In North America we like to talk about the immigrant experience. Like the experience of immigrants can be singular.
“She is 29, and it is November.”
It’s a scanty piece of similarity to hold on to, but when I started reading Korean-American Kim Suki’s book The Interpreter last week, I had a moment of fractured identification with the main character. The book is an interesting mix of ‘ruptured identity’ and murder mystery: a story of the ‘dark side’ of the immigrant experience in the US, but as Suzy Park, the main character wanders aimlessly through NYC, I felt a certain kinship with her albeit based on my own meanderings through the city she left.
There are many modern stories of the new immigrant, or the 1.5 child, or the 2nd generation stuck between two worlds/fighting two worlds/feeling outside two worlds. The ethnic/linguistic minority both struggles against the majority who stereotypes them while being unable to fulfill the vision and wishes of their own communities. There is alienation, solitude, fissures, loneliness. They are stories of identities without a whole.
Conversely, there are many white travel narratives or stories of the foreigner in a foreign place. They are full of exoticism, mystical encounters, and cultural confusion. There are characters who are on the margins, always on the outside, but they are more disconnected from their surroundings than disconnected from themselves.
I suppose the reason for these differences is supposed to be the power structures and power politics that inform our world. In Suzy Park’s world, the 1st generation Korean immigrants are small business owners eking out an existence with their fruit markets and dry cleaning stores by employing illegals, paying under minimum wage, and existing through inter-community loans and payoffs to local gangs. Conversely, the white travelogues of the past were often written by wealthy travelers or officials living in strange land, but these days our globalized world has changed everything. West to Asia, South Asia to the Middle East, South East Asia to East Asia – the concept of ‘immigrant’ has become much more complicated.
But regardless of the viewpoint, be it ‘immigrant’ or ‘identity politics’ or ‘Asian American’ or modern ‘travelogue’ literature, alienation is en vogue. It’s bleak. It’s fractured. It’s about not fitting in and not finding yourself and not knowing your path. Solitude, margins, the subaltern. That’s the new it place to be. Self aware and self content do not cut it anymore.
Alienation is sexy
Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t harder for the present generation of immigrants and migrants and in-betweens. The earliest ones who crossed the frigid northern lands – the later ones who came by boat – they could not easily return. Once they had trekked that far, taken their covered wagons over all that terrain, paddled their canoes to the furthest reaches, they dared not return. They could return to their memories, but that was all they had. They had made their break, and it was a severe break that could never be repaired.
The later ones, the ones who came after the telegraph, the telephone, the television – those ones who came then but had little money to return, could retain contact, could see the occasional image, could get letters or books or read the news a week late.
But these days, it is nearly impossible to make a clear break. To choose. To be on one side or the other because in many cases not only can we go back, we can track their homeland online. We can listen to our pop stars and watch our shows from satellite and video chat with our friends. Even the poorest refugees have access to the Internet and multimedia glimpses of the place where they were and the culture they are, in ways previous generations never had. Most of my ‘immigrant’ or 1.5 or 2 generation friends in university came from a class beyond my own. They were not the children of taxi drivers. They were children of doctors, graduate degree holders, and cross-border business people who went to private schools and traveled ‘back’ to the homeland occasionally. And these days, even for the ever burgeoning middle class, it is possible to live two places at once. And so we speak not of clean breaks but fractures and fissures because tenaciously that bone still holds.
My ancestors never had that chance. My Gaelic-speaking ancestors, fresh off the boat, looked around yet another nation dominated by the English but even more controlled by a winter much more bitter than they could ever have guessed. Then they looked back at the boat, that lice infested black hull of a thing, the place on which Grandma Christina, several times great had almost been buried alive at sea, the place where they spent month upon miserable month tossing in tempestuous seas. And then said, ‘thank you very much we’ll stay in this God forsaken land of snow and ice because at least we can toil a life on this land. And most importantly, we will never set foot on a boat again. And thus they stayed.
Did the 1.5 or the 2nd generation of that generation ever feel a ‘ruptured identity?’ Did they ever wander aimlessly through the snow drifts and forests in a numbed out attempt to find themselves? Or did the distance, the boat, the harshness of spending your life pulling out tree stumps, and living in isolation on homesteads whip the identity crisis right out of them? Maybe since there was no ‘Canada’ they didn’t have to choose. They didn’t have to choose citizenship or passports or check a census box. They were. They had survived and they were surviving, and that was good enough for them.
I liked Suzy Park. I watched Lost in Translation weekly when I first arrived in Korea. I’m always up for wallowing in alienation and we expats here do it frequently. I too have spent my fair share of time meditating on the fracturedness of myself. But there comes a time when you just need to get shit done. When you stop caring if people are staring at you or wondering what kinds of stereotypes are going on in the head of the man across from you on the subway. And you just live your life. And you get shit done. The early North Americans – the ones who learned the rivers and understood the life on that continent – and the ones who came later who hauled and built and survived: the ones who worked 18 hour days to give their children a university education in another land. They had no time to be alienated. So although I am guilty of it myself on occasion and on this blog, I am frustrated by prolonged dysfunction or blaming dysfunction on straddling cultural divides. Others, countless others, not just in North America, but all over the world have experienced relocation and dislocation and their psyches remain intact. Alienation of this kind is for privilege, and if we have enough time on our hands to dwell on our fractured selves, then we must put that time to good use. There is shit enough in this world, so we have shit to do.