Viola: What country, friends, is this?
Captain: This is Illyria, lady.
And what should I do in Illyria?
(Twelfth Night, 1.2)
Pictures can be quite elusive. That flash froze a smile that marked a turning point my life: my arrival in the United States as an immigrant. Not everything has been smiles since then.
I frequently reflect upon my condition as an immigrant. It is an interesting situation to be in — there is so much to learn and explore. At the same time, one would think that the precarious nature of exile should be self-evident to anyone who is willing to leave his or her roots behind. But nothing prepared me for that. One doesn’t simply shed one’s old skin for a new one. There are layers and layers that simply cannot be left behind. There are new perspectives and different modes of being you in this new world. Not all of them will be to your liking. In what, in hindsight, seems like a ridiculously naïve argument, I used to empathize with the idea that one could be a “citizen of the world”. In our so-called globalized world, it is tempting to imagine that the lines in the map do not define who you are. I never considered myself a particularly patriotic person. In many senses, I was anti-patriotic. I always looked beyond the borders of my home country. I learned different languages and lived abroad for years, romantically cultivating my alleged worldliness. There were moments when I consciously rejected my country and my culture. I thought I was beyond all that nationalistic nonsense. But the experience of being an immigrant has proven me wrong in so many senses! Immigration transcended my logic and beliefs. It defied the idea that the world is a village and that we can translate ourselves smoothly into other cultural selves.
It has been a bumpy ride.
Let me put it this way: there is no positive outcome that results from a fracture. Having a broken limb is something radical and aggressive. Some people will never heal. Others will have to devise their own survival kit and try to live with the pains of brokenness. There will be a permanent fissure which will mark the fracture. The map is indeed just a line sketched in a piece of paper. But that geography is an emotional space peopled by sounds, smells, faces and memories that will follow you wherever you are. Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer, fittingly called it “the sadness of geography”. This sadness will be a permanent part of who you are.
When I arrived in the United States as an immigrant, it felt as if I had landed on a foreign land after a shipwreck, much like Viola arriving in Illyria, not knowing what to expect. The process of being transplanted to a different soil requires constant adjustments and “corrections”. Similar to Viola, who disguised herself as a man to protect herself, I oftentimes feel like an impostor in a foreign land. Viola’s main problem in Shakespeare’s play is also my own: it is that of identity, of shifting selves between what you have always been and what needs to projected in this new world. Belonging is a natural process and takes a long time to happen.
Yet dear reader, narratives thrive upon conflict. There is no great story without a conflict. And this is why immigration makes for fascinating narratives. These narratives frequently tell stories of survival, of overcoming the pains of isolation and deep discomfort. While these stories describe an enormous amount of misfortune and sadness, they also emanate hope, resilience, strength and success. In literary terms, immigrant stories are kin to Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that focuses on the psychological growth of the main character. It is true that Viola, the delightful Shakespearian heroine, at the end, manages to free herself from the roles she had created as shelters in the foreign environment of Illyria. I am trying to hold on to that thought.