I’ve started reading Immigration and Identity by Salman Akhtar. He speaks about the loss of identity and the mourning process involved for emigrants. I had never thought about it in those terms, but yes, when you emigrate, your identity changes to a degree, and yes, there is definitely mourning involved.
In my case:
I lost my career, and I based my self-worth in large part on being a kick-ass librarian, so I lost that, too. I went overnight from running Europe’s second-largest archaeology library–which involved, among other things, managing two assistants, creating a full-blown archaeology classification, and planning and implementing (beginning to, anyway) the digitization of the catalogs–to being unemployed, and to being considered worth less than an American college undergraduate. I had to be grateful that someone found a loophole to hire me despite not being “certified”.
I lost my friends and family–those I care about, anyway. I didn’t really lose them, of course, but emailing and Facebook-friending isn’t the same as having a chat over a nice cup of tea. Also, for a while, I was seen as a friendless immigrant, because people here didn’t see me interact with my friends and family back home.
I was an independent, take-charge kind of gal back home, and here I instantly became dependent on T. Example: I couldn’t drive a car and I lived in an all-car environment. On one of the first days after emigrating, I thought I’d walk over to my in-laws’ house. A nice 30-minute walk. Well, apparently only prostitutes did that, because I got honked and whistled at and one truck even pulled up in a parking lot in front of me and only drove off when I flipped open my black, phone-sized paper notepad, brought it to my ear and started talking into it. The last and most persistent honker turned out to be T’s best friend, who insisted on giving me a lift the rest of the way, telling me it wasn’t safe. Lesson learned; no more walking.
No more walking (and eating out way too often, in mostly Mexican restaurants) meant I gradually became obese. So my body doesn’t feel like my own anymore. I can almost fit two of my Dutch selves into my American one. Yes, everything’s bigger in Texas.
What I have found is that there’s my Dutch self–slim, fit, active, adventurous, and damn good at her job even if nobody noticed–that stopped abruptly at age 34, and then there’s my American self, which I have gradually and begrudgingly become despite myself.
You know how old people sometimes say they still feel like young men and women on the inside? I know how they feel and I know why they say it. I feel like I’m trapped in this body that makes me old before my time. And I still have the need to let people know that this is not the real me. That I’m mot really as pathetic as I look–that my real self could still show them a thing or two.
To be clear: this is not meant to be a post in which I spew a cloud of self-pity and/or self-loathing and nothing else. This will be an ongoing story for at least a couple more posts, so bear with me. I’ve got a point to make and a point to get to within myself as I write.
Meanwhile, if you’re an emigrant, how has your identity changed? How has it stayed the same? Or maybe some aspects have only become stronger? Or maybe you have experienced an identity change in an entirely different way? Share your story in a comment.