Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Life of an Immigrant - Part II

In the few months leading up to my arrival in Czechoslovakia, I travelled around Western Europe, ending up in Vienna with little money at the end of August 1992, and therefore not much to pay for a decent hotel. I spent those last days in the West holed up in a cheap backpackers style hotel, with little to do but read and ruminate about my upcoming adventure or folly, depending on my mood. It must be said that embarking on the utter unknown is daunting to say the least, but it also provided an adrenaline rush like none other I had experienced. What in the hell had I agreed to and what sinkhole of a country had I committed to living in for the next year?

Finally the day arrived to meet my group of eager future English instructors at the Vienna airport, where a hired coach would take us over the border of the Slovak Republic and into the unknown. I encountered a friendly lot of traveller types, some in their 20s, but some older and seeking a new kind of life, too. There were married couples and hippie types. There were staunch leftists and conservative Republicans. In other words, all of the teachers came from varied backgrounds and viewpoints. To this 26-year-old the volleying of ideas over the several days of our orientation in a dusty little Slovak town called Piešťany invigorated me. It made me realise I had made the right decision to seek out this opportunity.

On the final day of our orientation, nominated representatives from our assigned towns and schools arrived to escort us to our new homes for the next year. My placement was in the eastern Slovak city of Prešov, which had the distinction of being home to a university, but not much else. Like most small cities of Eastern Europe, it was grey and dingy, with a main street resembling a fairy tale village, replete with faded taffy coloured 18th century buildings, but ringed with the 'housing estates' most Western nations relegate to those unfortunate souls subsisting on government largesse.

My home was a student dormitory close to the town centre, referred to in Slovak as a 'študensky domov'. It had the distinction of resembling all the other aforementioned greying housing estates. It had a front desk where the 'vrátnik' kept watch on all the comers and goers. In the socialist era, the vrátnik surely filled the role of informant, but I was never able to receive clarification on this point. My assigned room had two twin beds with a modest desk and wardrobe, a bathroom and a balcony overlooking a soccer field. My colleagues informed me I had a prime location on the second floor as the upper rooms never got any hot water, due to the poor plumbing system. I believed them.

My year in Slovakia consisted of teaching both teenagers and adults conversational English, taking weekend trips to various other dusty towns with fellow Westerners, and gradually learning to communicate in Slovak. The greatest lesson I learnt, however, was how to value my freedom as an American and the breathtaking gift the Founding Fathers of the United States had bestowed upon the world. I often thought Slovaks would benefit greatly from discovering the ideas that lead to the vibrancy of America, but I also realised that the older Slovak generations had been so steeped in the propaganda of socialism that for them to contemplate a system that revered the individual was beyond their capabilities.

I left Slovakia in May of 1993 having experienced a culture that I disliked, but which also gave me much fuel for seeking out a career and a life that suited me. For the next 15 years I acquired a career in the software industry in both Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Phoenix, Arizona. Those skills prepared me for the next big adventure in my life: a permanent relocation to Australia in June of 2008.

Throughout this piece on the life of an immigrant, I have only discussed my life as a world traveller and expatriate American. When one goes abroad for extended periods of time, as in my year in Belgium or my four years in Québec, there is a built-in expectation of a return to one's home country. An immigrant, on the other hand, has left his home country permanently with the expectation of achieving his fortunes elsewhere. He sees his home country with a degree of nostalgia, but looks to his new country as where he will live out the rest of his days. There is a psychological element in operation here, too. Without a time limit, the immigrant must learn to adapt to his new culture without reference to his own.

It is true the United States and Australia are similar cultures. Both are relatively young cultures. Both are constantly reinventing themselves and quick to embrace those changes. To become an Australian has nothing at all to do with skin colour or national origin, just as the same applies to becoming American. Australian culture is a fantastic repository of some of the best and brightest the world has to offer. It attracts talented and adventurous people from the world over, and it has its own distinctive style. In short, it is a particularly easy culture for an American to adapt to.

