I really am an immigrant. I am British and I (rather favorably) married an Austrian girl and we have lived in Austria for 36 years. There has been scarcely a hint of Ausländerfeindlichkeit (hostility to foreigners) in all of those years for the simple reason, I suppose, is that I look pretty much the same as any Austrian. I do not stick out, and the color of my skin is the same as any of the local inhabitants. I thus pass, and if putting it that way seems simplistic, even brutal, I beg forgiveness. I have long been aware that I am a privileged immigrant. Whether or not the privilege is justified is open to debate.
Unfortunately, someone who looks differently than a country’s majority often conjures up ideas and notions of something alien. In other words the feeling of them and us is likely to be instantaneous.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, with “fence” being the keyword nowadays. It has, of course, been going on for around three million years. In the beginning, so to speak, humankind enjoyed a planet without borders. Well, perhaps “enjoyed” is not the right word because there was no social net to catch people having a bad day. But as the population exploded, up went the fences. In earlier, possibly nicer times, the nomadic life meant drifting from one grazing possibility to the next. It was all rather idyllic to the intellectual mind but often tricky in reality.
In our troubled times immigration is forced. It was often a matter of choice. People lived in a state of nature from the time of their first appearance. They hunted when they were hungry, slept when they were tired, and when the land was void of fruit and meat, they moved on elsewhere, giving the earth a chance to restore, recover, and renew. This moving on, however, was by no means altruistic. It was a simple search for grass that was greener, a natural urge to survive and thus the core reason for all nomadic activity.
The situation today is more complex, of course. Most immigrants today are refugees and are lucky if they achieve immigrant status at all. With millions of refugees risking their lives to reach sanctuary from the wars ravaging their homelands, a feeling of dismay is rampant among the peoples of the host countries. The dismay is not felt by the intellectuals who tell us what should be, and then leave it that. Naturally, there is enough food to go round. The planet is a place of abundance, but our management endeavors are woefully inadequate to distribute what could easily resolve the dilemma of widespread need.
What complicates matters all the more is a supposed lack of sophistication that immigrants bring with them. (A matter of note, however, is that without the young immigrant women from Jamaica and Ireland, the UK’s hospital services would collapse.)
Racial prejudice is often an ingrained fact, especially among those who are themselves struggling to maintain a supposedly “livable” standard of living. How does one counter prejudice perceived within oneself? In this respect we can only hope that moves ever closer to God, His purpose for us, and His love. We are, at last, out of our own hands, and in His. Of course, any kind of breakthrough, any kind of real change, however hard we try – and woe to those who stop trying – cannot be brought about with the mind or by works. Whatever you do instinctively, without thinking, is likely to be as close as one gets to personal spiritual reality, thus far. You then say “sorry” and move on.
It should be stated that the unobserved self can be a blessing, but it could also be a really painful eye-opener. Nevertheless, what joy it was for this writer to “get it wrong,” but at the same time “get it right” in respect of racism. My logical mind told me that the color of someone’s skin should be of no consequence, but I was never really sure if logic was enough to keep my wobbly inner world on track. I was on my toes, all right, never made a conscious mistake, but I often wondered (myself being my own worst enemy) if I was perhaps trying too hard. Then God, call it Life if you wish, was kind.
Racism is an enduring attitude. It may be deep seated, even to the point of being subconscious, but in the end, the cause of all human misgiving is very simple: it is possession – read: money – and this is what leads to anxiety. It has always been that way, the tussle between God and Mammon has been our lot since humanity’s fall from grace. Those who have and those who have not, and the need to retain what one has lost, governs our attitudes. One would obviously have to be a saint to not worry at least a little about money, especially if you think you are about to lose it. Ironically, transcendence over and beyond material wealth, at least in the modern world, has largely been the prerogative of those sufficiently wealthy to be able to offer largesse.
My dictionary tells me that an immigrant is a person who has been settled in a country of which he is not a native for less than ten years. These newcomers sometimes have a different religion, a different culture. Nevertheless, one might consider seeing culture or religion as being superficial in the face of the simple need to eat, drink, sleep, and find protection against vagaries, which are basically the reasons why people take off to find better situations elsewhere. The deep-rooted anguish experienced through what we are pleased to call the human condition rarely helps us to see beyond those basic needs. It might be suggested, for example, that a mother with a child who is a heroin addict is likely to be feeling the same anguish as any mother in any country, in any environment. A man who is unemployed, regardless of race or religion, is likely to feel despair.
