Sunday, June 13, 2021

Immigrant Diaries

Philadelphia Chinatown
I moved out of my country on the 20th August 2012. I have a selective memory. I remember things that I want to remember, most of the time. However, I vividly remember 19th August 2012 Sunday. The night I was leaving my home to fly to New Delhi. My final destination was of course Lisboa. But first I had to go to New Delhi to get my visa stamp from the Portuguese embassy in New Delhi. We don't have a Portuguese Embassy in Sri Lanka. I was flying to Portugal to do my MSc. It was an Erasmus Mundus that I chose Portugal and Sweden, as it is a double degree. Of course, an MSc is just a 2-years degree. I never thought of anything beyond the 2 years. 

There was always a competition in Sri Lanka. I did that competition thing - but only until I entered the university (you need to get high scores in A/L to enter the good programs in a good state/public university in Sri Lanka. Not much different from China's Gaokao). By the 2nd year of my BSc, once I entered the Computer Science and Engineering program, I kind of avoided this competition mentality. I just want to be happy. In fact, I want everyone to be happy. My only benchmark, I do annually, by the year end. I judge my year against my previous years. Then I write an annual post (a habit since 2010), comparing my current year to the previous years, in metrics of happiness. I list 30 things that made the year interesting, i.e., that made me happy. It is all personal. I compare myself to my past self. Not against anyone else. I am on my own path that I carefully crafted. Not planning to follow another one's trajectory.

Italian Market, Philadelphia
I arrived in Portugal with an open mind on the 23rd of August 2012. I had never been to Portugal before. For reasons unknown, Emirates randomly upgraded my flight from DXB to LIS into a business class and treated me well. The border control agent in Portugal was extremely nice. I expected questions from him. He just gave me a smile and "have a good day." Portugal impressed me on the day-1. I met many people in Portugal. I made friends and family in Portugal. People I met in Portugal would change my life drastically. I often tell that I found myself in Portugal.

We were master students, especially from Erasmus Mundus - a prestigious mobility program under the Erasmus+ umbrella. We all had a story to share. We were also attending ULisboa / Instituto Superior Técnico, arguably the most prestigious university of the country. We all had a story to share. Portuguese people are also friendly and usually extroverts (at least compared to all the other 45 nations I have been). I was expecting to be lonely in Portugal as I left my parents and friends in Sri Lanka. But quickly, Portugal proved me wrong. I was surrounded by lovely people. Portugal also quickly made me into an extrovert. I started loving people more!

Most immigrants bring a piece of their home country with them. I usually remind everyone though that an immigrant or a tourist you meet in your country may not be the ideal representative of their home country. Some adopt themselves to fit the host country's culture. Others double down on their home country's culture. For them, they get stuck in a time when they left their country. For instance, I have met Sri Lankans who moved abroad in the 1980s have maintained their traditions sometimes more vigorously than those at home. It is like the time stopping to move. Some of them had not gone back to Sri Lanka in ages. Even if they did, that was too short of a time to observe the country sufficiently. Forget others - even myself - my Sri Lanka moments and memories largely stop at 2012 August. Even though I had been to Sri Lanka after during vacations in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2020, those were just 2 - 3 weeks of vacations - too little to do anything beyond spending time with family, visiting relatives and friends, and to handle some other important matters at home.

Camden, NJ
For us - whether nomads or immigrants, often our country stops evolving ever since we left the country. We remember the songs of the country (bus songs!) up until the day we left the country. After that, even if we watch/listen to new songs online, the feeling is not the same as listening them from the bus or at home in Sri Lanka. Many immigrant towns such as Chinatowns and India towns in several western cities give the taste of home away home for many immigrants. As such, new waves of immigrants too often end up settling in the same areas.

Not all the immigrants are the same. Some had a great experience in their host country, whereas others just survived. Some were fleeing brutal regimes back at home whereas others were living a comfortable life in their home country. An immigrant's experience in the home country depends on several factors such as their life back at home and how the humans in the host country treats them. Luckily for me, everyone I met in Portugal were nice and friendly (with time, I might have met some not-so-nice-people - but by then I had already met hundreds to thousands of great ones - so that I could ignore any bad apples). It also depends on the factor who I am. I was in Portugal as part of the Erasmus Mundus double degree program. We had a clique of international students, and also very friendly local students too. When we introduced ourselves as we are from Tecnico Lisboa, we instantly got some respect due to the name of the university (arguably the best in the nation). May not be the same for everyone. I am not sure whether I will be able to replicate the same experience if I arrive there now for the very first time - 9 years later - say, as an employee rather than a student. Student life always brings the friendships quite easily. It is also often meeting the right people at the right time vs meeting the wrong people at the wrong time. Regardless of the hypothetical scenarios where I arrive first in Portugal in 2020 or 2021, what indeed happened in the real world in Portugal left me with exciting and positive memories.

I rarely have considered myself an immigrant. Rather, I liked to label myself a nomad. It made sense. With the mandatory mobility of Erasmus Mundus MSc and PhD, together with the internships, I had lived in 7 countries by the time I arrived in Atlanta in 2018 June. But, now it is 3 years since I came to Atlanta and I haven't moved ever since. Although H1B holders are legally not considered immigrants (I guess ?), I know I fall somewhere in the immigrant-nomad spectrum - but I am not sure where exactly. I am curious to see where time will place me next.

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