaps she wouldn’t mind if she made herself scarce when her friends were over. Turns out she was embarrassed about her mother’s American accent.) But there could be other ways in which things change over time - even for people who don’t emigrate - and even if you’ve worked something out at the present time, it’s worth thinking over how that might change over time.

What prompted the move? Was it work, politics, something else? Was it planned immigration when you moved or was it decided after?

Having moved to the UK from the US, it wasn’t quite as bad for us as a move to a country with a different language would have been but even so, you’re quite right - there’s a long adjustment period in which you’re constantly stepping on new and interesting cultural landmines. We likely also benefitted from moving to a major metropolitan area already filled with furriners like us, so we didn’t stand out so much.

There are a fair number of other immigrants here. Some are from the US, but many others are from elsewhere around Europe. There is definitely a network of information-sharing, and Google Translate is our friend when puzzling out official communications from the central government.

Some of the other Americans here are electing to stay firmly within the ex-pat bubble. They put their kids in private school, complain about the bureaucracy and limit their contacts to one another, and invariably they give up and move back to the States. By contrast, we have made the choice to get outside the bubble. Having our kids in the country’s native school system has helped a lot, as we meet and socialize with other parents. Our favorite social group to assemble is made up of two couples: one with a French husband and a Spanish wife, and the other with a Polish husband and an Italian wife.

This is a very good point. We have a fairly advantaged situation, and I didn’t mean to suggest that our circumstances give us perfect insight into all possible circumstances. Just the opposite, in fact; if it’s difficult for us, with our comparatively privileged move, just imagine how much harder it is for someone who’s struggling with work and money, on top of everything else. This experience hasn’t given us that knowledge, but it has produced a lot of sympathy. That was a core element of what I wanted to share here.

This kind of thing has already started to happen, and, to be honest, we welcome it. A big part of why we made the move was to give our children a better life and richer experiences. The fact that their facility in the local languages already outstrips my wife’s and mine is, in our view, a good thing. We want them to feel at home here, and to go native. Their pools of friends are already mostly local, with very few Americans remaining from the aforementioned bubble. I don’t mind being the American dad with the clumsy accent if it gives my kids a much wider field of opportunity in the future.

There were two factors. We first started talking about this possibility when our older daughter was coming home from kindergarten talking about the “hide and be quiet” game her teacher was playing with the class, in which it was important to “stay safe from the bad man.” This angered and horrified us. We’d already traveled in Europe, and started to seriously consider relocating.

Then Trump was elected, and that decided it for us. We actively began taking concrete steps to make the move happen literally the day after the election. See, my wife is already an immigrant, having moved from the Middle East to the US as a child and naturalizing as a teenager. This drifts into politics again, so I’ll respect the forum and stay clear of specifics, but we just didn’t feel safe in Trump’s America. We were already primed, and this tipped us over.

Thankfully, we are both highly qualified tech workers. She found the local opportunity first, and that justified our move. I had to search a little longer, and was unemployed for the first five months, but then I got my own offer of work, and we were set.

When we originally moved, we weren’t sure how permanent it would be. We kept our house back in the States, and rented it out, just so we’d have a place to come back to, if need be. But after a year, we knew we’d be able to make it work, so we sold the house and settled in.

I went from the US to work in Belgium on a temporary project, so was not inclined to dive into the local culture and being a resident. However, the experience of feeling stupid all the time was exactly how I described it. Everything was just a little different: opening a door handle, flushing a toilet, walking down the sidewalk (“you are in the bike lane, dummy!”). For someone who is used to a self-identity of intelligence and perceptiveness, that was painful.

I can’t help but be a little curious about your experience actually relocating. In my casual research, it does not appear that one just shows up and applies for a job, etc. Similar to entering the US (legally), one must jump through some hoops, and not every country is the same, yah?

I’ll be following this thread and am grateful for it, since emigrating is a (probably hopeless) goal of mine. Cervaise, I remember you well; I’m sure I have a copy of your classic running-jigsaw rant saved on my hard drive somewhere.

Really appreciate your frankness about the downsides, especially the unexpected ones. Recently I read an expat’s blog about Uruguay, which contained repeated warnings that the quality of Uruguayan underwear is unacceptably terrible, so be sure to bring plenty of your own. What a thing to find out, only after you arrive!

The weirdest gap we’ve found in available goods: there is no unscented deodorant. Well, not mass market, anyway. You can get hippie-dippy unscented deodorant in the pharmacies for fifteen euros a stick. But at the regular drugstores and department stores, all the deodorant is like Sport Talc or Ocean Fresh and shit. My wife and I both hate scented body products, so this is the one thing we have to order in bulk from US-connected suppliers. Everything else, we’ve made the transition to local products. But not deodorant.

Indeed, you can’t come on a tourist visa and interview for work and hope to land a job and secure the necessary residency permit within the time limit. Like most countries, they don’t want you coming as a resident unless they know you’re actually going to contribute value, so you have to have the job offer in hand before you begin the application process. My wife was formally employed first, so I came as a “trailing spouse,” a permanent resident without permission to work. I was free to apply and interview, though, and after a few months I got my offer and was able to apply for an upgraded residency.

