I'm an immigrant. It's a word loaded with all kinds of prejudice, bias and stigma, but it's my official status within my chosen country of residence. Hopefully, together with my kids I will fairly soon become a naturalized citizen of Canada, and be able to vote and apply for work within government departments (Yay!). In the meantime I will continue to pay my taxes, contribute to the local and national economy, abide by the law and behave in every other way as if I were already a citizen; basically lead an ordinary on-the-grid kind of a life. I'm not, you see, a refugee of any kind; I came to Canada to hopefully provide my family with a fresh opportunity to enjoy their lives, and since we landed I've always paid my way.
Being an immigrant, however, carries with it much historical stigma. As a group we are often characterized (especially among the right-leaning) as scroungers who take, take, take and give little or nothing in return; lazy good-for-nothings who live off the back of hard-working natives of their adopted land. The truth - certainly with regard to myself and any other immigrants that I know - is in fact the opposite. Being an immigrant (unless you've arrived on the back of a very nicely-paid job) is usually a struggle; there is a price (in fact many prices) to be paid for uprooting and starting anew.
In days of yore (old English for 'back in the day'), immigrants often had horrendous adversity to overcome in order to settle in North America. Economic privations, prejudice and discrimination often left them scratching a living, or worse, failing utterly and disappearing quietly into the dust they once coveted. Quite simply, people died. Lots of them. These days the challenges are different in scope and magnitude - but they still exist. I haven't faced the same kind of where-will-the-next-meal-come-from fears that some of my ancestors (who were immigrants to Britain in the late 1800s - it runs in the family) undoubtedly faced, but for reasons that will remain private to protect the confidentiality of another, at one time many years ago I got very, very close to it, and feared that I would lose not just every thing, but everyone I held dear to me.
That was a direct consequence of immigration and some other factors, but the biggest issue was changing countries and there being none of the support structures in place that I could have turned to in my old country. I've never had to beg (although without financial help from a sibling many years ago I'd probably have been homeless), never been reduced to asking for state handouts, but there have been hard times; very hard times. The thing is; how will future generations of my family look back upon these years? Will they even know about the private difficulties that may otherwise be invisible?
It's a fascinating thought. I wonder if, just as the struggles of my ancestors from Russia/Lithuania fill me with awe and a mild sense of horror of what they must have endured, will my descendants reflect on these times with equal wonder from a perspective of whatever our future society has developed into? Will they look back at what I consider to be my most desperate hours and ask themselves how I got through it, or will they think I got off lightly? Will the future be a place of struggles which eclipse my own, or will everyone be even more comfortable and prosperous than today? Will I seem to be a fool or something of a pioneer?
I won't, of course, ever know (unless the Buddhists have it right, in which case I'm coming back as a succession of flies on the wall), but the thought makes me pause, and is an interesting exercise about perspective. Compared to somebody living in the Ebola-ridden areas of the African continent, I'm ridiculously rich and comfortable and lucky. That's a good thing to remember and keep hold of, and on balance, despite an currently rather interesting professional situation (of my own making, it must be said), I'm happier today than I was fifteen years ago, twelve years ago and even only three years ago.
I hope that future generations will not seek to measure their distant, long-deceased ancestor in material terms. I hope (and this is one reason why I write) that they will have the insight to understand that the decisions I made have brought me today to a life which makes me happy. I live with the people I love most, in a beautiful part of the world, and I have exciting (if small) ambitions for the mid and long-term future. It would be very different if I'd stayed in the UK, where ambitions are often even smaller, living conditions are quite tangibly different, and where levels of stress are significantly raised for most people.
The point of emigrating from the UK was not to stop being British, neither was it to become Canadian; it wasn't even about money - it was always about quality of life, and in particular the quality of life for subsequent generations of my family. My kids are now of an age where they can begin to understand the reasoning, and I hope that they remember it and pass it along. One day I will simply be a name on a family tree, but I sincerely hope that it will be remembered that we didn't get a free ride, that there were hardships to overcome, and that we did what we did for the sake of our family to come. My legacy will hopefully be better lives for my descendants than they would otherwise have had in my beloved yet overcrowded, fraught and slightly desperate former land. Legacies are so often measured by fame or money; I hope that this much quieter, more subtle one will endure, and that my name will not easily be forgotten.