Friday, March 18, 2011

The Immigrant Experience

Cameras played little part in my childhood. This is a rare, early photo of me with my brother Martin in Belfast.

I came to Canada as a child, caught up in the wave of hopefuls who fled Great Britain in the difficult years following WWII in search of a better life. Like many, circumstance forced me to adapt to a culture very different from my own. Such a move required courage and determination, and I lacked both at the start. Strange sights and sounds overwhelmed me. I longed to go back home, sure that I could never be happy here. Time proved me wrong and I adjusted to Canadian society with relative ease, building a good life among people who accepted me as one of their own. Even as a child, I recognized that my smooth integration differed markedly from that of other newcomers, particularly those whose ethnicity spoke out in the colour of their skin. I came to understand that the elitism facilitating my assimilation made sure others would remain forever on the outside, no matter how long they might live in their adoptive country.
Bigotry darkened my childhood from birth. As Protestants in Northern Ireland, my parents charged me to spurn Catholics...they were not our 'kind'. Exposed to Canada’s diverse range of cultural groups, my father's ire was simply re-directed. One day, after listening to a vitriolic tirade about foreigners taking over the country, I reminded him timorously that we were not born here either. My father responded with raised eyebrows and imperialistic indignation, “Why, you cannot compare us to outsiders. After all, we're white..and we're British!” I understood that his specious logic was the only justification needed to vilify real foreigners. Helplessness silenced me, even as I sensed an uncomfortable truth behind the arrogant words. I could not deny that my fair skin and Irish background influenced people to welcome me warmly. My old-world ways matched their preconceived notions and granted me easy access to where others were denied admittance.
While many emigrants struggled to be understood, my Gaelic lilt guaranteed an instant smile. Given unaccustomed foods like hamburgers and pizza, the fact that I cut them up neatly with a knife and fork made adults beam approval at my manners. I never had to deal with disparaging remarks about what I ate or how the scent of that food lingered on my clothes. Although this high level of acceptance helped me adjust to my altered life, being singled out embarrassed me. I wished only to belong. With haste, I swapped my school blazer for flip-flops and became so fluent in the local vernacular that I looked and sounded exactly like my Canadian playmates. I knew this was not the case for those whose customs were more difficult to merge. Although I abandoned much to fit in, others gave up more for a smaller return.
I no longer stand silent in the face of exclusion based on stereotyping of any kind. If I measure someone's worth, it will be based on an individual’s contribution to society, not on a race or creed. In conversation, I seek words of tolerance and inclusion, regardless of accent. I am part of a cycle greater than my own life. This planet is my home and every inhabitant on it my brother or sister, forever linked to me by bonds of responsibility and compassion. I want to hear the stories they tell and embrace the differences that have shaped our diverse lives. Each one of us must reject apathy and actively make this a world wherein mercy and equality are the birthright of all people.
That change begins with me.


Sherry Blue Sky said...

FABULOUS piece! Well-written and well-said. So true. I love the photo of you and Martin, you with a cat in your arms as you have had all your life:)

Lynette Killam said...

Thanks, Sherry:

Animals have always been a treasure to me, and have filled a few holes in my life's journey...


Lois Evensen said...

Thank you for sharing your story and your outlook on life. Lovely story.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

A beautiful post, Lynette!

Breezy said...

Lovely post.. well written! I love the photo of you and your brother.

adrielleroyale said...

Indeed! It is so hard yet important to remember that every larger change must begin with one person, the only one we have any legitimate control over...ourselves. A great perspective!

Sherry Blue Sky said...

I loved this even more this time around, especially in light of world events this week. I so resonate with your philosophy, Lynette - our parents' generation seems to have held a lot of racist thinking. I heard that sort of language too. I made sure, as you did, that my kids never did. I love the photo on the right of the huge Celtic cross. Lovely.

Eileen T O'Neill ..... said...

Dear Lynette,
You had me reaching for a box of tissues, while I was reading and re-reading this most wonderful, personal and honest piece of writing.
I feel so very proud to have been born in the same city of Belfast, as you. A few years may separate us in age, a great few miles may separate us geographically now, between our present abodes, but if I could reach you right now, I'd embrace you as a friend.
I understand your sentiments about moving to a new country, with all that, that entailed.
Lynette, you make me feel so lucky to have met you through our writing and I admire your outlook in life. Belfast is a great place, but I sometimes believe, that as people we have grown much stronger and wiser, with all that we have seen and enjoyed, world-wide.
Seeing the bigger picture and looking beyond the religious prejudices, which sadly still blight Northern Ireland.
Thank you for putting 'pen to paper' with this piece of writing Lynette.
Have a lovely weekend,
Best wishes, Eileen
PS: Thank you for your comments at my Poem!

aka Penelope said...

