This presentation will focus on the experience of having been uprooted. The experience of having grown up in one country and living in another. I will explore the emotional implications of living as a foreigner. By that I mean living everyday life in a country without feeling a sense of belonging to that country. This topic is particularly important to me. It touches my personal and professional life.
I will start on a personal note. It has to do with the question where are you from? to which I could never give a simple answer. I was born in Turkey and lived there until I finished high school. Even though I was a Turkish citizen I never felt Turkish. I do not look particularly Turkish. I do not have a Turkish name. I used to be fluent in Turkish, but with a hint of an accent. So, not surprisingly, I was frequently confronted with this question by other Turks: Where are you from? Such a direct and innocent question would raise, in my teenage mind, waves of contradictory feelings and a defensive posture. I would feel insulted, hurt and rejected. I would hear this question as a sign that the person asking it did not accept me as Turkish. Time and time again this question would make me realize the contradiction I lived in. I did not feel Turkish. I did not feel like I belonged. I wanted to belong, I wanted other Turks to accept me as one of them. I felt ashamed and apologetic about not being one of them, as well as proud of being different.
To answer this question I would embark into a long explanation that although I am Turkish my parents were not. That my father was born in Russia and my mother in Italy. That they settled in Turkey as adults. To an interested ear, I would tell the story of how many countries they had lived in before they met. Then I would add my favorite story which is about how they met, and how they happened to make a life in Turkey. By the time I would finish my long explanation I would feel proud. I always felt proud of my parents' story. I would also experience a sense of pride about being different. This question always raised the same contradictory emotional responses in me. The desire to belong, sadness of not belonging, feeling ashamed of not belonging, feeling proud of being different.
These contradictory feelings coexisted in me until I developed my own sense of belonging which took the shape of belonging to New York City where I feel at home. By feeling that I did not belong, for a long period of my life, I took on the identity of a foreigner.
It is fine to be a foreigner when you are a tourist in another country. It is different to be a foreigner and to live in a country. It is as if you live as a guest in someone else's home. Worst of all as a guest who is not leaving. The host allows or tolerates you in his home, but nothing is yours, everything has a provisional quality.
I believe in the assumption that we all strive for a sense of belonging to a place, which gives us a sense of ease and comfort.
I will focus on the émigré now. I hope that you will indulge me with this imagery. I will state that the émigré is the adventurer of our time. Like the adventurer of the past, the émigré takes risks. He leaves what is familiar to search for the new, for the unknown. The adventurer is an optimist, perhaps an arrogant optimist, in the sense that he believes in his own strength. He believes that his own resourcefulness will make him succeed in unknown territory. The adventurer leaves his home where he feels closed in to seek excitement, to seek a challenge, to expand his horizons. The émigré leaves his country because he feels closed in for a variety of reasons: political repression, war, economic hardships, the need for personal freedom, the search for a better life, etc... He also leaves believing that he will "make it" in the new country. That his personality, his skills, his strengths will make him succeed against major challenges, such as not knowing the language, not understanding the culture, not having a job. He leaves behind what was familiar, everything that had defined him as a particular individual in his country of origin such as: family, status, a job, a profession, connections that make a person anchored to a community. He leaves behind a home and a past.
I will never forget, as a fifteen year old, being with my friends at a summer place in Istanbul when an old couple stopped me in the street to ask if I was a Gilodo. I had never seen these people, but they knew my parents and noticed a family resemblance. I still remember the pleasure at being recognized. I had the same pleasure a year ago when I called to thank my parents' friends from Istanbul now living in New York City, who had sent me a present for my son's birth. It felt so good to call and say "this is Anita Gilodo, Boris Gilodo's daughter." My father died twelve years ago. These people not only knew my father, but they also knew my grandfather. It was the first time in eighteen years, since I lived in New York, that I introduced myself as my father's daughter. I cannot describe the emotion I felt doing that, which had to do with a sense of continuity, and having witnesses to this continuity.
