February 2, 2017 by Katia
“You know what an accent is, don’t you? It’s a sign of bravery” a friend chimed in on a Facebook discussion recently.
After I immigrated, parts of me shut down, never to be restored. Immigration dictated putting myself – a self doubting introvert – out there in ways that I didn’t suspect I was capable of. It was much like mastering a previously unheard of yoga pose and discovering that your body could arrange itself into an unimaginable shape or move in unexpected directions defying gravity. Here I was attending job interviews on a profoundly foreign territory governed by an obscure protocol or joining online meetup groups and getting together with strangers with the actual purpose of talking to them rather than the far more appealing option of avoiding it. At the very same time I was putting myself out there I was also withdrawing inwards. The sense of curiosity with which I would pick up the phone back home was replaced with unease and the resolution to just let it ring. What may have started ten years ago as a fear of the unknown instilled itself in me and lingers to this day.
Simply put, something – some things – in me, died.
“You have to be careful when you transition from one pose to another with a hop.” cautioned my yoga instructor last week “jumping too often or in a way that is incorrect, could cause shock to the system”.
Maybe that’s what it was: I jumped too often or too abruptly. After all, it felt like I was subjecting my body to a second immigration.
I was born in Israel to a family of Russian immigrants. I was able to watch my family’s cultural otherness from the advantageous perspective of an outsider – a local, savouring the comfort of belonging and the luxury of shared context while also actively partaking in that “otherness”. I spoke a different language at home, constructed different sentences and relied on different points of reference. I often resented my foreign name, Katia, for giving me away when all I wanted was to blend in. When my husband and I decided to relocate, I thought that the exposure my parents gave me to immigration rendered me immune. Turns out the jump was still shocking.
I think it was my mother who first equated immigration to dying. With only three days to pack up and scram they left a communist country in the 1970s back when saying goodbye meant forever. Dozens of friends came. It felt like they were there to pay their respects, as if this was my family’s collective funeral.
When I left my home country I felt like I was attending a funeral too, I just wasn’t sure whether it was my own. Mom was at work – we thought it best to treat this like any other day. Grandma and her sister, two parts of my identity, decided to see me off. When it was time to go we made our way downstairs together, to the minivan that was picking me up to go to the airport. What later became the emblem of leaving was the receding image of those two women, in their eighties, one supported by a walker, the other one gently guiding her. I watched them separated from me by a van, waving, ever so fragile in appearance and ever so strong in fulfilling their part in relation to me as grownups, mindfully making their goodbyes as casual as possible to lighten their weight while also charging them with the essence of what we meant to each other. They did this with deliberate circumstance-defiant cheerfulness, a skill they’ve perfected having lived through WWII, communism and their years in the volatile Middle East. The sight of them walking away back into a reality I knew so well and was driving away from had the flavor of a funeral.
All immigrants go through one form of death or another, choosing an early departure in favour of rebirth. I never regretted moving but I’ll never stop missing my previous incarnation.
Do you know what an accent is? It’s a sign of surviving loss. Sometimes your own.