I’m an expert on being an immigrant. Overall, I’ve moved house more than 30 times over three continents and half a century.
I started my life as an immigrant when I was less than I year old. My first birthday was in Madrid, where my parents had moved from Galicia, the Spanish region where I was born. And then it was to different distrusters in Barcelona, then back to Galicia, then to Venezuela – where I lived in La Victoria, Maracay, and Caracas. Then, to Quebec (Canada), Patras (Greece), Lyon (France), and finally the UK, first in Cambridge and now in Manchester.
Recently, a dear fellow coach invited me to her podcast focused on immigrant women. She asked me to share with her three topics I’d like to discuss in the episode.
The first that came to my mind is the emotional toll of being an immigrant.
What do I mean by “emotional toll”?
Let me share my checklist of what others expect from me as an immigrant:
- I’m a scapegoat for the failures of the country I live in: from lack of well-paid jobs to crumbling healthcare.
- I’m perceived as an indistinguishable member of the “mass” of about 300 million people in the world that we call immigrants. For example, I forgot how many times I was told I was Mexican in Canada even if I repeatedly said I came from Venezuela. I’ve also been told that being Spanish and Italian is the same (scoop! We aren’t!).
- We believe that women and non-binary people should have the same rights as men, people of colour the same rights as white people, and disabled people the same rigths as able people… but nobody thinks that as an immigrant I should have the same rights as nationals.
- I should not have control over my own rights – that’s why I’m expressly excluded from national elections.
- I should endeavour every day to demonstrate that I’m worth it. How? By consistently providing evidence that I’m more useful than the locals since I’m liable for “stealing their jobs”.
- I must live with the uncertainty that a government can make me transition from being a legal immigrant to an illegal allien on a whim. I’ve already have that t-shirt.
- I should be willing to justify why I’m in a country as many times as required by locals that ask. From the plummer doing a repair in my house to a work colleague that’s curious.
- I must carefully decide on what I’m allowed to share my opinion, otherwise, I risk being at the receiving end of the “if you don’t like it, go home’ threat.
- I’m expected to frequently convey how thankful I’m to be allowed to live in a country, as I was a visitor rather than the active contributor I am.
- I’m also expected to respectfully go back “home” – wherever that is – once I’m not “productive” anymore.
- I should answer the same curious questions about me – my accent, my country of origin, where my family is… – over and over and look unflappable.
- I should embrace being patronised because of my country of origin. Often, when people know that I was brought up in Venezuela, they ask me if we have cars or computers. Imagine their surprise when I tell them that in the 80s I already had a car and a computer!
- I should conform to and confirm the stereotypes. Spanish? Ah, sunny weather, paella, bullfighting, and flamenco. I come from Galicia, where it rains all the time, our typical dish is octopus, we don’t do bullfighting, and our music has Celtic origins – we even have bagpipes.
- I must remain calm when my expertise and my academic background are minimised. I still remember when working in France a coworker that had a technical degree, which takes 2 years to complete, told me that he felt that his studies were comparable to my foreign academic background at that moment – Chemical engineering bachelor (5 years), M.Sc. (2 years), Ph.D Computational chemistry (5 years), postdoctoral fellowship (18 months).
- I’m always under the suspicion of stealing, hiding, or taking advantage of something. As such, I should expect to abide by all regulations and checkings that locals don’t undergo.
- I graciously should accommodate locals’ preferences about me. For example, how they pronounce my name, substitute it with their nickname of preference, or choose to transcribe it in their alphabet.
- I must look relaxed and cooperative no matter how vexing is the situation, even when that involves microaggressions and macroaggressions. I’ll always remember how people in the university I studied at in Venezuela used to tell me as a compliment: “Patricia, you’re very intelligent for a Galician”. All that because of the jokes they make in Venezuela about Galician people being stupid.
- I need to understand that getting a passport from the country I live in doesn’t make me a “true” national. First, that citizenship can be stripped out of me at any time. Then, locals won’t allow me to feel one of them.
- And finally, I need to come to terms with the fact that I’ll be treated as an immigrant in my own country of birth. I’ve already been refused twice medical attention in a hospital in Spain because somehow I don’t qualify. What’s more, as part of the Spanish immigrant group that votes in the elections remotely, I’ve been blamed by my compatriots that do live in the country to swing the elections without having a clue. I’ve also been told that I don’t have the right to express my opinion about Spanish politics because “I don’t leave there”.
BACK TO YOU: What do you think it will take to give immigrants the same respect and rights that we give to locals?