All We Leave Behind
The graph shows a U-shaped wave, going from euphoria at one peak, on the left side of the chart, down through despondency, in the middle, and then back up to something verging on confidence and contentment. It is a graph said to depict the emotional experience of immigrants, and was sent to my husband by a friend of his who, like us, is living the expatriate life. While her experience may mirror this chart, being as she moved a year before COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks, I find it lacking in a number of ways.
Growing up in a family that moved every year, I was not offered a choice — I was told when we would be moving, and to where. I was enrolled in schools and taken out of them. I started over in every new town and school district with no friends, knowing the day would come when I would have new friendships that I would have to bid farewell the next time it came to pack the moving boxes — jettisoning another town, another state, and more of our few belongings. Learning to embrace a life with no dependable boundaries — or rather, no dependable foundations — has left me with few expectations and little anticipation at the prospect of another move.
It is this lack of expectations, a blank spot where “what I anticipate” should be, according to people from more settled backgrounds, that first hinders my ability to relate to this graph and its accompanying article. In the “Pre-Arrival” column of the chart, one is supposed to experience feelings of happiness; between months nine and eighteen of “Initial Settlement” (the central part of the graph) one is plummeting to the nadir, or “feeling down”; this is followed, by the logic of the chart’s author, Oksana Korzun (who follows in the footsteps of Canadian Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, who made famous the phrase “culture shock”) by feeling at least moderately “good” between months eighteen and twenty-four, a period labeled “Integrated/Settled”, and representing the final of the three columns. While I don’t doubt this to be the experience of a good many immigrants, those of us who have had more transient upbringings and less settled adulthoods may feel none of these feelings. Coupling that unstable upbringing with moving and integrating into a new culture during a pandemic in which all normal social interactions are absent, the chart and its findings seem completely alien to my own experience.
Prior to leaving the US at the end of January 2021, I was not feeling happy — at least not at the top of the wave represented by Korzun (or for that matter the initial wave represented by Oberg’s own graph, which has four columns called: Honemymoon, Confrontation, Adjustment and Bicultural Fluency — the four phases of culture shock.) I was apprehensive, distracted and, hindered by COVID in being able to move about freely and engage in the usual farewell dinners, walks, picnics or get togethers that have often marked another move in my adult life, detached. I had no great illusions about moving to Portugal, one of the EU’s poorer member states (a state with higher unemployment and fewer career opportunities than the average), and no idea what would be in store for us. Other than knowing we had a flat rented in Coimbra, there was nothing definite on the horizon — nothing to elicit feelings of level ten good in our Pre-Arrival period, especially as we were moving in the midst of winter to a country under strict lockdown. While I was certainly glad to be leaving behind the gunshots and rising cost of living, divisive gentrification and corrupt local politics of Oakland, California, I was not riding on a wave of “feeling good”.
We have now been here for seven months and, according to Korzun’s chart, we should still be feeling relatively happy — or about 7/10 “feeling good” — about to go over the edge towards about eleven months of “feeling down”. My own emotional life is such that in the course of one day, I can easily and frequently move from feeling good to feeling down. While the article in which Korzun’s graph and Oberg’s analysis (“Stress and hatred in immigration: 4 stages of adaptation in a new country” by Niddinova Nuriya) does account for a lack of universality in immigrant experience, it still concludes that these graphs and barometers remain the best examples of immigrant emotional experience and adaptation, and while she does mention that some people will skip certain stages or reach a plateau of experience from which they never move, it does not explore those variations in experience in any substantial way, but rather sticks to the findings of anthropologists and social scientists like Oberg and Korzun. (Perhaps my own expectations in reading this article, sent with glowing recommendation from an expat to us, as expatriates, is a bit too much for a limited number of paragraphs on medium.com). Perhaps had we immigrated two years ago, I might feel a bit more represented in these findings and studies — might have experienced a more elevated sense of optimism (feeling good) prior to leaving, and some of the honeymoon phase of being newly arrived — a tourist — in a new country, dazzled by the novelty of the situation, as opposed to still living the life in lockdown I had been living for nearly a year — only now having to deal with plumbers and grocery stores in a foreign language — having to navigate a foreign bureaucracy with limited language while still living what very much feels like my old life. Maybe I am experiencing all of the phases and emotions, but all smashed together at one heady and confusing time, and the extreme limitations of life during this plague have rendered me unable to discern them.
The closest I come to seeing my lived experience reflected in Oberg’s four phases of culture shock, are only on the small scale, and only in the frustration, or “Confrontation” column. It is frustrating to be held up in the grocery store while the clerk keeps repeating herself in the same rapid Portuguese, despite being implored in Portuguese to please speak more slowly so I can understand. It is confrontational to visit the same grocery store five days in a row until you have finally found all of the things on your not so large grocery list. It is frustrating to be deal with bureaucracy of any sort, but especially when doing it in a language you are still learning — and in which you still implore people por favor, pode fale mais devagar?! This is the phase of culture shock in which one is questioning one’s choice to have left behind the familiar, to be wondering if one has made a terrible mistake, and is said to follow the period of novelty, or feeling like a tourist (Honeymoon). The six weeks (no more than six, according to Oberg) were indistinguishable to us. We arrived during very rainy winter in which Coimbra seemed to be, other than the lines at the grocery store, a ghost town. While we certainly enjoyed our walks around town, being wet, cold and alone rather shaded the glee we had on our visit here as actual tourists in 2018. The feeling of novelty is still something that comes and goes on occasion, depending on whether or not we have the chance to see something new — a rarity in times of lockdown and social distancing — two factors that make stage three, Adjustment, seem like a pipe-dream. The expected opportunity to make friends, attend dinners or work on common projects with members of our new community, thereby integrating and hastening stage four, Bicultural Fluency, are nowhere in sight, and while we have a chance to say hello to our neighbors, and occasionally to be the grateful recipients of bags of plums or a basket of eggs — the adjustment Oberg and Kurzon speak of is simply absent. Our neighbors are, for the most part, quite elderly, and 2021 being 2021, none of us are getting too close — not close enough to exchange more than a passing Bom Dia or Boa Tarde — not close enough to share time together, and begin the exchange of intimacies that help integrate one into one’s new host country and culture — which lead to the “Integrated/Settled” outcome of Kurzon’s research.
What I know, seven months into my life as an immigrant, is that what I have so far experienced does not fit on these charts, nor do I see it reflected substantially in these studies. I am sure a part of that is directly tied into having such an unstable life, an experience that naturally predisposes me to being an outlier on what qualifies as normal human experience, emotion and behavior. My own doubt about the choices I have made, my own wonder and amazement with where I am, confusion with my community or sense of belonging are on whirling merry-go-round no matter where I find myself, and I had no expectation that I would leave these feelings behind — nor that they would lay themselves out in some sense of rational order, as experienced by other, perhaps more “normal” members of the human race. The experience of immigration or migration, like nearly all aspects of human experience, is completely subjective and individual, and while many of us share enough of that experience for social scientists to create graphs depicting its ups and down and what is accepted as the norm, that is not a definition by which we can judge others, or ourselves — nor a way in which we can find substantial meaning — especially under conditions and circumstances as extraordinary as immigration — an experience that will elicit, even in the most adaptable, sane person strange states of being, and myriad unidentifiable emotions. God bless the immigrant who feels within the two years of these studies — and heaven help me to not judge myself by that benchmark.