I’m just curious what European country has three languages. The only one I can think of offhand is Switzerland. Belgium has two, although there is a small German area I believe.

When my wife and I spent a year in French Switzerland the laundry arrangements were that each of the ten tenants of our building got the laundry room three days every month. Three consecutive days that is. All your washing in a three day period once a month. There was a Scottish family in the building and my wife and the Scottish woman came to an agreement to share our days, so we would wash twice a month. One day, my wife (who is quite fluent in French) happened to overhear a conversation between two other tenants denouncing those foreigners who were actually sharing their wash days! Who knew how this insulted the locals.

We emigrated to Canada 52 years ago. I guess US to Canada is the least traumatic immigrant experience possible. Still there were things we had to get used to. But a lot of it had to do with being in a French province.

I worked for two years in Poland after finishing my doctorate. I wasn’t planning on staying there permanently, so it’s a different situation, but I will agree that it can be disorienting to be in a foreign country where you don’t really speak the language. However, it’d have been much more disorienting to live in a non-Western country where the culture is really different. Right now I’m not planning to live abroad again, but I enjoyed my time in Poland so it’s something that I would consider if the opportunity arises again. Though I might prefer to live in a country where I already speak the language. I’m actually fairly good with languages, but I’m too afraid to mess up so when I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language well, I get stressed about every little interaction, even though they usually go well. You’d think it’d get easier over time, but I’m still cringing today about all the misunderstandings that I’ve had trying to speak a foreign language.

My daughter code-switches between her American and British accent with ease. We find it hilarious. She is not yet embarrassed about our accents, but the teen years are still to come.

My older daughter is 10.

We have a running bit, when I pick her up from school and she’s with friends, where I will say something in French with the most obnoxious possible American accent, and I always finish with “Je suis un crétin américain!” This invariably sends my daughter and her friends into fits of hysterics.

I presume this will cease to be funny in quite the same way in a couple of years.

I moved from the US to Norway when I was 6 and lived there around 3.5 years. (It was expected to be permanent, but my dad was not good at feeling stupid all the time.) My mother is Norwegian, and we were living in the house she grew up in, with my grandmother. My sister and I went to Norwegian school, and just learned the language by immersion.

We were, within a year, I think, pretty much indistinguishable from any other Norwegian kids. We were a little bit embarrassed of our dad who couldn’t speak the language, and didn’t really try.

Then, when 3.5 years later we moved back to the US, it was like going through the whole thing again, almost. I mean, I still spoke English, but I’d completely forgotten how to spell it. The way school worked was different. I felt like I didn’t know how anything was done. And I’d missed out on learning cursive but now was expected to know it. I didn’t get pop culture references, and I knew no one would get my references. So much felt different, again.

To your last point, after we were back here, my mother learned she could get my sister and me to do anything to stop her from speaking Norwegian to us in public when we were teens. It was much more a teen thing than specifically an immigrant thing, though.

I am too. Are we not allowed to ask what country we’re talking about?

I’d just prefer to be vague for personal reasons.

There are a few possibilities, if you know the intricacies of European identity.

There’s also Luxembourg (French, German and Luxembourgish).

I’ve always loved to travel. The last journey was four months through Central America. It was the first time that I traveled with an eye toward possibly expatriating.

That learning curve that you so eloquently described was always part of the fun for me, but as I spent more and more time in a single place, considering a life there, I quickly understood that the optional, the privileged choice of a relative dilettante, was always going to be more ‘charming’ and more of an adventure than the truly quotidian once I had chosen and settled.

And what you heard most from expats was … if you get sick, or – as you intimate – when the less mundane requires your (immediate) attention – it’s tough. A pipe bursts and your flat is flooding. It’s daunting to deal with crises, even in the place of your birth and upbringing.

It’s yet another thing to manage it all when failure really isn’t an option, and where picking up and leaving isn’t the best option.

And my sense was always that … to a degree … Western cities – primarily the capitals – were, relatively, variations on a theme, and that the distinctions were – again: relatively – nuances.

Spending time with a Dutch friend and her family, f’rinstance, I noticed that they didn’t rinse the dishwashing soap from their dishes after hand washing them – what Pulp Fiction called ‘the little things.’

But moving to an other-than-Western-culture … would definitely be an interesting challenge, probably not well suited to somebody who’s immensely comfortable with the lane they’ve been in for decades.

Cheers !

My situation is similar to @Gyrate. Work moved me from the US to the UK 25 years ago. No new language to learn, just new customs. I’m far enough outside London that there are no expat bubbles. I had a couple Kiwi co-workers who’d been here who’d been here a couple years that helped me get up to speed getting around in London. A lot I learned just from observation. I spent half an hour one day standing next to a busy roundabout in Guildford working out how the right of way worked. I’d sit in a pub and pay attention to what was going on around me. And since these pubs were outside London, as soon as I spoke I became the novelty Yank that everyone wanted to talk to. Becoming a regular at a pub really sped up my integration.