Unaccustomed earth

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House”

The above is the epigraph to Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, one of two short-story collections written by her. (The first is Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is, of course, brilliant. There is a nice review at the American Literary Review Blog about it.) Some of you may be familiar with The Namesake, her novel that was made into a film. Each of her stories is a microcosm that offers a glimpse into the lives of those who move from one side of the world to another, from one world to a different one, different in language, colors, culture, and of their children. Most of the stories deal with Indians who move to England or to the U.S., but they also tell of the pilgrimages back to India and the tension of being caught between two worlds.

As I was reading Unaccustomed Earth, and reading about Interpreter of Maladies at the ALR blog, I noticed that in all the stories and discussion of the stories, the people who move are called immigrants. Which, yes they are. But as I thought about my own experience, and of the international community I know here in Scotland and in England, I have not heard any of us call ourselves immigrants. I tend to refer to myself as an ex-pat, and to us at large “internationals”, or to be more specific, “international students”. The definitions of the two words are as such:

immigrant, noun.
1. A person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.

ex-pat, expatriate, noun.
1. One who has taken up residence in a foreign country.

As you can see, by technical definition they are very similar. I still find it curious that it is usually the “Other” that is referred to as an immigrant, and not oneself, but when I consider again the international community I know of, the key issue that separates the two terms is the idea of permanence. There are several of us who are entertaining thoughts of staying here, of putting roots in this foreign soil, but there is no sense of solidity to these plans, of being set in stone.  “A stranger am I, and a wanderer, searching for the edge of the world.”

And so I make this post on the 4th of July. This was not planned, but it is fitting. I consider myself an ex-pat because it is easier to love my country from a distance — I love its founding, the promise that it held, that it still holds to some extent today. But sometime over the past two hundred years, the eyes of the people turned inward; the American pioneering spirit became individualistic to the point of selfishness, and I, who had seen the outside world, first through books and imagination and then with my own two eyes, could no longer bear to be caged.

My American readers, I hope you have a good 4th of July. I also hope that you remember to read the Declaration of Independence. This is a day to enjoy with family and friends, with cook-outs and fireworks and games, but it is also a day to remember the spirit and the words that first created the United States of America.

And on a completely unrelated note, for the curious: 6066, but I haven’t yet written today.

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