The name of our blog is “Vantage Points,” and much of what we choose to write about is accordingly about our view of life. We write about our experiences with the ADEC odyssey, the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of expat life, and the new perspectives a person gains from seeing life from a new location, station, and position in life. We write about things we learn from listening carefully to others. Remember that post about Syria a year or so ago, or the one about a conversation with Saudi parents? We find our conceptions challenged sometimes, but more often our preconceptions, the ones we never gave much thought to, are the ones that end up being altered as we encounter life on a fuller scale than we did before.
One such conception, preconception, misconception, has been running through my mind a lot lately (Shon writing, by the way). See, when I resided in Georgia (the southeastern USA, not the country in Europe), I identified a disconcerting trend that was going on particularly before the recession of 2008. There was a massive influx of migrant workers from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking nations south of the American border. More often than not, it seemed that those folks were illegal aliens, and it was changing the face of the country I was accustomed to. The axe to grind was that these immigrants were stealing jobs a good ol’ red-blooded ‘Merican could be doing.
Yes, I was familiar with the argument that my fellow Georgians weren’t interested in working the sort of jobs farmed out to immigrants—the kind requiring real labor—but that argument never held much water for me, as I personally didn’t shy away from doing whatever kind of work I could find if I was really in need of it. I’ve worked on people’s yards, in chicken houses, hayfields, mopped floors, and done other menial tasks. I’ve also had easy but mindless jobs in retail stores, and discouragingly low-wage work in schools. It’s all part of the struggle to make ends meet and rise from one pay scale to another. But my personal history doesn’t matter much other than that—I’m willing, and always have been, to do what I need to in order to pay bills and provide for myself and others. Most of us humans are willing to do the same, aren’t we?
Now how many of those seemingly illegal immigrants I encountered fleetingly on the streets did I know for sure were not supposed to be in the country? Hm. Not many. One or two.
I heard tell of the chicken plant in Habersham County being visited by the authorities and the many Mexican workers holing up in a trailer, waiting quietly until the coast was clear and then emerging and getting back to work. That’s unverified hearsay. I sold plenty of merchandise to Spanish-speakers. Mostly they paid in cash, which I gradually realized was good for business.
What jobs were the Mexicans doing? Backbreaking work in the summer heat, temporary day-to-day jobs in construction, seasonal jobs that couldn’t be relied on for the long term, dirty jobs in Chicken processing plants, stuff like that. The kind of jobs that a person tries to avoid, to be sure. Nonetheless, jobs a fellow Georgian could do.
I remember standing in my easy but low-paying job in an outlet store in Commerce, telling my coworker, “I have just one thing to say to people who come here to work—learn English.” In my mind it was important that we all be able to communicate. At least that’s one part of what was in my mind.
And then I became an immigrant myself. I am not at the top of the pecking order in employment or citizenship anymore, a privilege I never even considered or realized I possessed when I lived back home.
Yes, I became the very person who moved to another country, took a job that a local could probably do (okay, not very well, all things considered, but still, it’s within the realm of possibility), and didn’t learn the language.
“Learn English,” I once said. Well, I also once thought I’d learn Arabic when I was getting ready to move. Yet I haven’t, because I simply don’t need it very often. Perhaps if I were interacting with locals more often, I’d get to know more. I’d have a reason to, after all.
But it’s hard to relate to locals. Their culture is drastically different than mine. I know that we’re all human beings with the same basic needs and desires, but the way we live on a daily basis is pronouncedly different. Our commonalities are there, but they’re concealed beneath the layers of dissimilar day-to-day routines. My family is in bed and asleep by 9 or 10 every night. The locals are outside with their children until then, and often later. We don’t nap in the middle of the afternoon, but they do. We eat at normal Western hours. They eat at different times that make some kind of sense if you nap part of the day and stay up really late at night. We spend time together, male and female, and want to socialize that way. They don’t.
I send much of my earnings home every month, instead of spending my cash freely like the citizens here. What’s more, I’m not here for the long term and have no intention whatsoever of spending more than a few years total in the UAE. So how much energy does it even make sense for me to expend on learning Arabic, adapting to local customs, or what have you?
What I was really saying back home, when I was bitching about Mexicans speaking Spanish instead of English was, “Be acculturated.” That’s entirely reasonable if you marry into a different culture. You take it upon yourself that you’ll adapt to a new way of doing things that will span a lifetime. My wife did it. Living abroad as a worker isn’t that at all. For most, it’s a temporary station in life.
When I said, “Learn English,” I meant, “Fit in.” But why bother? The biggest reason I’m still in the UAE is to make some extra dough to improve life in my native country.
I said “Learn English,’ but I meant, “Why do you pile seven people into a small car?” Now I carpool as much as possible, so I can send more money home.
When I said, “Learn English,” I meant, “Don’t be so different.” But my deeply ingrained culture as an American is a major factor keeping me from fitting in with the locals.
I said “Learn English” while thinking “Why are you hanging out in groups of your own people instead of making friends with us Americans?” And then I discovered that I hang out with people who are like me when I have the chance. These people might be from different countries, but they speak English, and they identify with me—we undergo the same challenges in our working environments, and we have the same goals in life.
I said “Learn English” and thought smugly that was all it would take to make a Mexican more like me.
I was completely wrong.
What would have helped a Mexican be more like me? Inviting him to come have dinner or a drink. Meeting him to play a game of soccer (he’d kick my ass at it), or toss a baseball around. I could have made an effort to use my rapidly deteriorating Spanish I learned as a student. You know, I could have invited him to church. Anyway, what it amounts to is not really that he would have then been more like me, either. Maybe, though, I could have helped him feel comfortable and welcome in a foreign land.
So when I said “Learn English,” what I was really saying was, “I don’t have the slightest idea what it’s like to be an immigrant worker living in a foreign country where lots of things are different.” I was saying, “I’m totally clueless. I’m a naïve and inconsiderate young man.” I stereotyped people freely, and I didn’t know how to relate.
Here’s what I’m getting at. I may not be exactly like a Mexican working in the USA, and a Mexican may not be exactly like me, working in the UAE. But as an immigrant worker, I now understand that what we are doing, Mexican or otherwise, is trying to build a better future for ourselves and our families, doing what we must to get by, and adapting as we see necessary. My vantage point has changed. Thank God.