Out of Place

I identify profoundly with this post:

But every so often, I feel, very acutely, how ill-suited I actually am for this culture into which I work so hard to integrate my family. How uncomfortable so many of the interactions are and how lonely the whole immigration endeavor feels.

 A woman observed Klara and me playing outside yesterday, loudly admired how beautiful Klara is, listened to Klara prattle on and on, and then asked. . . if she speaks English. Because if a 15-month-old mispronounces a few words, it’s got to be because she is a child of immigrants and not because she is very little. 

Klara’s speaking is very advanced. She says “thank you” and stuns everybody at daycare with how many toys and pictures she can name. But she’s 15 months and she only has 10 teeth so far. Of course, she mispronounces words. It’s not an accent. It’s how kids speak. 

An alternative is to hang out only with university people who are not congenitally incapable of noticing nothing but one’s accent. OK, I went out with 3 colleagues who are moms to the playground. And it was even more uncomfortable than the encounter with the “does she speak English” lady. Two of the three colleague moms were immigrants themselves, so that’s a plus. Accents were not mentioned at all.

But oy vey, the entire time we spent on the playground, they exchanged slogans. It was like they were robots who had their Demonstrate Your Liberal Identity setting turned on. I love talking politics but these colleagues weren’t talking politics. They weren’t talking at all. They were mechanically delivering lists of points I’d heard and read before. Verbatim. 

Then they started gleefully listing everything that made them superior to the locals. And that’s when I began to miss the “speak English” lady and wished I could chat to her instead. She hadn’t understood 80% of what I said but that was still more refreshing than the slogans and the gleeful superiority over the country pumpkins. From the linked post, this is how the encounter with these colleagues made me feel:

And then I got angry that I have to socialize with people for whose company I am so ill suited, and who can’t and don’t actually want to get to know the real me, or if they did, I know they would not like me, because the real me has no place in their world.


15 thoughts on “Out of Place”

    1. The worst. Ah, Trump, I hate him. Ah, Syrian refugees, I love them. Ah, racism, I detest it. Ah, Republicans, they are horrible.

      And I agree, Trump sucks, racism is horrible. But do we have to run through the whole litany during every conversation?


  1. It would be nice to be known like I had people know me once upon a time.
    There’s a depth and a continuity in knowing someone like that and seeing them change over time, and being known like that. I stopped talking to someone I used to know, for several reasons, but chief among them, they did not understand what a loss that is, and in not understanding that, they proved they never knew me at all.


  2. ” these colleagues weren’t talking politics. They weren’t talking at all. They were mechanically delivering lists of points I’d heard and read before. Verbatim. ”

    That sounds like Duckspeak from 1984…


    1. I was once at a conference where every roundtable was like that. And then people wondered why I disappeared after every session and never joined tyem for dinner or drinks.


  3. OK. Academics will blast me for this, which I posted to Facebook and which will be taken for right wing. But I really want to know:

    Blasphemous question. How new is it, really, for people to be the first person in their family to go to college, or to be the child of immigrants and go to college? I remember knowing lots of people like this and thinking of them as typical students. And when I look at my grandmother’s graduation list from UC Berkeley (1912) and my uncle’s (1943) there are various names in Spanish, and Eastern European names that sound very immigrant-esque. Is the point being made that there are now more such students? Or is there some sort of amnesia (like the amnesia that operates when people deny that my grandmothers went to college and had careers, because “women couldn’t back then”)?


    1. Not sure what’s really behind your question. My kids are children of immigrants, but they are fairly pampered middle-class kids with highly educated parents who work as professionals. I don’t see how you can compare them to being the first person in their family to go to college, which would be the kids of blue collar workers, or from rural areas, or from urban poverty, etc. Or to children of undocumented immigrants who work minimum-wage jobs.


      1. Actually, I got really interesting answers from Facebook. Since we cannot have affirmative action any more or race-based preferences (reparations), administrations use “first generation” and “children of immigrants” as euphemisms for race. This is one thing; also, since time-to-degree is considered a much more important metric than it was before, people who in the past might have fallen through the cracks, are now to be retained.