And yet, I am an immigrant. I hold ideas foreign to many Australians. When I express my horror over compulsory voting, for example, most Australians I've met are befuddled by my objection. They see it as a citizen's responsibility to elect their representatives, not the violation of rights I ascribe to it. This highlights a vitally important role an immigrant can play, though it is necessarily a secondary role, which is: the injection of new ideas into a culture. My objection to mandatory voting, while unusual to Australians I know, has the effect of challenging received wisdom. I may never persuade a single Australian directly, but I have expressed a notion previously unheard by a great number of Australians.

I will make clear that I do not see myself as an official or unofficial American ambassador. I am an individual with clear ideas about who I am and what I stand for. It is for that reason alone that I never seek to 'evangelise' about the virtues of the original American system. In fact, I consider that presumptuous because Australians are perfectly capable of forming their own opinions. They don't need a foreigner wagging his finger at them, proclaiming they should think this or that. (See my article on you-shoulders for clarification on this point.)

What I do think is I must also remain true to my own hard won convictions, neither preaching to others nor succumbing to ideas I disagree with because I fear rebuke. As a man happy to call Australia my home country, I owe my new friends and associates the integrity that I espouse every day, while accepting that differing opinions are the reward of living in a dynamic and modern culture.

Thank you, Australia, for welcoming this immigrant with open arms.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Life of an Immigrant - Part I

'Immigrants built this nation'. This oft-repeated expression has been common currency in America for a long time. I find it a particularly important saying because now that I am an immigrant, it has given me much to contemplate as I navigate my new home country. In keeping with my views, I think it's vital to examine the nature of the immigrant experience and the people who choose to move to completely different countries permanently. In so doing, I think we can arrive at a few important notions that make immigrants the 'ultimate resource' in the countries that welcome them.

Let's step back in history a bit, first. In the early 1980s, I approached my parents, insisting I wanted to spend a year abroad as an exchange student. My father, ever the realist, explained that I needed to improve my marks in school and did I understand the risks of what I was proposing. I thought I grasped what was at stake - after all I had befriended all the foreign students who attended my high school and was deeply involved in the AFS organisation. And yet, for a 15-year-old precocious boy, all the details of coping with living in a foreign land and learning to speak another language were more romantic than real.

After a few setbacks and false starts, I was accepted to a year programme in French-speaking Belgium. Off I went on my adventure in July of 1984, excited but nervous, too. I had studied French for several years and found it easy and fun. I thought that was the most difficult challenge. Boy was I wrong! I quickly realised that acquiring a second language was the easiest of the struggles I faced in Belgium. The most difficult were adjusting to life with a family completely different from my own AND realising that not all people were alike, as many Americans still believe. I came to see Belgians had a different historical and philosophical context. Without pointing out what I liked and disliked about Belgian culture, I quickly learnt that the people didn't merely speak another language. They held different views about nearly everything! Jason the young naïf got a crash course in cultural differences on site!

Having survived my first international foray with another language under my belt, I then plotted to attend a university in French. It was a logical next step for me. Once again my father the realist suggested that a four-year degree in a European university might pose difficult challenges. I therefore set my sights on Québec, which had the virtue of being French-speaking but still North American. Off I went in August of 1986 to attend Laval University in Québec City.

Four years later and with a degree in French and Secondary Education under my belt, I returned to my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to start a job with a translation firm. It didn't go so well. I was ill suited to the position and I hadn't yet learnt good work skills. Six months into the job, I got sacked and humbly had to look for any kind of work a 24-year-old with little experience could do. After working as a temp for a while, I secured an entry level position as a technical support representative. It sparked in me an interest in the computer world, but still I had my wanderlust to satisfy.

These were the very early days of online services like Prodigy and AOL. One day whilst browsing the travel section on Prodigy, I cottoned to postings about teaching English in Czechoslovakia. I thought 'Hmmm, now THERE is something I could do! I can teach, I've lived abroad and this silly tech support job is dull.' After a bit of research, I found a non-profit organisation that placed qualified people in schools throughout the Slovak Republic to teach conversational English. The fall of communism had generated a strong interest in the people of the former Eastern Bloc countries to learn English. What better way to learn than to send young university graduates from the US and Canada to teach them!

Part II to be completed in the next post.