Identity by Andres Yeah under license by Creative CommonsImagine you have gone to a foreign country for a visit and you are enthralled by the clothes, the customs, the food, the culture. You find it delightful to experience even briefly the unusual and unexpected. You visit national monuments and attend cultural events, and you smile at the songs and dances that are so different from your own. Imagine, then, that some apocalyptic event occurs while you are on vacation and you can’t go back. You must stay in that strange land, with only your wits and the clothes in your suitcase. What will you do?

First, you will probably get together with other people who are in a similar situation, preferably those who speak your language. You’ll all get together over lunch or coffee or beer and discuss what you should do next. You agree that you’ll stick together. It only makes sense. There’s safety in numbers.

Then you’ll venture out and find out what you can do to sustain yourselves for an indefinite length of time.  You may find part-time work, you may find schools for the children, you may ask a friendly local person to teach you the basics of the language, you may seek out agencies that provide support systems.  You can’t go home again and you miss it terribly, but you are determined to make the best of things.

Occasionally, local people will give you a hard time because you have taken one of the few jobs available and your family is using social services that you haven’t paid into, but you rationalize that if you were still in the old country you’d be paying in to the support system and other people would be benefitting, so it all evens out.

Sometimes, your children will come home in tears because they don’t understand what’s going on in school and they don’t speak the language well, but over time they make friends and they are helping you to translate things. Things are getting better, but you still can’t bring yourself to wear the local clothes. They just seem alien to you and they look uncomfortable. And so you carry on, gradually changing and growing, learning and accepting more as time goes by.

I am a naturalized Canadian.  I came here as a foreigner then became a landed immigrant and ultimately a citizen. All that took several years and lots of bewilderment. At first I had only the clothes I brought with me, the social mores I was raised with, the accent which was the only one that came naturally, and the ability to cook a few basic English meals. In many ways I was a fish out of water.  I had the advantage of being the same skin colour as the majority population and I spoke the same language, so I had it relatively easy. People of colour who don’t speak English have a much harder time here than I did. To varying degrees, though, all immigrants know that sense of difference and distancing.

I depended on kind strangers to show me how to operate a barbeque, how to pronounce the names of unfamiliar foods in the grocery store, how to drive on the wrong side of the road, how to navigate governmental agencies, how to ice skate, how to camp in a national park which had bears and bugs, and a million other things that they took for granted but which were new to me.

Newcomers are likely to dress, speak, and live life as closely as possible to the life they left behind until someone shows them a different way to do things.  It’s all they know, and at first it’s all they’ve got.  Their children, on the other hand, are eventually likely to dress, speak, and live like the people in the family’s adopted country. They might even believe in a different religion and politics from their parents. My children are thoroughly Canadian and don’t feel English in any way, even though most of their relatives live in the UK.  Integration doesn’t happen easily for newcomers, but it is the second generation’s legacy.

Those newcomers you see who are dressed in foreign clothes and who don’t speak your language well are just as you would be if you were stranded in another country. They may be bewildered and uncomfortable, but they are doing their best to survive, just as you would in their circumstances. If you offer to help them feel as though they belong, they will be very grateful and they won’t forget, just as I haven’t forgotten the people who befriended and helped me forty years ago. It’s not hard to pay it forward sometimes.


Image source: “Identity” by Andres Yeah










  1. Yeah, been there done that. Took quite a while to assimilate in South Africa.
    Oddly enough, one doesn’t necessarily have to move country.
    When I was a kid and moved from the South of England to the North some kids at the school I went to thought I was foreign because of my accent and wondered if I was from Canada or America!
    All that took was 120 miles. 🙂

    And, fear not, I didn’t miss the message in the post either.

    • Moving from one part of England to another was like foreign travel when I was (we were?) young. My parents thought that my going from London to Manchester for college was a huge deal. As you say, you don’t have to travel far to become “foreign.” And, I knew you would get the message, Ark! Never a doubt.

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