Immigrant, Not Expat

This week I went to renew my massively out of date US passport. As I took my napping child through the metal detector, passed off my phone to be kept in a compartment for me, and stepped into this tiny (and very full) waiting area, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. Anywhere in the world where official American documents are processed involves such a high level of security.

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And then I began to pay attention to those around me, because of course I didn’t have my phone to distract me for the better part of an hour.

Here I was, in close proximity to a diverse group of people like me. Who, for various reasons, were living far from their land of birth. There was an elderly professorial type gentleman (who was rather snippy and demanding to the poor woman behind the glass), an academic proofreading JSTOR articles, a young family of African descent there to register their son’s birth, a rotund white man with wild hair down to his shoulders applying for his grown son’s new passport,....and me. All of us. Common legal standing. Common nationality.

Immigrant. ‘A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.’

As a white, middle class woman….why do I call myself an immigrant? I grew up in a time when Americans who lived abroad used the word ‘expats’ to describe themselves. The term harkens back to an era of romanticising colonialism, widely understood to signify a person of skilled work, an artist, or a professional who chooses to live outside their native country. People who have been sent by or recruited by companies or governments.

Wealth. Power. Autonomy.

Immigrant? I’m sure the connotations are springing to mind already. They come to leach. Take, not give. Cause problems. Get in the way of our progress. They come, backwards and regressive, to complicated our national identities.

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Traditionally, any white person coming to live in a foreign country has been called, or called themselves, an expat. Including me. Whereas, any person of a different skin tone or class has been dubbed ‘immigrant’ or ‘migrant worker’.

Words matter. What we label ourselves and each other….it matters. Words have power to break down the dividing walls of class, nationality and wealth. This is why we choose to call ourselves immigrants. To identify with the outsider….because, quite simply, we are. 

This is not to say that I want to minimise the struggles, injustices, and traumas that are felt by a refugee or immigrant who is fleeing from oppression….not at all. Of course I do not have an experience of what that feels like, or the courage it takes to journey to a new land that so often wants to reject and oppress them.

But hear me out. When we recognise that some words are rife with colonial oppression and anglocentrism, when we come to see the inherent problems with choosing to define ourselves with labels that set up these dividing walls between each other….we can do one of two things. We can either close our eyes and ears, and get offended and defensive. Complaining of political correctness and semantics. Or, we can come with humility, recognising our privileges (yes), but also choosing to honestly call ourselves what we are....

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People who have all come, with different histories and perspectives, for one reason or another, to a new land. And are attempting to make it into our home.

{Grace}

The 'Inbetween'

[Disclaimer: This piece was written just over a month into Ailsa’s move from the U.K. to the USA. It is a peek into the emotions of someone mid move. You could call it a bit raw.]

Before moving country I did not anticipate the speed that I would feel disconnected from my home. I lived in Edinburgh for 11 years, for goodness sake. I have done all my adulting in Edinburgh; signing my first lease, paying all my bills, getting married, and giving birth...twice. It is a remarkable city combining historic architecture and sublime views, under quite a lot of dirt and social problems. It was my home. But ‘was’ is an important word there.

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I feel adrift from Edinburgh but I also look on at New York like I am seeing it for the first time. I feel no responsibility for it. It doesn’t quite feel like it is mine to own, love, and criticise. I have to be extra nice to it, careful, and considerate like a new person I have just been introduced to at a dinner party. Not like my old friend Edinburgh who I would call dirty, aloof, and enchanting. But now I have the odd perspective of an outsider and observer of both cities. Neither is my home right now. I am left in the ‘inbetween’. I am rootless. I don’t belong anywhere. I am connected to nothing here apart from my husband and children.

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But, the real shocker? I find the ‘inbetween’ quite comfortable. It is easier to be a bit indifferent to everything and just float about observing, taking, and using without really investing. Last week, we moved into an apartment with our names on the lease. So as you do the husband trooped to Ikea and dropped a substantial amount of money on flat pack furniture and too many plants. It took me a few days and some more money haemorrhaging to realise that part of my brain was quietly freaking out (I am slow on the uptake). Subconsciously, I was worried we had burdened ourselves with so much stuff that we could not easily move again. I realised my mind had been repeating again and again for a few days, ‘How will we move? How will we move? How will we move?’ It was my quiet theme song to our home furnishing shopping.  I have even started having stress dreams about packing up and moving country. The irony being I never had this dream before we actually moved country.

