What I Learned About Being an Immigrant When I Became One

Eighteen months ago, I moved from the U.S. to Germany. Restless and dissatisfied with aspects†of my life, I packed up and headed far away looking for a fresh start. Before emigrating, I’d had sympathy for the struggles of immigrants in the U.S. but I couldn’t really empathize. Like many native-born Americans, immigration was so far removed from my daily experience that it was impossible for me to fathom what that experience must feel like. Since becoming an immigrant myself, that’s changed quite a bit.

I’m certainly not an expert on the immigrant experience. My immigrant story†is like a Russian nesting doll of privilege.†The ability to move to another continent not because you have to, but because you feel like it is really peak privilege so that’s either the biggest or smallest doll depending on how you look at it. The other dolls would be all my other privileges: American, white, documented, middle-class, able, cis, straight, etc. These privileges shape every aspect of my experience living in another country.†I know this. I also know that I can’t really understand how deep the roots of my privilege go.

In spite of this, I’ve learned a lot about immigration from my personal experiences with it that I would’ve never understood otherwise.

Americans Who Live Abroad Are Immigrants, Not Expats.

Americans living abroad love to call ourselves expats. This is a privilege that, say, a Mexican immigrant living in America is rarely afforded.

We are not expats, no matter how many Hemingway-esque fantasies of sipping coffee in Paris that may conjure. We are immigrants. Sure, there may be a slight difference in the definitions between expat and immigrant based on the permanence of the move, but I think most of the time we choose expat because it has a positive, romantic connotation thatís not usually associated with immigration.

Thereís no Expat Office where privileged Americans can get a special ďFinding Myself AbroadĒ visa. We go to the Immigration Office just like everyone else. Maybe, by referring to ourselves as immigrants we can, in a very, very small way, help normalize and de-stigmatize immigration to the people who know us.

Learning a Language Is Hard. Really Hard.

I knew maybe five words of the language when I moved here. Now I know enough to eavesdrop on children riding the metro but not enough to hold a conversation or read my own mail. The longer Iím here, the less acceptable other people think it is that I canít speak German fluently.

Learning German†would make my life here easier and more independent. However, learning a language takes a lot of time and money, which aren’t luxuries everyone has (myself included). Not to mention, German grammar is very complicated. Given the opportunity, it would still take me a lot of time to reach a passable level.

If itís hard for me to learn a language, Iím guessing itís probably harder for people working longer hours, or with less money, or with children to care for, so maybe we could lighten up on the whole “this is America, we speak English,” thing?

Integration Isnít Everything, But People Think It Is.

No matter how long I live here, I will always be American. Iím not from here, and as uncomfortable as it feels to be foreign and as much as Iíd like to change things about America, Iím proud of where I came from. That shouldnít be offensive or frightening to people.

I will never make my pizza with the cheese on top. I think itís obnoxious that life here shuts down on Sundays. Sweeping the sidewalk outside my apartment is a complete waste of time. Iím not satisfied with the state of women in this country and I refuse to shut up about it. I’ve adjusted to life here, but not completely. And I think that’s okay. It’s not necessary that immigrants blend in entirely. Being from somewhere else and having a different perspective could actually benefit whatever country the immigrant is living in. I don’t have to behave exactly like a German in order to be a useful member of German society, and the same goes for immigrants from other countries.

Everyone Has an Opinion About Immigrants

And theyíre often uninformed and prejudiced opinions. Iíd love to make it through a week without someone making negative comments about immigrants right to my face. Somehow, the irony of complaining about immigrants to their immigrant English teacher is lost on a lot of people.

This week, a student told me immigrants all have ten kids and are on welfare. Well shit, I wish someone had told me sooner because Iíve definitely misplaced all ten of my children. Hope theyíre okay! Of course, if weíre not on welfare, weíre here to take your jobs. Come on people, do you want immigrants to work or not?

Strangely, itís not just native-born Germans who do this; often, itís immigrants complaining about other immigrants. In my experience, itís usually other Americans or Europeans from countries besides Germany making prejudiced assumptions.

