This language sucks! Why should I have to learn it? It is 22:00. Your partner, who is native to the country you have immigrated to, is trying to help you through the intricacies of his/her mother tongue. And you have just lost your rag. We made a joint decision that you would come here – after a lengthy discussion and consideration of all the options –if I remember correctly. The edge in your partner’s voice is annoying but you manage, despite the frustration and tiredness, to hold your tongue and avoid escalation. And now you feel ashamed for insulting his/her language.
This vignette contains issues that immigrants frequently face: not-knowing; feeling small, helpless and frustrated as a result; the psychological complexities of needing and asking for help. How can I ask for and accept help while keeping my own competencies firmly in sight and in use? And for the native partner: how can I support my spouse in a respectful way and challenge him/her to take risks on the path to integration? And a challenge for both: how to not start on the path to martyrdom.
When faced with the sometimes rewarding and often daunting task of learning a new language, insecurities may rear their head. These may be amplified by old doubts about own abilities and accomplishments. Why am I learning so slowly? The others seem to be grasping and integrating the grammar so much faster. Emotions like fear, shame and/or anger arise. At best, finding our way into the new language offers us an opportunity to understand and possibly break free of old and dysfunctional patterns e.g. perfectionism or responding with anxiety and mental “shut-down” to what is unfamiliar.
One reaction to doubts and insecurities precipitated by having to find one’s feet in a new socio-cultural context is to stand in awe of the new environment. The (professional) training here is so much more in-depth and thorough than what I participated in. How will I ever catch up and be good enough to work here?
Another typical reaction consists in taking a highly critical stance to the new context, sometimes to the extent of belittling or rejecting it altogether. They won’t recognize my qualifications here but their professional training in the field is totally outmoded and ineffective.
Often we oscillate between the two extremes. The latter stance may serve to protect one’s own sense of integrity and (professional) identity, but if held on to too tightly, it is likely to prevent us from taking the necessary steps to ensure successful adaptation. If the partner is a native s/he may feel hurt or insulted by a rejecting attitude. The former idealizing stance erodes our confidence and, if pushed to the extreme, can lead to a radical cut with our own history, including values and norms.
Gloria is carefully nurturing the tiny red pepper plants grown from seeds brought over from her old home country, Mexico. Will they survive the vagaries of the Finnish climate this time?
Establishing some continuity in respect of the old homeland is comforting and affirming. Continuity is provided by e.g. objects that are integrated into the new home, familiar rituals from “back home” or cultural markers such as items of clothing. It is also made possible by actively maintaining the old social networks. Social interactions help us maintain and renew our sense of who we are, and where we are going.
As much as the immigrant’s wellbeing is served by bridging objects, markers, rituals and the maintenance of old social networks it is also healing to acknowledge and to mourn what is lost when we immigrate. The inability to mourn what has been lost and to move on sometimes finds expression in refusing to engage with the new environment and clinging to what has been left behind. Thus we are bound to a past that, in all likelihood is transforming even as we try to hold on to it.
The immigrant’s feelings of loss, sadness and, at times, anger that are part of mourning may induce anxiety, fear or guilt in the partner. Will my partner leave and return to the home country? Am I to blame for her/his losses and emotional upheaval? Confronted with a partner’s feelings it is challenging (and necessary!) to acknowledge them and give them room. They will run their course and ebb off if we desist from trying to stop them or make them go away. This is the best chance we have to strengthen intimacy and the bond with the partner.