Hi, friends! Today, I am happy and honored to present Katia from I am the Milk. She’s funny. She’s deep. She can paint a story of today’s motherhood and she can paint one of yesterday’s otherworld like nobody else. In fact, BlogHer chose Katia’s submission on growing up with terrorism and the Boston Marathon tragedy as a Voice of the Year (not a small thing – there were, I think, more than 2,600 submissions). I was thrilled to receive her Our Land contribution. Our Land is about empathy and wonder for all. Sure, it started because of special needs. But that’s not what it’s become. Katia’s voice and her story about moving countries, and the acceptance and rejection that she experienced in doing so, is perfectly perfect for this series and I am grateful and really excited that she’s allowing me to share her wonderful voice here.
First Time Outsider
Yesterday, I was out on a walk with my son, 10 Month Old. After what felt like months of absence, the sun finally made a noticeable appearance and I was in a Sesame Street reality. On our way to the grocery store, one of the oblivious teenage girls, leisurely shuffling her feet in front of our stroller, noticed us, and urged her friend to move out of the way to let us through. Then, at the grocery store a lady rushed to hold the door for us, and once we were out, a retired gentleman volunteering as a crossing guard accompanied us until we’d safely crossed the street to order food at a local Chinese diner. With us at the counter was an awkward teenage boy. Overlooking the selection from a vantage point somewhere way above my head, he blurted out to the lady taking the order from him “your food’s very tasty.” As we came out, it was still warm. I was soaking up the sun, along with these little distracted-second-nature-type acts of kindness that seemed to be all around me, completely aware the whole time that today I am visiting our land.
While I wouldn’t say that being considerate of your surroundings is, by any stretch of the imagination, a rare occurrence in Toronto, where I’ve lived for the last six years, I certainly haven’t always felt like I was in Our Land, or my land. In fact, during my first few months as an immigrant, I experienced an acute sense of estrangement, feeling as though the country itself, an almost humanoid, gigantic, titan-like entity, was literally pushing me out. Letting me know in every possible way that I had no business crashing this party. Evidence of my non-acceptance kept pouring in, in a steady stream. I – not used to rejection, especially of the kind that strikes me on my Achilles heel- felt beaten up and knocked out by my new country.
Here’s a list of some of the rejections I endured:
- Rejected by my building. Yeah, you heard me. Gotta love the symbolism. On our second day in the country, we went furniture shopping. Upon coming back, we discovered that we had been slapped with a formal neighbour complaint against our dog, who travelled with us from Israel, and was crying at being left all alone in the new apartment for the very first time. This faceless complaint and eviction threat by someone who we had explained the circumstances to, yet chose to not care, was a resounding reminder that Dorothy wasn’t in her three-story Kansas anymore, where everyone knew my dog Louisa by name, asked about her well-being whenever they met me without her, encouraged their kids to play with her and took care of her while we were away.
- Rejected by the University I’d applied to. Turns out that scheduling a PhD interview on your first day in a new country is not such a great idea. I showed up for the interview reeking of new immigrant fear and an overwhelming sense of guilt over leaving behind the three women who raised me – mom, grandma and her sister. Three women whose actions, not only words, never failed to demonstrate what loving someone to the moon and back actually looked like. The interview, predictably, resulted in failure.
- Rejected by my very first colleague in my very first local job.
- Rejected by every interviewer for a job that I really cared about.
Six years later, I can say with the utmost certainty that it wasn’t the country pushing me out. Canada is extremely embracing and tolerant. It was just the nature of the experience – being a “fresh off the boat” immigrant presents you with ample opportunities for rejection at a time when you’re also hyper sensitive and feeling inadequate. A pretty combustible combination, if you ask me. Add to that our own somewhat unfortunate circumstances of a bat-shit crazy neighbour and a workplace bully…and there you have it, the Immigrant Golden Membership experience.
Each of these rejections, a First in and of its own, came hand in hand with another unpleasant First. The rejection by building (first in history?) was also the first time I was made to feel as a religious minority when bat-shit tore off the mezuzah from our door. At work, I was, for the first time ever, a confirmed outsider (as in somewhere besides in my head) and a first-time, that I knew of, the butt of a joke.
If you want to understand the immigrant experience, here are some other firsts the guy in the cubicle next to you might be experiencing:
First time invisible
First time visible minority
First time outsider
First time don’t bother
First time not good enough
First time second-rate
First time clueless
First time family-less
First time lost
First time completely alone
First time defenseless
First time nameless
First time connectionless
First time laughable
And all of these Firsts together distanced me from what I perceived, up to that point, to be Me, everything that being Me meant, and made for a first time not self.
While being dealt blows left, right and centre, I was always busy taking mental notes. Much like I observe my amazing 4-year-old son doing these days, I started trying to identify the rule in everything. With each rejection came a skewed lesson:
You don’t say “he’s abroad” about a male colleague or you’ll be made fun of.
Work is for work and not for friendships.
Don’t take a lunch break.
Don’t assume that you got the Recruiter job you’ve interviewing for, even if they totally loved you and let you sit in on interviews and ask the candidates questions and praised you for how well you did. You’re NOT in, you’re not following the rules, you don’t understand how things work, you’re not from here, you don’t get it. You’re about to be delivered another blow, take a deep breath, watch out, it’s coming. Prepare.
The good thing about that list of firsts, as it turns out, is that every item on it is erasable. It took a great job, my first REAL Canadian job, to erase the previous one with its feelings of outsiderdom and inadequacy. It took creating real, meaningful friendships for life to erase lost, connectionless and family-less. I’ve erased the memory of workplace bully Sarah with friend Sarah and friend Jenn and friend Laura.
The people in my Sesame Street Our Land reality didn’t know where I was originally from and 99.9% of them, if not all, probably wouldn’t care if they did. They were just being their considerate empathetic selves. Would I have been able to notice their little acts of kindness six years ago when I was blinded by the darkness or rejection and the unknown, lying in the corner of the rink with a bleeding sense of self? Probably not. And I had it easy. I don’t look like a visible minority, and I speak pretty good English with a light accent that most people here in Canada either won’t notice, dismiss, or peg as French Canadian. I have good people skills; most people find me personable. And still, to some, I wasn’t worth bothering with. I wasn’t worth being civil too. This post is not aimed at them or hoping to fix them. They wouldn’t be reading it and they’re beyond repair, anyway. This post is for you – those who strive to live in Our Land, a land of empathy and wonder, and don’t always know how to make the immigrant dude in the next cubicle feel more welcome. Please smile at him when you see him at the water cooler and ask how he’s doing. Do it every day. Not just once. Listen to your colleague and hear his words, behind the accent, listen to him, because he could be drawing a blank on an English word and he’s terrified, because grown men are not supposed to forget words, he’s terrified that soon enough you’ll notice. He’s terrified because he’s got so much more to prove, so much more riding on this – his first local work experience. Listen well, really listen, beyond the accent and your huge act of kindness, the one he’ll cherish and remember forever, will be offering him another word instead. It’s the kindest thing you can do and he’ll remember it. And he’ll come one step closer to being in his land, Our Land, and so will you.
See? Katia is awesome, right? I love that her experiences as an immigrant and a neighbor are now a part of Our Land and I love the advice she’s left us with regarding listening to a colleague and hearing his words behind his accent. She’s right. Kindness brings all of us one step closer to living in a world of empathy and wonder.
More about Katia and I am the Milk:
Katia is a mother of two boys, 4 Year Old and 11 Month Old. She writes about them and occasionally about her husband, 37 Year Old. Currently on mat leave, she’s fulfilling a lifelong dream to write and make people laugh. And sometimes cry, which was not her dream nor intention. The serious stuff Katia writes about includes immigration, fertility, miscarriage. You can find Katia blogging at IAMTHEMILK and regularly contributing to MamaPop (http://www.mamapop.com/). She is also a regular contributor to Twitter at @Katia DBE.