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Now, don’t get me wrong we love our apartment. We have no plans to move again soon. In fact the husband regularly talks about how we can accommodate both our children in it as teenagers (bearing in mind here that our eldest is 2). But it turns out part of my mind was happy to live agile and unattached. Rootless. Carefree. Unburdened. Ready at any moment to sprint away without any burdensome items of Scandinavian furniture or a single care in the world.

And while that might be admirable when it comes to not having too much stuff, it is a problem if I am applying this rootlessness to relationships and community.

It is a problem if I am happy to just exist here caring only about the small family unit I chose and birthed.

It is a problem if I live here like I could be living anywhere just taking from the city.

It is a problem if I purposely don’t take responsibility for the injustice in my city, don’t engage with and love the people I live beside, or don’t see myself as partly to blame when my community has problems.

My natural mode is to stay in the ‘inbetween’ because that is where you can stay free of hurt. If you do not care or engage you cannot get angry, or sad, or blamed.

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But I did not move country to stay rootless. So here comes the next stage of my move. I have done the packing. I have done the unpacking. Now comes the emotionally vulnerable bit. It is time to get out of the comfortable ‘inbetween’. Wish me luck.

{Ailsa}

Cultural Belonging.

Having lived my whole adult life in another nation, my relationship with my birth country has been complicated.

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You don’t sound like you’re from here. Where are you from?’

 

Nearly thirteen years in, and I still get asked this question on a regular basis. I’ve started to enjoy messing with people a little bit. I say, ‘Oh I’m from here.’ I want to add, ‘My family and I paid loads of money to now be in possession of a wee red passport that says I’m legally entitled to all that you are entitled to.’ Mic drop. But I refrain. I can’t really blame them. I do sound different after all.

The follow up question is inevitable…. ‘Oh I mean where are you really from?’ And there it is...the emotion of displacement. Cue launching into an explanation as brief as I can muster, and moving on.

‘You don’t sound like you’re from here’....And I never will. That Scottish brogue is a beautiful thing, but very hard to put on well. Trust me. I’ve tried.

We moved over when I was barely 17. Immediately I started to make adjustments to what I called things. We didn’t have to learn a new language….but we might as well have. There was a whole host of cultural assumptions, references, and understandings that I had no knowledge of. Conversations that happened around me that I could not join in with because I hadn’t grown up with the same television shows. Constantly having to explain who I was to people. They had no reference for me, of course. No one had really known me before the age of 17. They didn’t know who I was. 

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I remember, in my first year of university, deciding to just stop talking for a bit. Or answering questions as briefly and quietly as possible. Maybe people won’t ask me the question. Or launch into a tirade about why the USA is ruining the world. Or misunderstand my meanings. Or make assumptions of who I was simply because of my accent.

And then, every couple of years, when I went back to visit extended family and friends, I would hear another statement…. ‘Oh wow you don’t sound American anymore!’ No longer belonging. No longer home. Life moved on back there, and I didn’t fit in anymore. And so it began, the grieving process of losing a home. Even now it can still hit me at random moments…

So I would go back and forth. Sometimes happy that people thought I didn’t sound American anymore. Fist pump to myself, I’d assimmilated. Boom. Other times, the feeling of homelessness, of being consistently misunderstood, would overwhelm me. Sometimes I would look back at my birth country with sentimental fondness, at other times I would shake my head in disbelief at the same worldviews I had once held.

Immigrant life can be emotionally chaotic....swinging between both a highly critical outside perspective on where you are 'from', whilst also being wildly nostalgic and semi-patriotic. Paradoxical. Third culture, is what they call it. A nice name for someone who feels like they have no real home. They'll never fully be a part of their birth culture again, and they'll never fully be a part of the one they live in now. No matter what a passport or birth certificate says. Cultural belonging is like the ability to breathe. You don’t really notice how important it is until you are waylaid with a cold and can’t sleep. So deeply a part of you.

