Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Feb 08 2007

I am an immigrant

“Excuse me,” the little gentleman said, “Where are you from?”

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? thought Dr. Daruwalla. It was always the question. For his whole adult life, it was the question he usually answered with the literal truth, which in his heart felt like a lie.

“I’m from India,” the doctor would say, but he didn’t feel it; it didn’t ring true. “I’m from Toronto,” he sometimes said, but with more mischief than authority. Or else he would be clever. “I’m from Toronto, via Bombay,” he would say. If he really wanted to be cute, he would answer, “I’m from Toronto, via Vienna and Bombay.” He could go on, elaborating the lie- namely, that he was from anywhere.

I just finished A Son of the Circus by John Irving. I spent the first half of the book wondering what it was about and whether I should continue reading it, but, as is typical in my experience with Irving, I was eventually rewarded for my patience, though later in the book than I would have liked (A Prayer for Owen Meany won me over immediately, but Hotel New Hampshire took a while. The Ciderhouse Rules never did anything for me).

Though it wasn’t the best Irving I’ve read, I was able to identify with the main character of Dr. Daruwalla, who, though he can act the various parts, doesn’t seem to truly belong in any one culture. Early on, he is told that, once one is an immigrant, one is always an immigrant. Much of the book focuses on this subject, which is portrayed in a melancholy yet matter-of-fact fashion.

As an immigrant myself, as well as someone who admittedly encounters a certain amount of discomfort while dealing with various cultural environments, I can somewhat relate to this fictional character’s situation. In the book, Dr. Daruwalla knows deep down that there will always be people in Canada who, based on the color of his skin, will only see him as Indian, as well as many people in India who will point out that he is not truly an Indian either. All of this translates into a kind of helplessness in the book until, towards the end, the doctor is asked where he is from by a child on the street, and he comes up with a uniquely accurate answer to the query, that he is from the circus.

Granted, you’ll have to read the book to know what that really means for Dr. Daruwalla, but it seems to me that there are more options in life than simply Nationality A or Citizen of B or of the C Ethnicity. And when I consider what my life would have been like if things had turned out differently, I wonder if I could have taken what a more standard path would have dealt me.

But that’s neither here nor there. I could wonder endlessly about such things (and I often find myself doing just that), but in reality, while I sometimes dislike dealing with the various cultural baggage that comes with an inter-cultural identity, I often find, as with a large, noisy party, that I am more comfortable outside than in. Perhaps that is a common point among immigrants in general, that restlessness that flies in the face of the natural desire to belong. Some immigrants cling to one culture or another, either retreating into the comfortable familiarity of their childhood or making a show of unreservedly throwing themselves into their adopted culture while daring anyone to notice anything out of the ordinary, but I think that, to a degree, we all reserve a section of ourselves that transcends the absoluteness of any one culture, environment or identity. Just in case.

I am not American, not officially anyway; I have never lived there as an adult. I don’t remember my birthplace at all. While my English remains a bit better than my Chinese, I don’t know anything about contemporary US culture that can’t be accessed through the Internet. Americans seem foreign to me. While my upbringing will always be a part of who I am, it is a static part and only changes in relation to the person I’ve become since.

I know Taiwan better than any other place in the world. It’s my home, and though I love to travel and explore different parts of the world, I always want to come back here. I am a citizen with all the rights and obligations of a Taiwanese national. Yet a random stranger on the street, seeing my features and skin color, will automatically assume that I am a cultural novice and completely unfamiliar with this land and its people. I will be treated like a child or an idiot by some, fawned over as exotic by others. Only those who get to know me will ever know any different.

Such inconsistencies are simply part of my reality, an unfamiliar aspect to many people who (understandably) rely on assumptions to get through life. It may seem like this kind of existence makes a lot of unreasonable demands, and it does, but with culture and identity, as with physics, there is only so much me to go around. Perhaps that is why some immigrants tend to stay on the outside, in order to allow them at least the illusion of control over their identities, even as they fly apart at the seams.

posted by Poagao at 4:02 am  

1 Comment

  1. What? You’re not exotic? But you play the washtub bass without a smile. What about that that’s not exotic?

    Comment by Sandy — February 9, 2007 @ 4:13 am

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