Thus, the émigré leaves his past behind with all the losses that such a departure entails, and comes to live in a country with hope, excitement and expectations about starting a new life. Feelings of loss and hope coexist in his mind and in his heart. However, it is with hope and trust in his own strengths that he will approach this new life and its challenges. And, you at NYANA are there to help him face these challenges. He is lucky to have you. In addition to having to learn the language, adapt to the culture, provide for his needs, become familiar with his environment, the immigrant faces an emotional problem which is to find a way to redefine himself, to regain his self-esteem. Let's say he was an engineer in his own country, now he has to be a cab driver. She was a professor, now she has to work as a maid. Let's say he was considered to be a man with a good sense of humor, but how can he be witty in the language that he speaks like a three year old. Let's say she always knew herself to be a considerate, polite woman who was appreciated for her deferential ways, and now she is aware that in this competitive society she is considered too timid and perhaps even seen as a looser. Such situations can batter one's self-esteem.
The émigré has committed a courageous act by leaving his past. He had to orchestrate his departure, make plans, take charge. Often times this courageous person once in a foreign country does not know how to negotiate everyday life, especially if he does not have a family or a social network and if he does not have the economic means to establish himself. This person who was active and resourceful in his own country will go through a period when he will become passive, dependent, and will function below his potential. Thus, it is to be expected that a newcomer will go through a period when he will feel low self-esteem. He will feel as if he has lost most of what had defined him as a particular individual in his country or origin. Having moved too far away from his own country, and not moved emotionally into this new country, he does not know where he belongs. He feels as if he has lost his identity, his self-knowledge he had taken for granted. He might feel as if he has a divided identity, a divided sense of himself. A familiar sense of himself experienced when he speaks his own language and some uncomfortable sense of himself defined by not belonging. He suffers from his past not being integrated into his present and not experiencing his life and his identity in a continuum. He can be compared to a recently retired person who does not know who he is and how to live without the structure and the meaning that his work used to give to his life.
During this period the person struggles with feelings of depression, self-doubt, regrets, feelings of failure and hopelessness about the future. He will feel disoriented in the new culture, will experience strong feelings of nostalgia for his country, and will feel quite alienated from Americans. There will be a heightened sense of separation between us (the foreigners) and them (the Americans).
For a large number of émigrés the intensity of these feelings will diminish with time. Especially when they feel more familiar with the language, the culture and when they become productive again. Overall, all the losses they have lived through, all the hardships they have experienced make sense, because they are able to change their lives for the better.
The biggest accomplishment for the émigré is to be able to re-establish a sense a belonging to a community (which will happen simultaneously with having redefined himself and regained self-esteem). This sense of belonging could be, let's say, to the Russian community of Brighton Beach or to the more assimilated Upper West Side. The type of community does not matter, what matters is to establish a sense of belonging and involvement with others and to feel at home.
If that sense of belonging does not occur, the émigré turns into a long-term guest in someone's house, by that I mean the host country. It does not feel good to be a long-term guest in someone else's home. At the beginning the guest is invited by the host. If the guest stays for a long period of time the host might tolerate him, but if the guest stays too long the host will want to get rid of him. A long-term guest has to be discreet, even timid, careful not to provoke the host since he depends on him.
I will repeat what I said earlier. We all strive for a sense of belonging to a place which gives us ease and comfort, without it our mental health suffers. I see that in my practice with foreign patients who cannot establish a sense of belonging, who live their lives in the present as if every involvement is temporary. Thus lacking the opportunity to grow, to feel connected to oneself and to others. They cannot integrate their past into their present and build a future.
As a conclusion, I will read you a good description of an individual who was never able to establish a sense of belonging. This is a quote from "Out of Egypt" a book written by Andre Aciman. The character describes her displaced self as follows: "I cross the street on a slant. I always sit in the side rows at concert halls. I am a citizen of two countries, but I live in neither, and I never look at people in the eye... I am honest with no one, though I never lied. I have given far less than I have taken, though I am always left with nothing. I don't even think I know who I am, I know myself the way I might know my neighbor from across the street. When I am here I long to be there, when I am there I long to be here."
Fortunately, most of the time this in not the case. The feelings of longing recede to the background (even though always present), and feeling of longing and belonging live side by side.
Presented at FEGS's "Partners in Conversation" program on January 23, 1997 .