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But over the years I have begun to love this. Even in the hard places. Because it's served to remind me where my true Home is. We are all sojourners in a strange land. Awaiting the making new of all that is lost, and all that is foreign. Outsiders brought in.

As C. S. Lewis put it, describing Aslan's country, 'I have come home at last. This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.' {The Last Battle}

This is a discussion that we will probably be coming back to time and again on this blog. For now, I leave you with a question.

Where do you get your sense of belonging from?

 {Grace}

AND THE CROSSING A Vision (Sorta)

Looking into the abyss of a writing project is not pretty. What will I write? What is the theme? Why should people read it? These are hard enough questions before you even start to ask if you can write something worth taking up the limited air of the internet.

But thankfully misery loves a friend. So it is a delight when you discover your best friend also wants to write more but is similarly stuck.

Rather than having a lonely existential crisis that quickly turns into never ending writer’s block, we decided to do this together. Welcome to AND THE CROSSING a collaborative writing project between Grace and Ailsa. Two friends with different perspectives, different nationalities, and different countries they call home.

Look elsewhere for nice blogs about the delights of parenting while wearing your favorite lip color. Or pieces about how to organize your closets so you are a holistically superior woman.

Come here for a writing project messily exploring transitions, relationships, and being intentionally vulnerable in life. AND THE CROSSING: where multiple perspectives explore the often contradictory lives of women who happen to be people of faith.

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Our Story.

Picture this.

Flip phones are suuuuper cool, boot cut jeans are definitely the best, Instagram doesn’t exist yet, and Bush and Blair are the power duo.

Welcome. To 2005.

A 17 year old American girl, homeschooled and from the South, had just landed in Edinburgh that June, beginning to prepare herself for university and to help plant a church with her family - with a group of crazy Americans and South Africans (and a few Brits in the mix too).

That summer, another 17 year old girl was working at a small hotel in the countryside, near where she grew up. One morning, she was serving breakfast to a table of Americans and South Africans. They got to chatting with her, found out she was going to Edinburgh University to study English and Art History. Funnily enough, they knew someone else about to embark on a similar degree (English and History) and asked if they could introduce her. They welcomed her to check out the church they’d be launching that September.

First week of university came around, and the Christian Union put on a grub crawl. Massive amounts of new students walked from flat to flat eating different courses, until they came together at the end for dessert. It was there that Ailsa, the Scot, and Grace, the American, were introduced.

Later that week, Ailsa kindly offered to make Grace lunch and they went off to the bookstore to buy their massive tomes of Norton Anthologies of English Literature. It’s kind of crazy, thinking back. We never really know which moments in our lives will hold such significance. Pretty sure God was smiling down saying, ‘Just you wait, girls. Just you wait.’

From there, their friendship began. It was pretty slow burn at first, to be honest. As Ailsa was a fairly closed book emotionally, and Grace was in cultural transition (and also actually faaaar too British in her lack of self-promotion). But they got there eventually.

By the end of their third year at university, they were sharing a flat, watching highly superficial tv shows together, and beginning to rant about two specifically clueless boys.

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Nearly two years after they graduated, in April of 2011, Ailsa and Nathan got married. Six months later, Grace and Gordon got married too. And the day after the Wright’s wedding, Nathan and Ailsa also got ordained as the senior pastors of Centrepoint Church….yeah. Mental.

Having already navigated the transitions of students to working women, they then went from single to married - and also from friends, to friends and pastor’s wife. Since then, Grace and Ailsa have crossed over into motherhood as well, and now they are currently figuring out how to do this friendship thing transatlantically.

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Through all of this, they’ve learned a whole heap about themselves in the process. Friendship does that to you, doesn’t it?….it helps to burn away insecurities and fears, leaving behind stronger and more grace-filled people. 

So they (we) have decided what better thing to do than to embark on a transatlantic, collaberative, blog-writing experiment. And we'd love for you to be a part of this journey with us. 

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