The privilege of being an immigrant – like me.

ImageI suppose I always knew that my migration history, as they call it, was one of privilege. Of course I knew. International school attendance, frequent intercontinental flying, middle class parents, difficult but somewhat straight-forward bureaucratic procedures, friendships and relationships that stretch out throughout the planet. Of course I always knew that there was nothing particularly traumatizing about my migration experience. Aside from missing my family and sometimes finding it hard to know where I saw my future, location wise, my actual immigration history is fairly uneventful. Nothing even so much as definitive about it. I could and can always leave. The freedom to come and go that I have has been evident my whole life. My migration history is defined by choice upon choice and opportunity, if anything. I am lucky. I’ve known that, always. But it took leaving the land that victimizes my story of privilege to really feel that in my very core. To really see that the only thing “wrong” about my story as an immigrant in the Netherlands is the national collective perception of immigrants that haunts my existence. To notice that I wouldn’t feel this way in every setting. And right now, months into living in a place I never called home, that I never made a claim to belonging to, I realize that I’ve never felt like less of an outsider.

My life as a so-called immigrant, a post that I wrote about prejudice and pain in my life attempting to navigate Dutch waters, was a heart-felt confession to the things I’d attempted to hide. The rejection I attempted to ignore, the hurt that I buried inside in shame. International migration has been as central to my sociological work as it has been to my biography. But it’s only now, right in the heart of immigrant society, living in Brooklyn New York, that I know the problem was never really me. I’m sensitive, sure. But it takes a lot to break down a person and humiliate them to the point that, even in trying their very best and fulfilling expectations of what makes a “model immigrant”, they still feel like second class citizens. It takes a lot of confirmation that you’re not good enough before you believe it to be true, trust me. I never made a claim to this city or this borough as my home. And yet no one makes me feel like I shouldn’t. After year upon year of being asked where I’m from – “you have an accent” – or why I left Brazil – I was eleven, take a wild guess on how much choice I had on the matter – or whether I am planning on going back – I clearly never lived there as an adult, so what exactly does “going back” mean? – I am practically shocked how little of that you ever come across here.

And yet I have no delusions about America being that receptive to everybody. I suppose a lot of it has to do with the fact that my “privilege” translates well. My freedom to come and go, my immigration status, my middle class, highly educated habitus and even the trivially assigned color of my skin. They translate. I don’t need to explain it to anyone. I came here to study international migration, and undocumented migration at that. I researched this population extensively before ever stepping foot in New York City and I am somewhat ashamed to admit now that I honestly believed that I understood the full extent of their pain and experiences of rejection and prejudice because of my own experiences. It took understanding the material realities of these amazingly strong young immigrants to realize what an absurd assumption that was. I most sincerely thought I could relate to their experiences simply because I knew what it was like to feel like a second class citizen. And the worse part of it is that to a certain extent I really do. But I only do, and that is clearer than ever right now, I only know what it’s like to be excluded and disrespected and to lack opportunities, because I live in a country that makes me vulnerable. That makes me believe that I am rightfully, even if for the wrong reasons, rightfully excluded.

I haven’t assimilated. I never attempted to. I never accepted that condition as a valid one for belonging, because it would be a lie. I won’t ever be just Dutch or Brazilian or anything for that matter. National belonging isn’t something that I aspire to or identify with. I speak Dutch fluently and I’ve had jobs and gone to university and I’m in graduate school and I try hard and, just like everyone else, I deserve the space to be in between. To spread myself across categories, to experiment with identities, to not have to please anyone in particular. And that shouldn’t mean that I don’t get to feel like a full citizen, with a voice. That I have less of a claim to Amsterdam as my home. Or that I shouldn’t get asked for so much as an interview for one of the twenty odd jobs I have applied to at my home university – even though I’m a good student and a dedicated professional with plenty of office experience in order to do the random clerical jobs I’ve applied for. The fact that I even have to still debate this exhausts me. It’s clear, like sunshine on a fall day in the New York sky, that I am not the fucking problem. I won’t ever fit some mold of a fully adapted immigrant. I can’t. And yet it saddens me to realize that maybe there just isn’t space for the person I am in the society that I’ve called home for all these years. I identified with the life stories of undocumented immigrants I am studying from afar because I feel the kind of exclusion that they so bravely voice. And my point is that, with the differences between us in terms of just how lucky I’ve been in my migration history, I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t identify with their pain. And I do.

