A few weeks ago, I submitted a devotion to the editor of an anthology. In my submission, I recalled feeling out of place in the U.S. when I first emigrated to the U.S. from India. I shared how the visceral experience of being a foreigner helped me understand my biblical identity as a foreigner on earth. The editor responded with a poser: “Do you still feel like a foreigner in the U.S. after living here for almost a decade and a half?”
Her question lingered on in my mind for days. I’m one of those people who over-analyzes side comments and innocent queries. It’s helpful to mull over a thought as a writer because it can lead to a quasi-brainstorming session that can generate creative writing ideas, but it can also take me down rabbit holes. Like this one.
Back to discussing my foreignness. The editor’s question raised more questions for me. When did I stop feeling like a foreigner? At what point in my immigrant journey did I decide that America was now home, that I belonged here?
It takes time for new immigrants to resettle into new communities and countries. Leaving and cleaving are long-term endeavors. Our bodies may have physically relocated to another country, but our minds and hearts can take years or even decades to untangle thoughts and feelings from our roots and to graft our whole selves into another environment. Most people praise the resilience of immigrants, but the underlying grief and confusion that punctuates their seemingly well-adjusted or successful lives often goes unnoticed.
Each immigrant’s journey is unique and personal. For some, coping with change comes easily. Others, like me, take longer to feel rooted. My journey from alien to native was comprised of different phases.
When I first set foot on American soil, I was an all-round stranger. Everything about America—the weather, food, traffic rules, social customs, and culture—was foreign to me. My senses were bombarded with new and unfamiliar things, but I was optimistic, determined to embrace my future. Recently married, I looked forward to starting an exciting chapter of life with my husband. America was beautiful, clean, organized, and less populous than India. Wide roads, tall buildings, and manicured and spacious lawns made me feel small – but also free.
I learned that I could cross a street only at the crosswalks. Strangers smiled at each other and made small talk. Most people spoke softly, not loudly like in India. I watched and learned and imitated others, afraid of embarrassing myself in public. I did not want to make it obvious to others that I was a recent immigrant. I watched YouTube videos on how to run a dishwasher or clean a bathroom with a bathtub. I enjoyed the challenge of adapting to a different lifestyle.
The first few weeks in the country went by quickly. My husband, Simon, and I had to take care of a lot of administrative details like applying for social security, opening bank accounts, getting mobile phones, and shopping for essentials. After a few weeks, Simon’s company moved us into a furnished apartment.
The reality that I had left behind everything that defined me—culture, friendships, profession, ministry—hit me hard. I felt lost, my sense of identity unraveled. Phase two of my immigrant experience was in many ways the opposite of phase one. More anxiety, less excitement. The changes that I had embraced now became a burden. I grew weary of constantly unlearning old habits and learning new ones. I wanted to take a break and be myself.
I had never experienced such intense loneliness before in my life. I had an active social life in India, making time almost daily to hang out with co-workers, college buddies, and church friends. I never put much thought into seeking or building community. Community simply happened. In the U.S., Simon was the only person I spoke to most days. I spoke with my family and friends back home over the phone or through Skype, but longed to meet a familiar face in person. I wondered if I would ever be able to belong to a community again.
The silence in my apartment and on the streets that I once considered peaceful now felt cruel because it reminded me of my isolation. I missed the cacophony of noises that characterized the roads and narrow alleys of India.
Phase two lasted a few years but felt prolonged and difficult to endure. My relationship with God became superficial. Engrossed with my own ruminations and doubts about identity, self-worth, and belonging, I missed the intimacy I had once experienced with him. Was it possible that the distance between my new homeland and old one also created a gulf between God and me?
My emotional and spiritual crisis worsened even though the stress of assimilation waned. By then, my vocabulary and mannerisms had changed. I used words like “elevator” instead of “lift” and asked for a “cup of water” instead of a “glass.” I drank tea from oversized coffee cups. I made new friends, but my relationships with them barely scratched the surface and did not go deep. Loneliness and homesickness lingered. When was this tunnel going to turn and propel me into the light?
Restless and desperate, I cried out to God for help. I signed up for a Bible study with a parachurch organization and started studying the book of Matthew with a group of women. Slowly, the joy of knowing God returned. Spending time with God made me think about him more often. He was never far away. He was always with me.
Phase three began with the discovery that there was a purpose to my wilderness experience. God wanted to draw me to himself. Phase two had humbled me, bringing to light the fact that I had parked my identity in many temporary and earthly idols. Now, I discovered that Jesus could be more than enough for me.
My spiritual revival impacted my immigrant journey. I felt at home in God’s presence. I wanted to attach myself to his plans and chase after his will for my life. I stopped worrying about feeling like a foreigner or about assimilation or my cultural identity. My desire was to walk with God one day at a time, one step at a time, wherever he had planted me. This phase marked the turning point in my journey. It was a time of spiritual growth and creativity.
I began to take my writing seriously. I started a blog and an email newsletter and considered writing a book. New friendships blossomed and ties to the community grew stronger.
I believe I’m in phase four now. I have settled down in America. I am raising a child here, in a house we recently purchased. I feel I belong to this country. That does not mean I’ve given up all that makes me Indian. I’m proud of my ethnic roots and cultural heritage. Living in between cultures is always going to be a crucial part of my identity as an Indian American, first-generation immigrant.
I also feel I’m settled because my views on integration have evolved. I believe assimilation happens both ways. It’s not a one-sided effort on the part of immigrants. Host countries play a role too in integrating people who come to live in their lands. For the most part, Americans have welcomed me and have been kind and gracious to my family. While I might not feel like a foreigner anymore, sometimes, some people treat me as one. But I’ve matured with time, not allowing how others perceive me affect how I view myself.
I do not see myself as a foreigner in the United States. At the same time, I hold my loyalty to any culture or country loosely, acknowledging that they are earthly loves. I’m first and foremost a citizen of heaven and a foreigner on earth called to impact God’s kingdom with my God-crafted calling.
Will there be a phase five, six, or seven to my immigrant journey? Most likely.
When I map out my past, I can clearly see God’s fingerprints over every detail of my life. Some phases of my immigrant experience were more difficult than others. But God knew I needed time to not only cope with the challenges of migration but also recognize his sovereignty over time and distance and surrender myself completely to him. None of my struggles were wasted. He has used them for my good and his glory, inspiring me to share my story with others on the road and to encourage believers to press on.
Whatever the future holds, I can count on God’s unchanging nature, unconditional love, and unwavering faithfulness to help me navigate the path ahead.
Thank you for sharing your story Mabel. I can resonate with every single feeling, having gone through them myself. I look forward to meeting and connecting with you in 2023.
Thank you, Sherene. I’m so glad you could relate and also excited to meet a fellow Indian immigrant in this community. I hope to connect with you too.
As a woman rooted in rural America, I depend on vulnerable sharing like yours to become aware of such a different experience. My challenge is to embrace fully the role of the Christian as sojourner and stranger, to avoid becoming too comfortable and complacent when there’s so much work that needs doing.
Thank you, Michele. That’s exactly why I write – so that people, especially believers, can know the struggles and joys of immigrants and also that they see themselves as immigrants on earth.
Your post is so beautiful–it reminds me of the stages of grief, and also that tidy narratives that there’s an “end” to loss and change aren’t very true. Thank you for sharing your journey through your immigration experience.
Thank you for words of encouragement. Coping with change almost always involves also coping with some sort of grief.