Emigrating can be one of life’s most rewarding and beautiful experiences. You can learn a foreign language, launch a new career, and maybe find the love of your life to name just a few benefits. Of course, it doesn’t come without its challenges; whether that’s missing friends and family, the dizzying tower of paperwork required to get permission to sneeze, or generally being forced out of your comfort zone. After speaking to my international friends in Barcelona, as well as drawing on my own experience, this week’s article delves into the many joys and challenges of being an immigrant.
Disclaimer: This article reflects the experiences of young and educated immigrants who decided to move to Spain because they wanted to. The experience of being an immigrant is obviously a lot different for asylum seekers and refugees who have little choice but to leave their homes and face a lot more challenges. With that said, let’s dive in.
Part 1 – The Challenges
Challenge 1 – Learning a new language
It’s no secret that learning a foreign language is hard work. Several months of classes and/or full immersion in a language will be needed before you can converse with the locals in their native tongue, and many years of practise and dedication to really master it.
Meeting new people, as well as speaking and listening to a foreign language all day is exhausting too. You have to work doubly hard to try and understand everything, making it feel like your brain is going to explode by the end of the day.
All of this turns simple activities into big hurdles. Opening a bank account is a daunting chore when you have to read through a contract in a foreign language. Going to the doctor becomes a mission when you have to arm yourself with all the vocabulary for your ailments first. Studying takes twice as long when you have to take detailed notes and translate everything when you get home because you didn’t understand a word in class. This can be a big blow to your confidence, so even if you’re normally confident and outgoing, you may become shy and unsure, especially in the beginning.
Even when you’re nearing proficiency in a foreign tongue, it can be incredibly frustrating to feel like you can’t express yourself as clearly as in your native language. You can’t be as quick and witty, your full personality doesn’t shine, and some things are simply lost in translation.
Related to language learning, getting to grips with a new culture is also challenging. Whether that’s forgetting about the Spanish siesta and trying (unsuccessfully) to do anything from photocopying a document to buying a screw between the hours of 2 and 4pm, or being unaware that you should say adiós when you or a stranger leaves an elevator lest you be branded rude for life; the cultural minefield is another thing that takes time (perhaps even a lifetime) to get used to.
Challenge 2 – Bureaucracy
Note: Never ask an immigrant about their experience of paperwork and bureaucracy if you’re pressed for time. It will be a long story.
Paperwork can give anyone a headache. Now imagine navigating the mess that is most countries’ bureaucratic system when you’re a newly arrived immigrant with a sketchy grasp of the local language.
From my experience, there is often a dearth of clear information, official government websites break, immigration officials are surprisingly unhelpful and seem to have a particular disdain for the immigrants they are employed to help, and to top it all off the information isn’t available in English. Of course, if you are moving to another country you should learn the local language, but you can’t expect immigrants fresh off the boat to be able to do paperwork in a foreign language – it wastes a lot of time and frustrates everyone involved. Case in point: getting my NIE–Número de Identificaciónde Extranjero, which always reminds me of the word “extraterrestrial” and, indeed, is how you are made to feel at times.
As there’s no obligation to carry national ID cards in the UK (at least not for UK and EU citizens), having to apply for a “foreigner’s identification number” didn’t even cross my mind. In fact, I was already living in Spain with a job offer when my boss asked me when I had my appointment to get my NIE. “NIE? What’s that?” It turned out a tiny piece of paper, whose existence I had been blissfully unaware of , was of vital importance to work in Spain, to open a bank account, get a job, contract an Internet provider…
Given the importance of this piece of paper (yes, it’s actually a flimsy piece of paper, it’s not even a card) with your name and number on it, immigrants are understandably keen to get one as soon as possible. With the wait to get an elusive appointment stretching out for months, some unscrupulous people are cashing in on immigrants’ desperation by effectively forming a mafia that sell what should be free government appointments for fees upwards of €100. (If you’re as incredulous as I am you can find out more here and here.)
Fortunately, throughout all of this process I had the help of my British-Iranian boss who had jumped through the same hoops herself, as well as from my Spanish-speaking fiancé who acted as my interpreter throughout the ordeal, so after five visits to different offices and police stations, I was finally officially allowed to be a legitimate, useful member of society. It would have been so much harder without this support and being an EU citizen, I’ve had it a lot easier than my non-EU friends.
Before you think I’m just criticising Spanish bureaucracy, it can be just as bad anywhere else. Having fostered a number of refugees in England, my parents can attest to the fact that that the administrative hoops immigrants have to jump through would make a Brit’s head hurt and the system actually sets them up to fail. (I feel this will have to be the topic of a future post.)
In summary, given that a country’s bureaucracy can be mind-boggling enough for its own citizens, it seems absurd that we give immigrants, who are already trying so hard to build up their lives in another country, further obstacles to overcome without any support. The result is that many immigrants end up living in another country “illegally” and have to put their lives on hold while their papers are processed, which can take anything from weeks to over a year. At the end of these long bureaucratic nightmares, visa applications can still be rejected on a whim and people have to pack up their hard-won new lives in a suitcase and leave. In fact, I have a friend who wasn’t even allowed to return to the USA in between visa applications to pick up her clothes and bike or say goodbye to the friends she was forced to leave.