Despair can turn a person to negation or revolt. Self-determination is key. Poor people – and refugees and immigrants are often poor – have little or no self-determination. Working class people in the advanced countries also often lack any viable sense of self-determination, which obviously makes them prey for the political right. Assimilation for immigrants often means adapting to a society that is by no means fair within its own structure. High-profile immigrants (brain surgeons, jet pilots, et al.) will simply not be subject to the constraints and burdens of more ordinary refugees, who struggle, along with a country’s working class, for limited resources. The problem is often a matter of a poor immigrant reflecting the plight of an often struggling indigenous worker. Many second- and third generation Americans are often to be heard praising the efforts of their parents who arrived poverty-stricken from their own countries in Europe and Asia.
“My dad worked three jobs just to keep us in school. Mom sewed her fingers to shreds to make a bit extra. Everything I have today was given to me by my immigrant forebears.” Such are the words of families that have helped to their host country develop and thrive.
But what of my own immigrant situation? As mentioned above, I landed softly (but without an iota of the German language at my command) with an Austrian wife who helped beyond the call of duty. By the time I had been fired from a dozen or more jobs (writers being famously unemployable) we became the parents of four. Learning the language was a gradual process, which after fifteen years brought us to running our own translation business. I was an assimilated immigrant who had achieved a measure of success. What is important is that I now have a choice about where I wish to live. I don’t face the dire need to make lots of money. The real blessing occurred when we moved to a house in the country. The relief from city life was enormous. We slowed down. What was important to us was of the moment. The children lead their own lives, although there is usually at least one of them visiting at any given time. The ways and struggles of the big world outside are not to our taste. We never read newspapers because the news seems so unoriginal. In other words, it bears the same horror that has been going on for as long as humankind has actually been making news.
Our rural existence seems to take place in a rather blurred daze of contentment. Nothing much happens. There is no real village center. There are no shops. There is a church, of course, and a fire-station and a pub, a village hall and a single telephone box, which glows like an alien thing in the dark when the village beds down for the night. The telephone box also serves as a bus stop during the day. There is a school bus, which is also accessible to grown-ups, that leaves the village at 7am. Two buses arrive in the village during the day, one at 1.30pm and one at 3pm. Why there is one bus out and two buses back is anyone’s guess. The nearest country towns are five- and ten kilometers away, respectively. Since the bus roams with a lot of buck and sway along country roads, the driver spends a lot of time hauling on the steering wheel, like he is opening lock gates on a canal.
There was talk when Arnold, our neighboring farmer who lives alone, took a chainsaw to three of his trees. People stopped to watch. Despite a wedge being hammered in, one of the trees slowly turned, creaking on its stump before falling in the wrong direction. It crashed across the road instead of into Arnold’s adjacent field. One or two of the older male onlookers smiled a secret smile, but one of them took pity and called, “Don’t worry, it happens to the best.” Arnold grimaced, desperately hiding his embarrassment and nodded back, relieved because these are things that make for conversation in rural areas. Since none of the roads in the village are wider than about three meters, it took as little as three minutes to cut logs to manageable lengths and clear the road. The branches first cut from the trunk were dragged away by a couple of onlookers who felt the need to be involved.
Things began to develop into an opportunity for drinking beer. Cigarettes were lit and the conversation revolved around something like “trees I have known,” and eventually wound up with someone retelling the story of the id-motivated guy who cut down the village maypole one year. Everybody knew who did it! Everywhere he goes he grins insanely with excessive friendship, hoping to be forgiven or at least understood.
During the hours of daylight the village noises are mostly made by tractor traffic. The villagers can generally recognize the sound of just about anyone’s tractor before it comes into view. Arnold’s tractor is maybe 50 years old. It is smallish and has a thin rattle to it. The windscreen is wildly cracked, which is obviously the result of barging through a forest and seeing, too late, a low-slung branch. I love the mud and cow dung that the tractors leave on the road. I almost regret any asphalt; a good old-fashioned wagon rut would be wonderful. I suppose I have a hankering for a sort of painterly Constable scene. A hay wain would be terrific.
But I guess it is easy to harbor romantic notions when you don’t really need to be involved in anything. It is the privilege of being rather old, to have traveled to over 40 countries, to have been an immigrant for practically one’s whole life. I have been lucky. I have never owned a new car and never wanted to. Money has often been scarce but I must tell of one of my greatest blessings – I have never felt poor.