Stories from Immigrant Life
It has only been since the most recent move to France five years ago that I think of myself as an immigrant; each previous move was temporary, it made me more of a citizen of the world (I told myself). But in France I had to learn a new language. I had to reinvent myself professionally. In France we became parents. We bought a home. In France, we constantly talk about moving away, but we accept that we might actually stay.
It has been well over a year now since my son and I flew back to Paris from Karachi, Pakistan, where our brief visit with family in March 2020 was interrupted by the threat of flights being cancelled and borders being closed. Would we make it home before that happened? Frantic conversations with family members, middle of the night calls with my husband in France, hastily researched decisions and expensive flights later, we arrived safely back home.
We were luckier than many others - we were home safe before the first lockdown in France started and now over a year later that initial worry about returning to Paris seems distant. What has also remained distant is the family we left behind - like people all over the world, we cancelled travel plans and accepted that even fewer (zero) friends or family would visit us. We lived with our loneliness and grew even closer in our small family unit of three.
My son, almost 4 now, has grown up seeing my parents, my brother and nieces primarily on video calls, and his sense of geography has improved as we've tried to navigate 3-6 time zones for family get-togethers. Zoom is where he “met” aunts, uncles and cousins - many for the first time. Already living a continent away from most family and friends, confinements, lockdowns and travel bans only accentuated our existing isolation, as the entire world followed suit.
I am from Pakistan and have moved many times over the last twenty years - for education, for work, for family. It has only been since the most recent move to France five years ago that I think of myself as an immigrant; each previous move was temporary, it made me more of a citizen of the world (I told myself). But in France I had to learn a new language. I had to reinvent myself professionally. In France we became parents. We bought a home. In France, we constantly talk about moving away, but we accept that we might actually stay.
So when we were told to “socially distance” ourselves, my husband and I laughed. What would change? Incidentally, we both already worked from home. A year ago our son had not yet started school. We had few close friends in Paris, and our family was far away - even my husband’s parents live on the other side of the country. We were already as accustomed to keeping to ourselves as we were to having our “real” relationships with friends and family play out virtually. Our son - too young to know otherwise - accepts his playdate-less life as normal. He accepts that visiting his cousins in the US is just as far-fetched as going to Mars (space travel is his most recent obsession). Both are probably possible but who knows when?
Immigration is not just about creating distance with what was once close. It is a far-reaching, life-changing event that makes it essential to adapt in order to survive. Those who have lived it, know the energy and flexibility it requires to pack up belongings and move to a new country. They know the heartache of leaving your people, your language, your food and your festivals behind. Two generations ago, my grandparents had made that decision to immigrate from India to Pakistan. We were a family like countless others who grew up hearing the stories of struggle - struggle to make a new home, to start over, to fit in. Struggle to decide what to hold on to and what and when to let go.
This past year we did not move. The world changed around us, while we stood still. But as with any “good” immigration story, it is our capacity to adapt to change that will determine where the pandemic and its aftermath take us. Those of us who have the luxury to wait it out may be doing just that - waiting for a new normal (or at least an end to uncertainty). I am happy for them. But others will be looking for ways to make the best of this new circumstance, and I applaud them. I want to be them.
As serial immigrants, we had already uprooted and re-routed our lives many times. A chance to start over is what each move afforded me in the past, and the pandemic is nothing but the world-wide “start over”. Being obligated to communicate in a new language is a headache, but it is also an opening into a new world. When you cant find gulab jamun anywhere you either learn to make them yourself or are happy with an eclair au chocolat. When I moved to France I could no longer call myself an architect after having worked as one for years, because my degree was not recognised here. It was devastating, but after a few missteps I was able to rewrite my path. When a few weeks after I quit my job to launch my own agency the pandemic brought the world to a crashing halt, I dug back into my resourcefulness, my strengths and my skills, and rewrote my path again. Each time you change the narrative, every reincarnation, becomes easier, more natural, your past experiences becoming the most obvious platform for what will come next.
And what indeed is next? Those of us who are immigrants by choice, we move because we hope that where we are going will let us lead better lives than where we are coming from. As some countries begin to see a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it is tempting to think that the end is near. Let us keep in mind our enormous agency in deciding what happens next and what that end looks like. Will it be the opportunity we all need to start over, better than before? I hope so.