It is rather uncommon for those on the “positive” side of our prejudices to have the empathy shown in your piece for those viewed more negatively, Lynette! Not all immigrants were (or are) treated similarly in our culture. Suspicion and biases play a major role, indeed. I believe we can rise above intolerance as we evolve. I think most of it is rooted in fear. Since we are more accepting of the familiar, it serves us well to become familiar on a personal level with a wide range of people from differing backgrounds. I also think technology will help bind us together.

Colleen - the AmAzINg Mrs. B said...

Oh if everyone could read your words! So heartfelt they are..

You and your brother are an adorable pair..

Thank you for the lesson on tolerance and understanding..and LOVE!

Katy Cameron said...

I'm sure I must come from one of the oddest Belfast families ever lol My grandad was a devout athiest (the black sheep of our family is my uncle that became a vicar lol) He and his brother ran a security fencing company, and apparently he was absolutely rigid about employing equal numbers from both sides of the 'divide' through the 50's, 60's and 70's. It's possibly telling that all his children left Northern Ireland when they had finished uni (or in the case of one uncle at just 19 to move to the 'mainland). Our family intolerance appears to be other people's intlerances!

We went first to Nigeria for 2 years, then to Philadelphia for 2 years, and finally back to the UK, although I've also lived in Canada for a year as a high school exchange student, and 6 months in South Africa for work a few years ago.

I was brought up to be so tolerant of everyone, to treat everyone equally, and yet I have encountered so many people along the way who believed that they were of the best race or creed in their area. In South Africa, where they are emerging so relatively recently from centuries of government sponsored (and truly heartbreaking) prejudice, it was a real eye opener. People who believed they were perfectly okay with those from 'the other side' said things that literally made my jaw drop. Was it the fact that we treated both our black and white colleagues equally that led them all to quit within 2 months of us leaving to find something better for them? Actually, I'd like to think so, those girls needed to know they were just as good as anyone else, and that their jobs were not 'pity offerings' to balance up the numbers.

Had a slight chuckle a couple of weeks ago - I've misplaced my UK passport, so applied for an Irish one (as I qualify for both) while I hunt the other one down (perhaps it was the Scots half of me that embraced the fact that it was £10 cheaper lol). My cousin, on hearing that I was trying to get this sorted when I was in London staying with my aunt and uncle (her parents) said, 'Jesus, did we finally exile her?'

And on that note, really looking forward to getting away to Doolin next week, I sooooo need the break!

Debby said...

Adorable picture along with a heart filled story.

Pat Tillett said...

The photo is great. The words are amazing...
I'm the type that calls people on racial comments whenever I hear them. If you don't object to them, those that make them think you agree with them. I don't and I've lost some friends through the years because of it...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story, Lynette. I see the changes from generation to generation in my own family. My son's wife is Japanese. My daughters husband is Hispanic. And their children will take us another step towards one world and one people.

laura said...


You always have such a way with words. It has to be your Irish roots! I saw a wonderful documentary the other night on the CBC about Ireland and the potato famine that caused so much sorrow for the Irish. I never really understood what it was really all about. My mother used to tell me about it when I was a young girl. Great piece Lynette!


Jillsy Girl said...

Excellent post, Lynette!

Hilary said...

This is a wonderful post and expresses my own sentiments well. Canadians are all immigrants - give or take a generation or three.

Pat said...

You write beautifully, Lynette. Your unique experience as an immigrant has given you great tenderness and compassion for other immigrants. I really can identify with wanting to a shy, introverted child whose family moved several times during my childhood.

Anonymous said...

Your last two sentences overflow with the truth. Beautiful post! (Came by way of The Smitten Image - congrats on the POTW!)

Marion Williams-Bennett said...

Wow, what a wonderful history you have! I think that living through this kind of experience can shape you - and how powerful that it has shaped you to be such a force of good and of change!

Sadly, I think so many others cling to what you so beautifully describe as the "elitism facilitating my assimilation made sure others would remain forever on the outside, no matter how long they might live in their adoptive country."

Beautiful writing.

slommler said...

Well said!!
Congrats on your POTW

yaya said...

I came over from Smitten Image..congrats on POTW...wonderful post, very well written and very heart felt. The US was also settled by Grandparents came from Greece...I think this great "melting pot" seems to have forgotten that at times...

CherylK said...

First of all, congratulations on your Post of the Week honor!

This is such a thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing your experience.

My mother brought me to the United States from Belfast as an infant. My father was an American overseas during World War II and my mother was in the British Navy (WRNS). She, too, was looked at sideways when folks heard her Irish brogue and it wasn't long before she sounded totally American except when she was with family. She was such a trooper and never had a bad word to say about anyone.

You have a lovely blog and I'll be back! :-)