On Migration, Identity and Colorful Earthlings

If you have moved abroad, the following scenario might sound familiar: you are at a social gathering, sipping your drink and having a pleasant time. You meet a bunch of new people and engage in small talk. You talk about the weather, food or common interests. They seem friendly. Everything is going well.

But the locals notice that something is off. Maybe it’s your appearance, maybe they sense an accent, maybe your body language deviates from the norm. They establish that you are not one of them and, in an attempt to make sense of your otherness, the inevitable question arises:

Illustration showing the protagonist and a blonde woman. The woman asks "Where are you from?".

You realize that the question is somehow flawed. They ask “where are you from”, and I wonder if this is what they picture in their minds:

Venn diagram

But you are not a tourist from country X in country Y. You are not even a long-term guest. In fact, you’ve been away for so long, that right now you are much closer to Y than X. You are at a loss for words.

Illustration showing the protagonist and the woman. The protagonist says "Err...".

In addition, your birthplace, the cultural background of your parents, the place where you were born or the country where you grew up might be totally separate variables. For the sake of simplification, let’s say all those elements can be stacked up in one pile. It still feels wrong to say I’m X. Instead, I picture something like this:

Venn diagram

You are in that green area, fluctuating between two worlds, really belonging to neither. Too foreign here, too alien for home.

Illustration showing the protagonist and the blonde woman. She asks "So?".

The conversational partner seems to be getting impatient. Maybe I could say that I’m both X and Y, and call it a day. It wouldn’t be a lie either, for I am a dual citizen.

I slightly lean back and take a look around. I spot my partner, who happens to be Z, talking to a middle-aged man, fighting the language barrier in order to explain what he does for a living. I know the struggle. We have all been Z at some point. He also puts his cultural luggage on the table, making our household an XYZ home.

Venn diagram

But there’s even more to this equation than just X, Y, Z. There’s also A, B, C, D, E, and all those places where I have lived, all those people that I have met, all those different world views that I have collected over the years.

Venn diagram

The mental diagram keeps growing. With every new added circle, the “me” intersection becomes tinier and darker. So tiny that it feels restrictive. You want to break free, yet don’t know how to put all the pieces together. You are a patchwork of traits, a book where every chapter outlines a different reality. You are part of everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Illustration showing the protagonist and the blonde woman. She is frowning while the protagonist looks at the reader.

Then the sudden realization strikes. It’s the question that was wrong all along.

You may be from somewhere, yet feel part of something else. Your identity is a fluid construct, a colorful coalescence. You are all the pieces of the puzzle, and those that are yet to come. You don’t have to settle for X when you can be the whole damn alphabet.

Venn diagram

So, next time someone asks where you are from, think big.

Illustration showing the protagonist and the blonde woman. The protagonist says "Planet Earth!".

Dedicated to anyone who has ever felt out of place.

***

I have a lot of thoughts on migration, identity and the arduous path towards a transcultural society, so stay tuned for more illustrated articles. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your views.


Schrödinger’s Immigrant

The human mind functions in mysterious ways. It believes what you want it to believe. Once it’s made up, it will scrape for ideas to support that belief, and it will dismiss every piece of information that contradicts it. It will blindly swallow whatever resonates with it and promptly reject everything that doesn’t.

I can understand that not everyone can be into languages and traveling. Maybe you had a bad experience in French class back in school, maybe you live in a fascinating country and never felt the need to go abroad. And that’s alright.

I can even understand that some people might be afraid of foreigners, diversity, and basically everything that involves a degree of strangeness. We gravitate towards what’s similar. The cultural bubble in which we grew up becomes the standard for “normality”. The mind feels at ease around what’s familiar and certain, and it startles at what’s different and uncanny.

However, being reluctant towards what’s unfamiliar is one thing. Another completely different issue is displaying irrational, latent animosity towards it. Where is this hatred coming from? Did that French class go really wrong? Were these people wronged by foreigners? Do they just have very small penises? So many questions.

I need answers. I ask and listen to their arguments. Their minds are made up, and will cling on to that belief no matter how poorly founded. The mind will recite he same ol’ broken record: “Immigrants destroy our economy. They steal our jobs, increasing the unemployment rate among locals; they are lazy shits who sit around all day leeching off of state benefits”.

Well, hold on a second. Are immigrants ambitious overachievers who take all our jobs, or are they too lazy to work? It took me a long time to unveil the logic behind this argument. Hours of complex thinking and scientific analysis. But don’t worry, I figured it out:

Linguist Gone Foreign, Language and foreign culture comics, living abroad, migrant stories, graphic journey, Schrödinger's Immigrant


Now, let’s get serious for a moment. Let’s assume that you did in fact have a horrendous experience with foreigners and your aversion is somehow justified. Let’s focus on the one thing that makes the world go round: money. I’m not an expert in economy (I’m not even good at Math) but I do have a basic understanding of it: those who work pay taxes, and that tax money is used – among other things – to support those who don’t work (retired citizens, children, etc).

Let’s assume that 16 is the legal working age in a given European country. Within the first 16 years, the state spends an average of 150.000 € per person in education and health coverage. Once you reach the legal working age, you can become a cog in the system and contribute to the gold pot with your taxes – although let’s be honest, in reality people start working much later.

When foreigners move to your country, they find jobs, and they start paying taxes from day one. Yes, their taxes aren’t as high as the average local, basically because foreigners are usually paid less, especially at the beginning – Europe loves cheap workforce and has no qualms in downgrading your foreign degrees and qualifications in order to cut expenses. Yes, sometimes their salary is so low that they need additional support, such as reduced housing prices or food aid. Nonetheless, the amount of money that the state spends in these cases is laughably ridiculous compared to that initial capital invested in every national. No country takes in foreigners out of altruism. It’s sad, but it’s true.

So, you can keep hating immigrants as much as you want. You can keep reciting the same ol’ broken record and blaming them for the ailing economy.

But the fact is, your aging country desperately needs them.

15 Years Living Abroad

Today 15 years ago I boarded a plane to Berlin with a one-way ticket. What started as an expat fling turned into a long-term journey starring the glory and the horrors of life abroad. It’s been 15 years unravelling foreignness across twenty countries, and I can truly say that I’m home abroad. It’s been a wild ride and, despite the hardship, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

So, in order to celebrate this milestone, I’d like to share with you some corny words from the illustrated book that I intend to publish someday:

“Moving abroad means moving past everything you deemed as normalcy. It means leaving one world behind and stepping into a disorienting universe of novelty, a challenging puzzle of strangeness waiting to be understood, and that’s precisely the beauty of it. It is then, on your own, amidst the unfamiliar and the uncertain, that you get the one in a million chance to reinvent yourself. You can start anew, unfold your powers, and be whoever you would like to be.”

Cheers!