would you emigrate?

statue of liberty

Bubelah and I were talking this evening about the mind-process required to emigrate. It’s not just a one-time step, either. You make a decision, for example, to leave your city; then your region; then your country. But after that comes the whole horrifying (or exciting) next process: leaving the city in the region in the country you emigrated to. It’s possibly a never-ending process.

To give some context, in the area I’m familiar with: a lot of people living in Russia leave their small towns and move to Moscow. Moscow’s the cultural, political and economic center of one of the world’s largest countries, so it’s a destination in and of itself. But a few hardy souls either leave directly from their small town or keep moving on from Moscow. If they are Jewish, they might head on out to Israel. They might head to New York, though, with its sizable Russian population. While emigrating to New York is a huge step, it’s ultimately a halfway step.

In New York, for example, you can live in a Russian neighborhood. You can have a Russian landlord, shop at Russian groceries, attend Russian churches or synagogues, eat at Russian restaurants and watch Russian TV on Dish or DirectTV. Your neighbors will be Russian, you’ll be able to buy books and newspapers at the Russian bookstores, and you can even buy Russian cartoon character toys at the Russian version of Wal-Mart. Life changes, for sure: you’re still in America, and the climate and the politics and maybe – occasionally – someone on the subway next to you will be different. But you can still lead a Russian-centric life.

After that first step, though, some immigrants take the leap and spread outwards in their adopted country. Moving to Chicago is a big step; lots of Ukrainians and Polish people, but fewer Russians. Moving to DC? Some Russians, but not concentrated like New York. And then there are the true pioneers, so to speak: the ones who move to Nashville or Kansas City or Jacksonville.  The community disappears, and the immigrant is left alone – resistance (to assimilation, so to speak) is futile.

Before you think that’s easy, imagine this: living in a city where not only your language but your culture, your attitude towards life, is not only unique but may be misunderstood or even hated. I experienced this once in my life, when I was on an extended business trip for a couple of months to Vladivostok, in eastern Siberia. At the time, it was a recently opened “military city.” It had only been open to non-Soviets/Russians for a year when I arrived. There were a small number of Japanese and Korean inhabitants, but a tiny scattering of Americans – according to one of the Russian citizens at the bank I worked at, maybe less than 20.

It’s intimidating. Imagine going to a place where nobody understands your language. That’s tough. But I understood Russian, I can still tell you it’s tough when nobody understands your culture. They can’t understand you, but more importantly they can’t understand how you think.  If you let yourself be open to this experience, it can be exhilarating; if you don’t, it can be terrifying.

It’s an amazing experience either way, of course, and it applies even to people who never leave their own country. If you work as an entrepreneur, how can you make employees understand you? If you’re a lifelong corporate employee, how can you explain your life to an academic – or a friend who works at a not-for-profit. Can someone who does freelance writing for a living understand an accounts payable clerk at a Fortune 500 company?

That’s what emigration means. Learning to understand, and making people learn to understand you. The process of learning is a struggle. I lived it (briefly, in Russia), and although I think I managed to dip a toe into a new culture, I never got all wet – because I knew I could leave. What would it take for you to make that plunge, and move into a new country/life/culture – and give up the old? Would it be love? Money? The challenge? Or even, as in many immigrants’ cases, the necessity? I don’t know if I could ever do it again unless I had to, but it was tough – and I admire people who can do it and succeed, to any level.