Ultimately, this is a loss for everyone. Both the host country and the immigrant have so much mutual benefit to gain, especially when the immigrants are young, educated and talented individuals.
Challenge 3 – Friends and Family
Unsurprisingly, missing your friends and family is often one of the biggest challenges for immigrants. Without a preexisting network of friends and family, finding somewhere to live, a job, and childcare becomes so much more difficult. And should there be any family emergency, you feel so powerless to help. Plus, you’ll find you never have enough holiday days to visit your loved ones back home as much as you’d like whilst also visiting other countries. Immigrants should definitely get extra holiday days!
Challenge 4 – You’re forced out of your comfort zone
All of these challenges mean you get pushed far out of your comfort zone. Negotiating housing contracts in a foreign language, getting lost in a big city, making friends and adapting to a different culture isn’t easy. At times you might feel alone and ask yourself why you decided to move abroad in the first place. Wouldn’t it have been easier to stay at home?
Well, yes, but then you’d miss out an all of the incredible benefits of being an immigrant. You see, all the challenges are potentially joys.
Part 2 – What makes it all worth it
Joy 1 – Learning a new language
Of course, learning a language is hard. What worthwhile endeavour isn’t? But learning a new language or languages offers a host of benefits, such as being amazing for your brain, helping you to make friends, and boosting your job prospects. And the more languages you learn, the better you get at it. In fact, once you learn one language, you usually get hooked. This is attested to by the fact that most of my immigrant friends are not just bilingual, but multilingual.
What’s more, the process of language learning and making those inevitable mistakes is a very humbling process. It’s normal to feel embarrassed about making mistakes and sounding ‘foreign’, but really, a foreign accent and mistakes are not something to be ashamed of, they are signs of bravery for daring to try.
An additional cheeky benefit (one that I occasionally employ) is selective understanding. Don’t want to talk to that street seller flogging a new gas provider? All it takes is a “No hablo español” and you can walk away scot free. Accidentally bought the wrong train ticket? Oopsies, just tell the ticket inspector you’re not from here, didn’t understand the tariffs and you’ll probably be let off the hook too.
Plus, you can always give yourself and other people a good laugh with your language gaffes. Some famous Spanish mistakes include:
confusing pollo (chicken) for polla(willy). One letter can make all the difference.
Mistaking cojines (cushions) for cojones (testicles)
Talking about your wonderful partner “pareja” but accidentally saying “pajera” (wanker)
I also have a friend who routinely confuses peine (comb) with pene (penis). Quite unfortunate seeing as she is a hairdresser!
Joy 2 – Bureaucracy
Ok, I lied about this one. There is no benefit to be gleaned from this, aside from the fact that it makes you more resilient and increases your perseverance. That, plus the fact that you can commiserate with other immigrants who all have their own farsical stories to relate.
Being more vulnerable than in your home country, you’ll have to rely on other people for help and advice to get ahead in your new home, whether that’s to ask someone to check your work contract to make sure you’re not being exploited, where you can go shopping on a Sunday, or something as simple as where you can go for decent ice cream. From my experience, people generally love to help a newbie, and some beautiful friendships can spring from these interactions.
You’ll often find that the relationships you make when living in another country are incredibly strong. Why’s that? Well, starting out from scratch in a new country gives you a great kick up the culo to get out there and meet people, and you’ll probably find that you naturally gravitate towards other immigrants who are in the same boat, and who can provide mutual support in the ups and downs of being a foreigner. Before you know it they become like a second family. And it certainly makes for interesting dinner parties when you have a mini United Nations at the table.
The silver lining about being separated from your friends and family in your home country is that when you do get to spend time with them you’ll appreciate it enormously. You’ll also realise who your true friends are that you maintain a relationship with despite the distance.
Joy 4 – You’re forced out of your comfort zone
Diving into the unknown takes guts, but it’s also liberating to start from scratch. For many it’s a chance to escape pressure from family and friends to marry and/or have kids at a defined age, take a particular job, or lead a certain sort of lifestyle. Plus, as you’re starting from zero, nobody knows you, so you can be anyone you want to be, do anything you want to do, and you may experience things you would never have thought possible in your home country.
Moving to a foreign country is a leap of faith which often makes you realise you can achieve far more than you previously thought possible, and leads you to take chances in other areas of your life, like your career. In fact, being used to taking risks, adapting quickly to change and seeing things from a fresh perspective, immigrants are much more likely to become entrepreneurs than native citizens of a country. If you don’t believe me, read more in Forbes’ excellent piece 5 Reasons Why Immigrants Make Great Entrepreneurs. Here in Spain I’m constantly impressed by a number of my strong and creative immigrant friends who’ve thrown caution to the wind to open their own businesses as English teachers, hair stylists, massage therapists, tech entrepreneurs …
Trying new things and challenging yourself can be addictive, so it’s no wonder that many immigrants find that they take up new hobbies too. If anyone had told me 4 years ago that I would join a group of 30 samba dancers performing during carnival in Rio’s Sambodromo, I wouldn’t have believed them.