        It is not I who make these comparisons, but many children of immigrants are in fact also the first in their family to attend college. When I think about it, I realize how many people like this I know, and have always known, including close friends from college. In my own family, of course, it is different: either you arrived with a college degree and sent kids to college, or you didn’t, and didn’t. But I know lots of people who were children of immigrants and college students without having rich parents — just parents in trades and in pink-collar jobs, not undocumented immigrants or minimum wage earners, but regular folks. It is possible to be both legal immigrant and blue or pink collar.


  4. “And then I got angry that I have to socialize with people for whose company I am so ill-suited, and who can’t and don’t actually want to get to know the real me, or if they did, I know they would not like me, because the real me has no place in their world.”

    Not to be overly flippant, but that’s my teenage years right there. And my childhood years. And my adulthood before any immigration experience.

    I am sure there are particular triggers for it, but the experience of wanting to wring the life out of the world and people around you for not understanding you can’t really be particular to being an immigrant, can it?

    Heck, I would bet good money that every single person parroting those slogans – aside perhaps from a particularly braindead individual here and there – felt the same way.


  5. people around you for not understanding you can’t really be particular to being an immigrant, can it?

    I think this may be called “nativesplaining.”

    Let me put it this way. This is the same as when an immigrant, like Clarissa or I, tells you that it gets on their nerves big time when they are constantly asked where they are from, and you (or someone else) come in and tell them to lighten up, as you are from Ohio or wherever and get asked where you are from all the time and it’s not a bit deal.

    It. Is. Not. The. Same.

    Trust me, “not being part of this world” is very different for an immigrant versus the generic ennui /teenage angst you refer to. How do I know? For instance, I know because I have also been a child, and a teenager, and an adult in my native culture. So, unless you have had the immigrant experience or are willing to take my word (or another immigrant’s word) that the immigrant version of “I don’t belong here” is indeed something very different, then I guess we’ll have to agree that continuing this discussion is pointless.

    Why is it different? Clarissa’s post above illustrates it well: because most natives treat you like a freakshow on account of your foreignness alone, so you are restricted to socialize with those who at least don’t freak out, even though they are often people with whom you have little in common and would never hang out with if you were a native and didn’t have such a severely restricted pool of potential friends.


    1. What about feeling perfectly at home in some foreign countries but permanently foreign in certain parts of the US — in my case, places which are very far away, used to be parts of other countries, have cultures that are very foreign indeed? I have to go to California or Mexico, or Europe or South America, to let my guard down, although even Texas is somewhat relaxing since odd as it is, it is still not like being on a sugar island. And I have to explain myself 24/7, and be a walking ethnographic exhibit.


      1. I am an immigrant in the UK – though I haven’t put in roots here nearly to the extent here that either you or Clarissa did, and I would imagine there are issues that are specific to different countries. Still, I would expect this particular one – of having a restricted pool of potential friends and acquaintances due to not passing as a native – to be at least a little bit similar. The rate of immigration in the city I’m in is, or was, very high, to the point that you’re as likely to hear Polish or Romanian in the streets as you are English, so being an immigrant is a more normalized occurrence here, perhaps?

        Still. I have English friends here that I am fairly close to, but even when I’m with them (and quite often when I’m not), I still regularly feel out of place, or have people ask me where my accent is from, or, hell, narrowly avoid fisticuffs with drunks who don’t like the way I talk.

        I’ll agree that the loneliness certainly isn’t helped by being surrounded from all sides by a culture that you feel like you know very well and yet reliably fail to match up to in thousand of little everyday ways. However, I do remember having that exact experience of long periods of not fitting in quite right punctuated by anger for even trying long before I got here, even among people who were genuinely close to me, nevermind random strangers.

        Anyway. While I stand by my point in as far as my own experience goes, I also had a hand in turning this into a weird word fight when you were initially just sharing something that pains you. Sorry about that.

        Not sure if it helps, but I came from a place of genuinely wanting to relate but failing, rather than trying to be sarcastically dismissive.


        1. Yes … I’ve only recently realized that the sort of non-fitting-in I have is an immigrant experience in a lot of ways, even though it sounds odd to say this and also dismissive of actual immigrants, especially if they’re exiles of some kind. But everything makes more sense understood through that lens, and it is a lot more relaxing not to expect myself to fit in or feel really at home.


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