In early February I found myself headed back to the United States for the first time since we’d left for Ireland in July of 2011. While I was excited to go, I was filled with questions, and knew that neither the U.S. nor I were the same as when I’d left. I also found myself reflecting on the ways that modern life has changed immigration, and on the ways that immigration has changed modern life.
Just as we’d expected some culture shock upon our arrival in Dublin, I was prepared for things not to be the same back in Atlanta and Texas. But what had changed? How had I changed? Am I still American? I sound American, but will I inadvertently lapse into “yer man”, yer one”, “good craic” and “thanks a million”? They’ll know I don’t live there, won’t they? How will they react? Remember, they all carry guns, even the children.
Of course, stepping off the plane, I was greeted by the same old U.S. There was fast food at every exit off the highway (thank God), and the grocery stores are still palaces of consumerism. The people were friendly. But this got me thinking about why the “shock” of culture (both leaving and returning) seemed so much less than I’d expected.
In times gone by, immigrants who left home were often never heard from again. Or, if they were, it was usually infrequently, as calls were difficult and expensive to place. But, more to the point, immigrants in the past mostly left because they had to. Famine, political/social instability, and violence against dissidents left many with little or no choice but to grab what bits of precious they could lay their hands on, and run (not walk) to the nearest port. And arrival in their new home was not always a welcoming experience either. But, given the place they’d just left, it was somewhere to live, and a fresh start. Many never looked back. And, back in the place they left, it often fell to later generations (who had the luxuries of time and technology) to figure out what had happened to the ones who were forced to leave.
Today, while many immigrants still flee intolerable cruelty and desperate financial situations, there is now an entire class of immigrants who emigrate by choice, and not necessity. Over the last few decades, travel has become much easier. Technology now allows us to stay in touch much more “easily”. And satellite television has given the world a certain baseline of cultural literacy that blunts culture shock.
Now, we go because we can. It’s almost too easy. And, that ease, I believe, takes something from the experience. When you can’t go back, or the memory of “that place” is so haunting that it wakes you in the night, surely you approach your new home in a different light. “Grateful” can’t begin to describe it.
As someone who left the States, arguably, because we could, I’m sure that my willingness to criticize Ireland (right, wrong, or indifferent) in this blog comes from a place of entitlement. I’m not saying that that’s necessarily wrong. My class of casual immigrant is a fact of modern life. And it’s not all bad.
As someone who has been privileged enough to travel quite a bit, I genuinely believe that travel and immigration can (and should) be the cure for much of what ails the world. When we get out and meet people who are different from ourselves, we beat back the dark territory of the unknown. And when we realize that people the world over face many of the same problems that we do, we are far less likely to sell guns to their neighbors, impose sanctions, and look at them as just another market to be penetrated.
So, from the standpoint that it’s made travel easier, technology and cheap flights aren’t all bad. We can argue all day long about whether we developed Skype and beat the airlines into submission over ticket pricing because more of us are moving around the planet, or whether we travel more because we have Skype and cheap tickets. But the fact is that more of us are moving, and it has become easier. It’s not all easy. There is still a gap, and culture shock. But even those things have been reduced.
As much as I enjoyed going back to the U.S. for a few days, and was not “shocked”. I definitely felt myself living at arms length. Ireland is now my home. Culturally, the U.S., with its guns, and creeping religious control (threatening to erode the very freedoms upon which the U.S. was founded) is not something I want/need in my life anymore. I’ve lived elsewhere and know that there are happy, viable alternatives (lots of them). But, as a recent emigrant, I still feel able to come and go easily
We’ll see how I feel the next time I go back. Who knows if it’s time between trips, or elapsed time since making the decision to leave home that will make a difference. Perhaps it’s neither.
Perhaps it’s just time.
For now, it’s just good to be back home.
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts: