I have written for a while under a tag “expat” – but the more I was writing, the more I understood that this doesn’t apply to me. There is a taste to the word “expat”, sweet and free, that is unfamiliar to my palate. I am more an immigrant and less an expat in Norway. Somewhere I have read a discussion of the differences between immigrants and expats, and since then this thought hasn’t left me. How would I explain that difference? In my post “Thriving in Norway” I made a try of explaining – and I feel that I have so much more to say about feelings of an immigrant. And how they differ from other kinds of foreigners.
We, foreigners in Norway, often view ourselves as a big group as opposed to the group of native Norwegians. But we tend to forget that this big group is not homogenous, and as we experience difficulties understanding the locals – we may also face difficulties understanding other foreigners with whom we identify us. I get a skin-close experience of it since I live together with another foreigner – and sometimes it feels like we have lived in two different countries, though we have lived in the same city in the same country of Norway for the past 11 years (20 in his case). Let me explore the differences.
1. For fun or for life
As I have mentioned already here on the blog, the difference between an expat and an immigrant is captured in this joke: “Why does the dog never catch the hare? – Because the dog runs for fun, and the hare runs for his life”. I know many expats from nice countries like USA, Great Britain, Spain. They seem more confident and relaxed. I may imagine that they could say: “Oh, you, Eastern Europeans, are so negative and complain a lot”. And before I used to feel ashamed. Yes, we do. We are more negative. But today I feel like: wait a second, but maybe, we have our reasons to that too! I don’t say that complaining is good, I actually came to see that it is quite ineffective – but didn’t it occur to you that those complaining Eastern Europeans come from a totally different reality, where the life was way tougher and harder, and they learnt to see the negative first?
As one article in Norwegian paper said: “those from the Sough come here running from the war, those from the East come here to work, while those from the West come here because of love”. This is a funny but true description of reasons for moving to Norway. While Somalians come as asylum seekers, and the Poles and Latvians come for work – you will not meet many Americans or Western Europeans coming here for one of those reasons. The most of them came because of the Norwegian boyfriend/girlfriend/husband or wife. I know only one who came because of work and prefers Norwegian socialism to his native USA system. But hello, one!
So yes, you, lovely Western people, may shake your heads and say: “Eastern Europeans are so grumpy!” But the thing is: you haven’t gone through their experience. You didn’t feel the desperation in your own country because you have slim chances to lead a respectable good life because your society is in chaos and those few with money win while the rest lives under the jungle law. You didn’t go through the visa process to get to Norway, and here you, maybe, didn’t have to show up at the immigration office (every year!) with a load of papers, impressive fee and a good reason to stay here. “I just like it here” is not a good enough reason. Not when you come from Ukraine, for example. For a Ukrainian you must be either a student, to be married or to work as a qualified specialist in order to get granted a permission to stay. Working in a café won’t do. Living together with boyfriend (if not already for two years and registered) won’t do. So yes, there is more desperation in our emotional lives, and sorry that we get so negative and don’t fly like butterflies.
I know that desperation by the name. In my last year of doing master studies I suddenly realized with horror that the master in sociology will not help me with finding a job quickly here. In this field it is more important who you know than what you know. And I would not have much time to look for a job after studies, because I need a new visa right away when I am done. So I set my master studies on pause and worked in two jobs, working on my substitute teacher experience and applying for the teacher jobs. I could work either in the sociology field or teaching as this was my education since I could be granted work visa only on the basis of job complying with my education. When I started working at school on the temporary one-year contract, every spring I would go through a great stress looking for a new position. Every spring I would send half a hundred applications, while working as a new teacher (which is a stress in itself), losing my sleep and getting more desperate as the time of my visa expiring was getting closer. Sometimes I would get a new offer just some weeks before the date. Imagine that emotional swinging and burnout! But then I didn’t know such words, so I just kept on pushing. So yes, I’d love to say: “In the end everything worked out fine” and swish off on my skis or a little boat, but I remember too well how many nerves that costed me when the countdown ticked and I was considering my options (travelling back to Ukraine, applying from there, making my boyfriend marry me for the papers). I was running for life. And it is possible that those running for fun would never understand me.
Expats and immigrants have different share of experienced freedom. And I say “experienced” because in the situations when both seem to have the same opportunities, they may experience different level of freedom. That is closely connected to the point number one: are you running for fun or for your life? In my opinion, an expat may better negotiate his position and not take any offer because he has more options. In the end, he can always say: “F*k that, I am moving back to my country”. An immigrant usually has burned the bridges. Either because of the situation in his home country, or because of his decision to never come back whatever that may cost. And that puts you in a worse position. You are pressed by your decision on one side – and the legal requirements on the other. You are more willing to accept any offer, no matter how bad, because you don’t feel you really have an option. And, maybe, you really have them. But you cannot open your eyes and see them because you are stressed from inside out, you don’t have experience of freedom, so you bite your teeth together and head on.
If you have ever taken decision from a stressed state you know how different the outcome may be from the one taken when you were relaxed. Everything seems clearer when you are not desperate but at ease. Consider yourself lucky if you didn’t have to make your major life choices from the state of desperation. Not everyone is granted this privilege. Not even every person in your well-off country. And if you were so lucky, it may be not your achievement in some cases. It may be the security that your citizenship gives you. Which others don’t share. They are not worse than you. They just happen to come from more unsecure places.
