On Saturday night, I dreamed about a dessert from my home country.
I don’t know why I dreamed of this particular dessert — I’ve probably only had it a handful of times in my life — but ever since then, I’ve been craving it. It’s a branded dessert, made by a certain company, and it’s not something that I have the skills, equipment, or the ingredients to recreate myself.
It’s not available in my adopted country.
On Thursday evening, I attended a mentoring workshop for early-career researchers, part of a program that pairs senior academics with postdocs and postdocs with PhD students, with some university-affiliated non-academic folks thrown in for good measure (academic administration, journalists, etc). The evening was a good mix of “here is my advice to you” and “here is how to be a good mentor,” but the reason that I’m bringing it up is that one of the theme of the evenings was academic mobility. Early-career researchers are expected to move labs, move cities, and, most of all, move countries, if they want to succeed in academia.
But you know what?
Sometimes it sucks to be an immigrant.
I will pause right here to acknowledge my tremendous amount of privilege. I am the majority race of both my home country and my adopted country. You can’t tell that I’m an immigrant from my name or from my appearance. My home country has reasonably high prestige within my adopted country; the stereotypes I have to put up with are relatively benign. I am part of a religious minority in my adopted country, but this is currently a non-issue, and as a queer woman I have excellent legal protection in my adopted country and even comparatively decent legal protection in my adopted country. (By which I mean, I won’t be killed or put in jail, but I could be fired, denied health care, denied a lease, etc, if it was discovered that my partner was a woman. I’ve brought my partner home to visit my parents, but we don’t touch each other in public. At the moment I’m out on social media, but if I were living in my home country I probably wouldn’t be out at work. This is absolutely nothing compared to the situation in, say, Uganda. But that doesn’t make it right.)
But anyway, when you’re an immigrant, everything is just a little bit harder. Visas are expensive. Banking is difficult. Signing leases is both expensive and difficult! You find yourself Googling things like “what kind of store do I buy pillows in?”
Social customs completely pass you by, and you only find out months later than everybody thought that you were a little bit rude, or weird, or overbearing. Sometimes, I’ll be explaining something to my therapist, only to discover that there’s a cultural element that she’s just not getting. Sometimes, you have to adapt. Sometimes, you don’t want to adapt, goddammit.
You miss weddings. You miss funerals. Instead of living in one of a handful of possible cities as all of your friends from high school and university, you’re miles away, living in a place where you know nobody, where absolutely everything is just a little bit different. (Or a lot bit different.)
And nevermind a particular dessert not being available — though healthcare sucks in my home country and is amazing in my adopted country, there are more drugs licensed in my home country than there are here.
Some people are able to move country a few times early in their career. They have good mental health, spare cash to spare for visas and relocation expenses, a partner and children willing to be uprooted (or no partner and no children), no physical health concerns that tie them to a particular country’s health care system. They’re cisgendered, they’re straight, they’re white — or they’re willing to pay the significant emotional cost of being a minority abroad. Maybe they have family or friends in another country, maybe they’re already fluent in a foreign language, maybe they’re just particularly adventurous.
But see, none of those qualities that I listed bear any relation to how good of a scientist that person is. In fact, most of those qualities have to do with luck and/or high socioeconomic standing.
Next time you’re comparing CVs and you’re impressed by someone’s experiences abroad — or are judging the fact that someone else has never left their own country — remember this. Remember that the ability to be an immigrant says more about their personal circumstances than their academic merit. Remember that not everybody can be an immigrant.