Most people don’t like being faced with their own ignorance. Like when people are talking about the finer points of the crisis in Syria and you realize, as they use countless names, dates, and acronyms, it’s not as simple as ISIS. Or everyone seems to know about the latest music trend and you realize you haven’t found a new piece of music since 2012 (no, just me?). It is uncomfortable to feel like there is a whole section of knowledge you have failed to acquire. Generally, we avoid such feelings. That’s why most of us tend to surround ourselves with people just like us.
The thing is when you become an immigrant you pretty much submerge your life into a pool of ignorance. It is astounding what I do not know and what I have had to work out since moving here. A few months after arriving I had to ask a woman I had known for a very short time how to post a letter abroad. After texting her I realized ‘post’ is not even the right word here. (I should add that this woman, let’s call her Becca, is an actual Godsend. When I first got here she put up with my stupid questions regularly and graciously answered them in detail.)
Now you may be thinking don’t be such a drama queen Ailsa just work it out. And I assure you I am just working it out. But it is not just mailing a letter. A lot of knowledge that you assume is universal, is not.
How do you pay rent here?
How do I go to the doctor if I am ill?
How do I find my son’s social security number that has gone missing?
What do the coins mean?
What is the public transport etiquette? (And there definitely is one. I can walk you through Edinburgh’s but I am sure I screw up NYC’s all the time.)
The sheer amount of things I don’t know is tiring. Being faced with your own ignorance on a day-to-day basis is tiring. Now please don’t get me wrong, I do not say this as a plea for an Ailsa pity party. I am working out how to live here. The everyday ignorance will subside. I will work out how to write in American English, how to get a cervical smear, and how to buy my groceries without spending a small fortune. It is the underlying ignorance that will last longer.
I would like to think I have an understanding of America that I have built from being married to a native, a healthy dose of the back catalog of Shonda Rhimes, and my obsession with American politics. I’d like to think I have nailed it from afar. But I can’t even fathom what I don’t know. I literally don’t know what I don’t know about the unspoken cultural history that has built this nation. Like all countries, America has a history and multiple (and sometimes contradictory) stories that underlie the unstated values. And it is a rare person who can consciously explain the values and all the stories to you.
It can be hard to just sit in your own ignorance. And even harder to admit to everyone you are just getting to know that yes, you are this ignorant. It is uncomfortable to realize and admit. Honestly, it is just a bit embarrassing. But at least I know I don’t know things here. So I am open to learning. I have to ask questions and listen in order to understand what I am looking at.
But perhaps you are reading this living in your country of birth and thinking ‘No way am I moving abroad, ya crazy.’ Fair enough. However, I still have a challenge for you. Work out what you don’t know. Find your points of ignorance. We make assumptions about our own culture. We make assumptions about other people. We especially make assumptions about those that are a little different to us. The chances are we are ignorant of the culture and life experience of many of our fellow citizens and many of our fellow humans on earth. So join me in this learning experience. I can’t promise it will be comfortable but ignorance isn’t bliss either.