3. Getting classified
I experience it every time when my Catalan man and I meet someone for the first time. “Oh, you come from Barcelona?” and the taste memory of sangria goes on in their heads – together with the pictures of the sandy beaches and all-night fiestas. “And where do you come?” – From Ukraine. – “Oh…” the pause. The mind is searching. Then usually the subject of the war comes up, especially in the last years. Before it was even less imagination. You know, I appreciate your reading the news, but I don’t want to talk about the war. Especially after it happened in my own city and thinking about it hurts, just a little bit, but still hurts.
You may be a foreigner in Norway and you never experienced that. Well, happy you. But I must inform you: there is a ranking of nationalities, also in this democratic society. On top you have USA, Australia and the Western European countries, on the second place the Eastern Europe goes, and after it goes the rest: Asia, Middle East and Africa. Sorry, but this is how it is. I know a black guy working as a top engineer (coming from an island of former French colonies), he complains that everyone assumes he works with cleaning. This is the story that the white person doesn’t experience, so how can you understand his feelings? So you think that everyone is equal – but the world is ranked and divided, and some get to feel it on their skin. While others not. And when those others talk loudly, it may make the whole experience look like your own hyper imagination. You start questioning yourself: did it really happen to me? Or am I making things up?
I remember when I was asked by my colleague: “Marina, do you notice that people change when they hear your accent? Many of them become ruder”. No, I said. I thought, those were just idiots – by nature. It was my third year living in Norway and I worked in a bakery in the rich part of Oslo, where well-established families and older people lived. They could be arrogant – but I never took it personal. I thought, that was the way they were. But my friend could tell the difference. Sometimes you don’t even notice when they treat you badly. Sometimes you do.
To see an easy example of ranking foreigners, ask yourself: how do you react at the sight of loud Spaniards or Italians? And at the sight of loud Somalians? Differently, no? When Spaniards make noise, people think: “Oh, they have so much temperament, it is so sweet”. However, with Somalians it is more like: “Those are just uncivilized folks!” The same phenomenon – the different reaction.
Another tale, a real story, comes from a café in Oslo that is run by an Eastern European girl who didn’t like to talk her language in front of customers. Once her employer, an Australian girl asked why it is so. Well, you know, the answer was, it is not so cool to be from that part of the world. The Australian was surprised – and decided to make a little experiment. During two weeks she was answering customers that she was Polish. After one week she said: “I don’t want to be Polish any more. It doesn’t feel nice!”
My another friend complained to me recently that she still feels inferior about her background, and in a bad discussion her husband can throw in a phrase like “Oh, this Eastern European bullshit again!” In the sociology there is a notion of “symbolic violence” (introduced by Pierre Bourdieu) which describes a process when the ruling group sets up definitions that the subdued group accepts. Like when Westerners define Easterners like uncivilized people – and Easterners start viewing themselves in the same way.
It is good to be proud of where you come from. But does it make you superior? The Western countries used to look down on others. But why? Because Americans built their fortune on slavery (once) and sweatshops (now)? Because European countries became rich exploiting their colonies? Germans were good at building up their own country after the war – but they got Marshall plan, while the Soviet Union, which had lost 20 million people in the war (20 million! It is like 4 Norways), had to build the country with no other resources than its own ladies, because the men were dead or injured, many of them. So, while feminists of Europe were fighting for equal rights and the right to work outside of home, the Soviet women were laying railroads, building up cities and harvesting the fields.
Norwegians believe they live in the best country of the world – but what did they did to make it so? In a way, they were lucky that the Americans started searching for the oil at their shores and found it. And they were good at equal redistribution of the profits – but again, theirs is a tiny country of 5 million with a strong democratic tradition. But does it make every Norwegian objectively better than any Russian and Ukrainian? Is it our lack of effort, is it our fault that we were born into the country that went through the collapse and has been chaotic through many years because it takes time to build the stability, especially in such big countries (one of them is the biggest country in the world)? Is it our personal failure? Is it your personal achievement?
To sum it up. I’ve been through many different phases here in Norway, I rose up from misery to hope, from despair to seeing possibilities, from unhappiness to happiness. And I even adopted this view on Eastern Europeans: we complain too much, we are too negative, we are pessimistic, we are passive-aggressive. But now I came to stand in the middle of my story – and you know what? I am tired of being sorry. Sorry for expecting the worst. Sorry for having so many bitter memories. I am tired of being sorry. Yes, I can be passive-aggressive too. Because I have so many oppressed emotions, of anger, depression and despair, that you, dear expat friends, maybe never had to experience in this country.
In the end, everyone has to fight his own battle and run his own race. But don’t pretend that we all start on the same line. Some people start ten steps ahead – just because they come from better families or better countries. Some go to that battle with weapons, while others – with their bare fists. And in the end, it is all up to every individual and his effort (at least, the American dream tells us so). Yes, all of us have to tend to our gardens and work for our own success. But some start off with the nice set of tools – while others have nothing except their two hands. So if you felt like working in this garden (building your life as an expat) was no so depressive – congratulations, good for you! But don’t you dare look down on those who still have to toil with their fingers in the dirt. They are not worse than you, neither less smart or less talented.
Dear fellow immigrants, it is time to own our stories. To stand strong in our own truth. To define by ourselves who we are and what we are worthy.
What do you think or feel about it? Is this tale too biased, too personal, too emotional? Let me know if you agree or not, anyway!