Not All Immigrants Are Treated Equally

My life in Germany isnít perfect, but I know without a doubt it’d be much harder if I werenít an American and English speaker (and white, middle-class and Christian-raised). Iím the kind of immigrant thatís either welcomed or forgotten entirely because Iím not perceived as a threat. This becomes clearest to me when I contrast my experiences with a Syrian immigrant (not refugee) friend of mine.

I gave blood the other day. Not only did everyone who could speak English with me gladly do so, at least three people made small talk about the States and one volunteer showed me the emails heíd been getting from the Hilary Clinton campaign. Just by being American, Iíd become instantly popular. My nationality makes me a source of intrigue and entertainment.

My Syrian friend doesnít get the same red carpet rolled out for him. Instead, he sees demonstrations protesting his religion. Heís not allowed to open an account at certain banks in case heís laundering money for terrorist organizations. He struggled to find an apartment because no one wanted to rent to a Syrian.

Your immigrant experience can be entirely different based not on who you are, but where youíre from.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


John B
John B11 months ago

Thanks Lauren for sharing your story and the links.

CATHY Dominguez
CATHERINE Dominguezabout a year ago

I came to America 50 years ago, even though I spoke English I was from Scotland and people had a hard time understanding my Scottish accent and words so I had to learn American English, by the way it's not truly English, it was hard at first but I learned and even now my Scottish blether still comes out.

Monika D.
Past Member 1 years ago

Upon reading this article, and comments posted below, I have sat here for quite a long time now, contemplating deeply on the immigration issues stated. Finding it difficult to 'narrow' down my experience of immigration to Canada from behind 'The Iron Curtain' during 1981-1982. Entered Canada in '82 under a 'refugee status' and obtained 'permanent residency status' upon arrival. I will forever remain thankful to, then, Pierre Trudeau's government for providing a safe haven, new 'home', and opportunities for a better future. Escaping from Eastern Europe wasn't an easy task then either. But times have changed drastically since and my escape story seems like a walk in the proverbial park, compared to the unbelievable hardships current refugees face!! My heart breaks... 💔 In closing, please allow me to share my favourite quote with you....
"We need each other to flourish".... [no matter where we're from].

**Thank you for taking the time to read this**

Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

Sherri S. wrote, " ... I DO have a problem with people not learning and using the predominant language of the US ... " As Lauren Longo pointed out, learning another language is hard. Does Sherri know of any English as a Second Language classes in the United States that are closing due to lack of interest?

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Marie W.
Marie W1 years ago

If you plan on staying forever yes you would be an immigrant. Expat if only there for awhile.

Teresa Antela
Teresa Antela1 years ago

I am also an immigrant here in Portugal where I live. I'm Spanish by birth but have lived more in Portugal than in Spain. I even studied at a Portuguese College and am married to a Portuguese. I'm well integrated nevertheless since there was always fights and wars between the two countries and Portugal has even been ruled by Spaniards during 60 years some portuguese people still remember this and other historic events (discoveries, for example) and sometimes they still drop a hint. The solution is pretending you did not understand if you are not considering entering in a discussion. Better say: be diplomatic and everything runs smoothly.

Janet B.
Janet B1 years ago


Marija Mohoric
Marija M1 years ago

tks for sharing

Tammy D.
Tammy D1 years ago

Well, I disagree. Having the ability to move around from place to place does not make a person an immigrant. Immigrants make a commitment to live in another country, and set up a life there. A year and a half in Germany is a cake walk, especially as it sounds like the writer lives in Berlin-Kreuzberg or a more affluent area that caters to foreigners. Other areas are not like this at all, and English speakers are *not* given preferential treatment. We are looked down on just the same, because we are not German, and are not fluent in their language. To the comment below, Australians are a bit different. White foreigners are OK, the rest aren't, for the most part. However, I can't say they are all as nice as they are made out to be.
While there are some points here that might be interesting to readers, this article is a bit off the mark if you ask me. And, by the by, some banks won't open accounts for AMERICANS either. That's because of the stupid laws in the US that require foreign banks to hand over account information for all American citizens. When you start learning about these issues, Lauren Longo, maybe you should start writing about being an immigrant. Personally, I still go by Expat, because there IS a difference and I'm very fortunate to be one.