I had the suitcase with all the books, I remember. Recipe books, my mother’s accounting books, romance novels I had secretly read just for the naughty parts. I was 12 years old and immigrating with my family to Canada… leaving my island, my haven in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
I think out of all my points of identity: Asian, woman, heterosexual, millennial… the one that has created the most powerful ripples in my life, ripples that still affect me as much as they did 21 years ago, is my identity as an immigrant.
I have been an immigrant most of my life. From the time I was three years old, I have only ever lived in places other than where I was born. And that has had such profound repercussions on me, my approach to life, and my relationships with people.
It’s not my fight.
That has been my mother’s mantra for as long as I remember. Don’t get involved, just mind your own business, stay quiet, do your work well, and you will be successful. After all, we are just passing through, right?
In today’s world where everything that can be said aloud can be taken the wrong way, it’s hard to maintain that veneer of impartiality. And the more I grow up, the more I can’t avoid putting down roots and standing up for something. For me, being raised to think like an immigrant meant things like: not maintaining friendships after moving; not exploring the place I lived; not developing a relationship with my environment.
It’s difficult for me to imagine knowing an area like the back of my own hand—I’ve never stayed long enough in one area to do so. I hear people refer to a particular shop on a particular street as if they were lovingly describing an old family friend, with comfort and certainty in their voices.
And oh, how I do envy them, and the easy camaraderie they enjoy with fellow locals. Becoming an adult, I’ve discovered that knowing the in’s and out’s of surrounding neighborhoods provides lubrication to your social life. But I can’t force myself into those crowds. I’ve never really been good at bullshitting. I only remember a place by how it made me feel, not by what I did there or who I knew there. They’re just flashes of color on a globe.
People are easier, I think. You get wrapped up in them and fall in love with them. There is history, context, pain, lingering stares, direct touch. But with the exception of ex-lovers who have changed me irrevocably, these tendrils of people will eventually pass and slip away to the wind. I know it makes me seem heartless and fickle to those whose lives I just disappear from. But trust me, I do have a heart. It’s just been spread thin, I think, from living in too many places or leaving too many people, I don’t know. Most of the time, like a parasite, it knows its time with its host is limited and temporary; it will just move on.
This will change, I know. My heart’s passiveness will cease once I have children; I will then be forced out of necessity and sanity to know the in’s and out’s of surrounding neighborhoods on the way to music lessons and shopping trips, and I will grow to love the place I’ve settled into like an old family friend. No social anxiety. No restlessness. Just a love for the area and knowing it loves me back. I look forward to that.
It may sound romantic to think and feel like an emotional nomad, but it’s really not. It gets pretty lonely sometimes. Next time you read a less-than-positive article about immigrants, or see a group of unfamiliar people congregated somewhere, I plead with you to be generous, and to understand that they are far away from home and are trying to make the best of it.