I know that in Amsterdam my life chances lay not in the “host society” – I hate this term, but it serves a purpose in this formulation, so bear with me – but in the international bubble that I’ve never had difficulty navigating. This parallel world that I’ve discussed before on the blog has been my little haven. But what if it didn’t have to be? What if I could fit into some mainstream society without having to fit into some ridiculous mold? I am starting to think that’s possible. It’s the reason that I enjoy being in New York and the reason that I enjoyed being in Washington DC before that. The international bubble, in these urban centers, is no bubble at all. It may not be mainstream country-wide, and it may not be perfect, but I can navigate these societies without having to live in some parallel world.

Three years ago, when my mother was dropping me off at the airport in Washington DC the first time I had gone to visit her after she moved there, she said something quite out of character that I haven’t been able to forget. See, the thing is that she usually tries to lift my spirits when it comes to the difficulties I experience being an immigrant in the Netherlands. She relativizes everything, and I suspect it has to do with the fact that she left Amsterdam too many years ago and now barely remembers the frustration and prejudice she experienced when she was walking in my shoes. I get frustrated trying to explain to her why I can’t see myself staying there long-term, when all she sees is the nostalgia she feels for the place and the fact that it’s a non-violent, progressive, relatively women-friendly and safe society to live in. She understands what I say, but she can’t remember what it feels like, I don’t think. It’s our most common argument. I say I am shopping around for a country to move to after graduate school and she starts naming reasons for me to stay and fight for my space, stand up for what’s right or whatever. That day, however, at Washington Dulles International Airport, my mother hugged me all teary-eyed and said: “I’m sorry you have to go back”. I asked her what she meant and she said: “I know how hard it is to live there.”

The irony of it is that I remember feeling sorry for her, moving to America. All of the literature on race and sexism I’d ever read was mostly American. Not to mention all of the horrible anti-immigrant Fox News style TV. I used to worry so much about people being rude or racist to my mother when she lived in Holland, especially before we moved to Amsterdam. I worried that her dark complexion and thicker accent meant she couldn’t blend in as well as I could and by that point I had had my fair share of horrible experiences myself. And now she was going to have to go to a place even worse than Europe, I thought. That was, until I visited her. I couldn’t have been more wrong, really. No one ever asked where we were from, no heads turned when we spoke Portuguese in public, no rude sales person in a fancy store who wouldn’t bother helping us assuming we clearly couldn’t afford anything because we’re immigrants… None of that. None. Nada. Zero.

So when my mother turned to me and said “I know how hard it is to live there”, I didn’t have to ask any more questions. We both knew exactly what she meant. 

  1. This is beautifully written, and I can so relate. I also went to an international school and have lived my life as an immigrant, belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I now live and have citizenship in a country where the politicians and the media appear to be openly hostile to those who are like me. Yes, like me. Because even though I am now a British citizen, I will always be an immigrant. (I was born in Brazil)

    When I was younger, I declared myself as a ‘citizen of the world’ and I’d still like to say that, even though now I see that the world may more often than not see me as an outsider.

    But sometimes… when the sun is shining in my life, I can see that being an outsider is really not so bad after all.

    • Thank you! I always say that we, truly international, placeless kids are the ignored minority group of migration studies. We know so much about labor migrants and transnational business people and the second generation children of immigrants… But so very little about how our identities are affected by movement and placelessness. It makes it so hard for us to frame our experiences! So I’m always really happy when my writing about these issues somewhat resonate with others. Thanks for stopping by, I really enjoyed your blog too! 🙂

      • Thank you! As thanks for stopping by my blog too. And I completely agree with you. Someone really should do a PhD on us ‘placeless kids’ as we are a fantastic case study regarding issues of identity and belonging.

  2. Reblogged this on Humans and Aliens and commented:
    Beautifully written, often mirroring my own experiences of belonging nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

  3. Agnes said:

    I’ve got tears in my eyes. Brave, Lau! Te amo

  4. Marjo de Theije said:

    Wow Laura.

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