The immigrant’s dilemma — where’s “home”?

By Caitlin Kelly

New York -- where I've lived since 1989
New York — where I’ve lived since 1989

Have you seen the new film “Brooklyn”? From the excellent novel by U.S.-based Irish writer Colm Toibin.

I saw it this week and was once more struck by the question of what’s home for those of us who have chosen to leave behind the country of our birth.

We didn’t flee in terror, so we’re not refugees who simply can’t stay in our country of origin, and leave knowing that we might never be able to return.

If we’re really lucky, we arrive in our new country with health, some savings, a good post-secondary education and skills, speaking the new language and with friends, relatives and/or a decent job awaiting.

 

In the film “Brooklyn”, young Eilis, the heroine, leaves the small Irish town of Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, with a job as a sales clerk in a department store arranged for her. A local priest also pays for her night classes in accounting.

It’s a lovely film, and one I enjoyed — but it is a golden story, and a much smoother arrival than many face.

Lake Massawippi, Quebec, one of our favorite spots to which we keep returning
Lake Massawippi, Quebec, one of our favorite spots to which we keep returning

I left my native Canada in 1988 to move from Montreal to small town New Hampshire, legally allowed to do so because of my mother’s American citizenship, which gave me access to a “green card”, the coveted right to live and work legally in the U.S.

I arrived in New York in 1989 with the man I would later marry — and soon be divorced from — with no job or contacts or advanced degree, which I would discover most my competitors in journalism possessed.

Then I weathered three recessions and an industry that has lost 40 percent of its workforce since 2008. Reinvention once is challenging enough. Post-secondary education in the U.S. is often extremely costly, and student loans are the only debt you can never discharge through declaring bankruptcy; I recently interviewed a young woman who owes more than $200,000 — for an undergraduate degree at a non-Ivy League school, a choice she now bitterly regrets.

I’ve been back to Canada many times since then, sometimes as often as four to six times a year. I’m not super-homesick, but it’s an easy drive for us, and I still have very close friends back in Ontario.

Every visit leaves me with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret for leaving friendships of a depth I’ve never found here and a kind of social capital impossible to achieve in a nation with 10 times the population of Canada.

But also relief for the option of another place to be, to try new things — like becoming a nationally ranked saber fencer and studying interior design — the freedom to create a new identity. I know I’ve done things while living in the States I’d never have ventured at home.

(I’ve also lived in England, France and Mexico, albeit for shorter periods of time.)

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The oddest moment for me is when I head north by train, because as it’s crossing the bridge high above the Niagara River we’re briefly suspended between the United States and Canada, their respective flags visible as well as the clouds of mist rising from Niagara Falls.

What better metaphor?

In the film, Eilis is initially wracked with homesickness; small-town Ireland, though, is so much more different from Brooklyn than big-city Toronto, where I grew up. It was no huge shock for me to arrive in New York, having visited many times before.

It was a shock for me to adjust to some American ways of behaving, from the relentless pressure to be real friendly all the time (exhausting!) to the omnipresence of privately-owned guns, (the subject of my first book.)

I still have difficult processing, (which I now pronounce as prawh-cess, not the Canadian pro-cess), the values of a country where everyone, everywhere, exhorts one another to “Have a good day!” — while millions of people own guns and many people now fear teaching in any classroom (thanks to so many college campus shooting massacres and that in Newtown, CT) or going to the movies (ditto) or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.p

Pre-emptive pleasantry?

And the poverty rate of 18 percent — 12 percent in Canada (OECD figures) — is depressing as hell to me.

The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking -- given the astonishing wealth here
The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

Watching a movie about immigration to the U.S., (my favorite of the few on that subject is the 2009 indie film, Amreeka), suddenly brought up a host of feelings I usually keep under wraps;  when you move to another country, you’re expected to fit in, to adopt its ways, to salute its flag and (in the U.S.) recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which I still don’t know or do.

In “Brooklyn” Eilis flees a tiny, gossipy town with few job prospects — the same reason I left Toronto, a city of 2.6 million now.

I recently had lunch there with a young friend, 32, who is super-smart and has a fantastic work history in his field. Yet he echoed what I keep hearing from people decades younger than I there, a deep aversion to taking risks. As one friend, also in her 30s, reminded me, if you misjudge the size or enthusiasm of the Canadian marketplace for your idea, there’s nowhere to hide your failure. With only a few major cities, where to go next?

And failing, getting fired, losing market share — these remain shameful in Canada for many people. That, in itself, discourages innovation, let alone the social and financial capital it takes to move ahead.

In the States?

Hah! People like Martha Stewart go to prison and come out unscathed, returning to their wealth and social circles. It can create a culture of lying and deception, (see: New York Legislature and its parade of felony convictions for corruption), but also encourages risk taking.

Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York
Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York

If dozens, if not hundreds, of people hadn’t been willing to take chances on me here, I’d have nothing to show for my own risk in coming here. I’m always grateful for that, and to them.

 

When you leave your home country behind, you also lose — especially in pre-Internet, social media days — the intimacy of your friends and family’s lives, all those births and christenings and showers and weddings you probably can’t afford the time or money to celebrate in person.

When I married for the second time, I chose to do so on a small island in the harbor of Toronto, a place filled with happy memories and the people I still feel closest to, even decades later.

I’ve made some friends in New York, but few, and several friendships here I thought would — as my Canadian relationships have — last for decades ended abruptly, three of them within a few years.  That’s a cultural divide I’ve never accepted or been able to successfully breach.

In Toronto on our last visit, I sat with a friend from university and her 23-year-old daughter, who I’d first met as a bump in her mother’s belly at my first wedding and only once more when she was 13. Now she’s an accomplished actress.

Another classic NYC pleasure. It can't be all work-all-the-time!
Another classic NYC pleasure. It can’t be all work-all-the-time!

There are some immigrants whose lives explode into massive wealth and success when they choose the U.S. Others find the grinding lack of social safety nets and ever-shaky job market, (zero job security, few unions, low wages, extraordinary competition), simply too much and return ‘home” once more.

If you have changed countries for a new one — especially the U.S. — how does/did that feel?

What have been your biggest adjustments?

My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions