I’m tired of being an immigrant

I tell Salumeh and my Wine and Write group before my trip to New York. I’m not sure what makes me say that, but it seems so true. After living in Pakistan for twenty-two years, and two years in the UK, I moved to the US. But thirty two years in the US doesn’t change my status as an immigrant. My immigrant-ness begins in October 1989, when after honeymooning in Italy, France, and the UK, I arrive in the Bay Area and make it home.

When does being an immigrant end?

So thirty two years later with my writing group, I confront this question: When does being an immigrant end? We meet regularly to discuss the stories we are writing. We advise each other on what works and encourage each other to keep writing. But today, I am stuck with this thought about being an immigrant.

The Urdu word for immigrant isمہاجر (Mohajir from Arabic). It has a religious connotation for when the Prophet Mohammad left Mecca to create a new city Al Madinah Al Munawwarah ( Arabic: المدينة المنورة )‎’The Enlightened City’. In Pakistan, the term is used for those who came from India to Pakistan after the Partition.

So when I became an immigrant all those years ago, I wonder what category of immigrant I became. Am I the one who left? Am I one who came to create? Am I here for myself? Or am I a combination of all and more?

The other label that I took on was motherhood. A label that lasts the rest of my life. Then I became a professor. But that label was erased last year when I took on writing full time. Unlike those two, taking on the label of an immigrant doesn’t foretell joy like motherhood nor the gratification of professorship.

Becoming an immigrant assumes an otherness from those who were born here, like my children. Unlike them, I was tested before I could belong. But even after passing that testthe Citizenship test if you’re wonderingI retain the title of immigrant.

Sample US Citizenship and Immigration Services...test for immigrants wanting citizenship
Sample test for US Citizenship

Being an immigrant assumes separation. It’s about leaving one home and making another. It’s also about leaving people, traditions, ways of being. But aren’t we all immigrants to some extent? As Mohsin Hamid put it so eloquently, we are all migrants in one way or another in the 21st Century. We always leave something behindeven our older selves.

She stopped being an immigrant

In 1960, when mummy was in her early twenties, she travelled on the RMS Circassia to Pakistan and took on the title of immigrant. After sailing past Africa, the ship docked at the port of Karachi. Mummy and Abu took the train from Karachi to Chakwal. And then for the rest of her adult life she lived in Pakistan. Without much planning, however, fifteen years after Abu passed, she stopped being an immigrant. She returned to the UK. And that’s where she lives in Longstanton, South of Cambridge.

“Do we weave ourselves into the pattern that our mother began? Does our mother’s life then become the grisaille to our own? That monochromatic grey scale underpainting to which we add the color of our lives.”

One immigrant the other no more an immigrant: Mummy and me
One an immigrant the other no more an immigrant: Mummy and me

Does our mother’s life then become the grisaille to our own

When I make my yearly visits to her in Cambridge, I wonder what her younger self had thought about when she left the UK for Pakistan. I left Pakistan at around the same age. Are there patterns of behaviors for mothers and daughters? Do we weave ourselves into the pattern that our mother began? Does our mother’s life then become the grisaille to our own? That monochromatic grey scale underpainting to which we add the color of our lives.

A honeymoon at the shrine of a poet

The story that Salumeh is writing revolves around a mother and daughter. In her story about another time and another place, she takes us with the duo to a honeymoon at a shrine of a poet. She takes us to this shrine with the bride and the groom and his first wife and their daughter such a fascinating concept to the story of these lives. A husband, two wives, a daughter all gravitating toward a poet. This interconnectedness of a mother and daughter and the choices they make translates into narratives that create dimensions to the stories we tell.

My story overlaps with my mother’s, as it does with Selma’s, and with the story of so many others. But each one of us seeks our own pilgrimage, or own inspiration. For some, the return creates peace and for others, we seek out the poetry that keeps us going.

Pilgrimage to Greenwich Village

In New York, I go on my own pilgrimage of a poet. We’re staying in Greenwich Village. I have read a post about the 11 landmarks of immigration in Greenwich Village. I will look for the home of Emma Lazarus, author of “The New Colossus,” It’s on 18 West 10th Street. The ending of this poem engraved on the statue of liberty is commonly known, but the lines that resonate with me are:

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles...

A section of The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

An Immigrant in Greenwich Village

Despite the heaviness of being an immigrant, the lines speak to me. I walk past Emma Lazarus’ house, but the location means nothing. It’s the words that stay. The image of the mighty mother with imprisoned lightning.

I’m here for a short trip to meet family. I sit in their condo looking out at Washington Square Park and we talk about the farm at home. Home in Pakistan. In the Punjab. Because that’s what those of us born on a farm do. We remain connected to the farm. Even if we’re in a time zone half way across the world.

Garibaldi funded by Italian immigrants
Garibaldi in Washington Square Park

I am comforted in that conversation. The tube wells, the fish, the crop that has already been harvested and the plan for the next year. Despite a lifetime of living away from the farm, we return to the seasons of a life we once lived.

Immigrants memorialize their hero in Washington Square Park

On our way back to the hotel, we walk through Washington Square Park. We come across a statue of what looks like a hunter surrounded by leaves. The plaque says it’s Garibaldi. Is it the Garibaldi I know from the movie, The Leopard”? Wasn’t that set in Sicily? What is he doing here in New York?

A quick google solves that mystery. Yes it is Giuseppe Garibaldi, who led the Redshirts, the Thousand, in Sicily.

And what is he doing in the park?

A group of homesick Italian immigrants in 1888 dedicated the statue to their hero who had already been dead for eight years. And now he stands here in the park welcoming guests from California who have no clue who he is.

And where does all this leave me regarding my immigrant status and whether I want it changed? I’m not sure, but I got a week to reflect and another to put this post together. And many more questions to ponder.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

✤✤✤

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

In 2013, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah, a story of immigrants, won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

In this novel, Ifemelu is raised in Nigeria, where she falls in love with Obinze. Ifemelu leaves for America to study. Here she struggles because of her race. Post 9-11, Obinze ends up an undocumented immigrant in London.

11 Comments »

  1. Here we are the immigrants and back “home” the emigrants. Either way, there does not seem a compleat belonging anymore once moved to another country. It might feel at times like sitting between two chairs. But isn’t it also our own mindset that tells us that we are immigrants and different because we know both worlds so well? Or is it because we do not feel 100 % connected to the new country and feel kind off excluded no matter how hard we try? Anniqua you got me thinking… What an interesting topic! Well written! And the mother daughter relationship – well, don’t get me started. 😅

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This is definitely home, but you’re right. It is like sitting between two chairs. I wouldn’t have it any other way though 🙂

  2. Loved this post. So relatable. And yet so thought provoking. Love the comment of sitting on two chairs!
    In my humble opinion, We become immigrants as soon as we leave our birthplace and move away. Though we call the new country ‘Home’, the word ‘Home’ evokes a myriad of feelings and emotions even after decades have passed.
    I always say change is good- humans adapt and adjust. It teaches us to find and depend on our inner strengths.
    And in actuality- we are just immigrants on Earth- transient passerby’s and lookers-on….

  3. A very thought-provoking article (and an eye-catching headline)! Where do we really belong? I felt rootless growing up, even in my hometown, because I spent the first seven years of my life elsewhere. I feel like a foreigner each time I return. But do I feel completely at home in my adopted home? How can I, when even a visit to the grocery store is a reminder of my otherness. I agree with Barbara. Once you move, you are a foreigner here and a foreigner back there.

  4. I really enjoyed your blog, it got Roy and I thinking and guess what, we came up with more questions than answers! In answer to how your mother seemed to feel on the day that she left, she was excited, as we accompanied her and Abu and AF to the departing train in London. She was to be his princess, a concept that I, as a young teen found very romantic. They had spent time together as a new little family and we visited every weekend to a house full of laughter and much giggling from Abu..
    I could write a blog on being an immigrant from my perspective if you like.
    Liza

    • I would love to read your perspective. This is what I enjoy most about this blog – it’s a perfect place to share and connect with ideas from all over the planet. Thank you! xoxo

  5. Every place I have lived in Asia, in Africa, in North America, has given me something different that was not available in the other places. Now no place feels completely home.
    Because some flavor, words, smells, or humor are missing. How can an immigrant return to their country of origin if they are not the same person who left?

  6. Twice I have lived in foreign countries but my heart always belonged to Pakistan. I can live in another country only for a few years but not forever. I cannot describe the joy I felt each time we landed back and heard the typical, familiar Pakistani music that they played in the aircraft. Pure joy to return each time. So interesting to read different views.

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