Friday, September 30, 2011

The Immigrant Experience

My home community of Winkler has seen the influx of thousands of immigrants over the past ten years. Coming mostly from eastern Europe at first, there are now growing numbers of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African families coming to make a new life in southern Manitoba as well. These new immigrants  have been a welcome addition to the relatively homogenous culture which has characterized southern Manitoba for most of the twentieth century, offering new ideas, practices and energy to our community. Of course, cultural and language barriers have made integration somewhat difficult at times. Everyone has a different story to tell and many come to their new place of refuge as people with secrets, good and bad, which shape and colour both the past and the future.

I am a descendant of immigrants. My grandfather came to Canada from Russia in 1903 at age 19, alone, and with the support of his cousin who paid his passage and train fare. Much of his early life and his journey to Canada is unknown. He was a taciturn man not given to much talk about himself. He wrote only a brief description of his immigration to Canada. He died when I was 12 years old. Great-great grandparents on my other side arrived in the 1872-74 wave of Mennonite migration to southern Manitoba. Not much is known about them either except that they came with others to escape their situation in southern Russia; perhaps that will be research effort for me sometime in the future. For them, life in the new land was hard and death was a common occurence. What got them through these dark times could be attributed to a Stoic resolve to endure and overcome the hardships, a profound faith in the providence of God and an extraordinary commitment to take advantage of this opportunity for a new life. Together with other fellow immigrants they forged new and vibrant communities in southern Manitoba and beyond. 

While much has been written and documented about the Mennonite settlements in southern Manitoba, what has been lacking in my own appreciation for what my forbears went through has been an empathy or understanding of the inner life or dynamic at the root of their immigrant experience. How did they feel being here? Did they work at their jobs because they wanted to or because they had to? What were their real motives for coming? Did they harbour secret doubts about their faith, make compromises to get here or even intend to practise some form of penance to atone for some dark sin or event hidden deeply in their own past or sub-conscious mind? 

Reading The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje and This Hidden Thing by Dora Dueck has illuminated aspects of the immigrant experience for me in new ways. This Hidden Thing is the story of a young woman, Maria, recently arrived from the Russian Crimean Peninsula having fled her homeland with her aging parents after the Revolution and subsequent anarchy of the 1920s. Without facility in English and in desperate need of a job, she is hired as a maid in an English-Canadian household in Winnipeg. The clash of cultures, the desire to fit in and, above all, the desire to please, characterize Maria's work experience with her employers. She is let into their lives, but only at a distance; never as an equal. Misunderstandings and instances of poor judgment abound; Maria works hard to make herself indispensible and frequently sacrifices her own interests as well. Her choices, clear to her, become opaque to others. From the perspective of her family, her life is exemplary. She is seen as the pillar of the family and a model of self-sacrifice. But from her own perspective, her life has its own internal motivation, quite distinct from the impression she gives others. It is this "hidden aspect" which so often could inform if not explain a life regardless of one's past. For the recent immigrant, this "hiddenness" often has a much more exaggerated impact.

Much as This Hidden Thing investigates the immigrant experience in the new world, Ondaatje's The Cat's Table illuminates the experience of the child immigrant in transition, this time in the person of an eleven-year-old boy. The journey from one world to another, especially as a child without the stability of parental or even adult care can be and often is a harrowing experience. Events and  relationships of all kinds leave their marks and scars on the future lives of immigrants. In Ondaatje's book, young Michael, alone and abandoned by his family, in the company of two other boys assigned to the Cat's Table where they dine on the passenger ship, the Oronsay, makes his way from Ceylon, (present-day Sri Lanka) to England over the course of three weeks. The novel deals with Michael's experience of abandonment, new cultural expectations, danger, intrigue, crime, the beginnings of sexual desire and a variety of other experiences which shape his later life. The young life is especially impressionable; the young life of an immigrant without the safety of trusted adults and guardians can be especially difficult. How does one learn to navigate life's challenges in a healthy way? How does one learn to fit into a new society? To whom does one turn for help and guidance? How do impressions, hidden memories and iconic images impact one's later life and choices? For the young immigrant, these challenges can be especially acute and require understanding and patience from those of us who receive and welcome them.

I recommend these two books without reserve. Read and learn.