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.

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