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Laughing at Stereotypes: An Immigrant's Survival Guide

Patricia Gestoso offers 7 hard-earned gems of advice – plus a healthy dose of humor – for aspiring immigrants.



I started my journey as an immigrant before I was one year old. My parents moved from the North West of Spain to the capital, Madrid. Within months, we moved again, this time to Barcelona, in North East Spain. When I was in my early teens we moved yet again, this time to Venezuela, where I went to secondary school and university. Then, I went to Quebec, Canada to pursue a Ph.D. and to Greece for my post-doc. After almost two years working in France, I finally moved to the U.K., first to Cambridge and then to Manchester, where I’ve been living for the last 13 years.

Overall, I’ve moved house about 30 times across three continents and six countries over 50 years. I’ve earned the right to call myself an expert on how to succeed as an immigrant. In the spirit of kinship, I share seven pieces of “advice” – with a side of irony – for prospective immigrants.

Your future self will thank me.

 


1: Language transcends appearance

I’m Caucasian, although I had some doubts whilst pursuing my Ph.D. in Canada.

In the research center where I worked, there was a Peruvian female scientist. Although she and her parents were born in Peru, her four grandparents were Japanese, so she looked Japanese. But her native language was Spanish.

Forget how different we looked; the fact that we shared the same native language was enough for some colleagues to mistake us for each other. For years. And when either of us would correct them, invariably they’d respond that we were barely distinguishable because we both spoke Spanish.

That made me realize that I wasn’t used to having a twin sister.


Advice: Be gracious with locals’ mistakes about you. All immigrants look

more or less the same.


2. Unlock next-level bureaucracy

When my partner and I moved to France, he attempted to get his Canadian Ph.D. recognized to boost his chances of landing a job in a research department.

His request was refused by two different French Universities. The reason? Too much experience. Their replies read something like this:

“Thank you for your interest. Your Ph.D. in Chemistry is an academic title obtained after 5 years of study, whereas the French Doctorate is obtained after only 3 years of study. As you have exceeded your studies by two years, we cannot validate your Ph.D. title as a Doctorate”.

After his smashing success, it became a recurring joke that it's possible to study “too much”.

Advice: Welcome the opportunity to star in your own Kafka drama where

bureaucracy meets the absurd.


3. Expect thrills at the border

I’ve had a lot of stimulating passport control experiences through the years. And I know that many immigrants will concur with me that those at the U.S. border are especially thrilling. During my studies in Canada, I had many opportunities to renew that pleasure as often it was cheaper to travel through the U.S. when visiting other countries.

I remember one encounter especially fondly. It was about 6 a.m. when I showed my passport to the U.S. border control officer. He took it, opened it, and perused the attached official sheet of paper issued by the Canadian immigration office stating that I had a student visa to perform a Ph.D. in chemistry at a named university in Quebec.

The officer turned his face towards me, giving me a skeptical look, and asked, “If it’s true that you are pursuing a Ph.D., what exactly are you studying?”

My first thought was that it was a joke – after all, chemistry was clearly stated in my passport as my field of study – and that at any point the agent would smile back to me. But nothing happened. But he just continued to look at me inquisitively.

I took a big breath and exhaled the full title of my research project: “I’m studying polymer blends of poly(vinyl phenol) and poly(vinyl methyl ether) by atomistic molecular modeling and infrared spectroscopy.”

I paused, waiting for his next question. Maybe he was going to ask me what programming language I was using or provide feedback on the experimental setup.

He finally looked back at my passport, stamped it, and returned it to me.

Examen approved.

Advice: Embrace every opportunity to demonstrate that you’re a smart

immigrant worth your visa.

 

4. Learn to love paella-pizza

It’s hard to be from the North West of Spain outside my birth country. Our typical dish is not paella – octopus is one of our landmark foods – and we don’t do bullfighting or dance flamenco. Still, for some years I found it painful to smile when presented with paella pizza, paella sandwiches, or “rice with fridge leftovers” proudly disguised as “classic paella”.

I found it especially tiresome to reassure my hosts that those recipes were truly “Spanish.” That was until I self-appointed myself as a non-expert in Spanish food - or bullfighting, dancing, or whatever the cultural niche.

When people would ask, “I ate this great pizza with chorizo on a beach in Spain. Will you happen to know the recipe?” rather than answering “Pizza with chorizo sounds like an insult to both Italians and Spanish,” I’d reply “Sounds interesting. Unfortunately, my expertise is on simulation of materials and it’s been years since I left Spain. I’m afraid I cannot be of help”.

Whilst this may border on disinformation, in my defense, if people would like to know the real answer to those questions, they’d use Google instead of asking me, wouldn’t they?

Advice: Rejoice in how others get inspired by your culture.



5. Viva Mexico

One of the joys of being a Spaniard is to be a member of a large community of 400+ million native Spanish speakers spread among more than 20 countries. This may be complicated for some people so it’s not rare that they default to call us all Mexican.

How does that look in practice?

  • Having to justify why I don’t add hot sauce to my food.

  • Being wished, “Safe travels to Mexico,” after telling them that I’m going to Venezuela to see my parents.

  • Explaining the reasons why, even if I’m Spanish and lived in Venezuela, I cannot provide advice on which places to visit in Mexico.

Recently, a Venezuelan friend living in the US shared with me that “After so many years trying to explain that Venezuela is not Mexico, it was easier to learn to love spicy food.”

Advice: Don’t be picky when people are trying to show you their

knowledge about your country.


6. Be ready to say where you're really, really from

If I got a pound (or dollar) for each person that has ever asked me where I come from, I’d be richer than Jeff Bezos. And the interesting thing is not that I’m asked this question, but the context.

For example, at a business networking event, whilst other people are asked what’s their job, I’m asked where I come from, no matter if it’s a virtual or in-person meeting. My efforts to deflect the personal question with answers such as “I live in Manchester” are typically dismissed with a “Come on, you have an accent!” or “Where are you really, really from?”.

I cannot escape the question even in my country of birth. Through my years living in South America, my accent has changed and now it is neither Spanish nor Venezuelan. So, when I visit Spain, people I just met may challenge my right to say that I’m Spanish. Common reactions are “Your parents may be Spanish but, obviously, you are not,” or “There is a lot of immigration from Latin America nowadays.”

Lately, I’ve changed my approach and I now answer their question with another question. For example, “I’m from Spain, and you?”. And I’m unyielding in my quest for a detailed answer. If I get a fluffy reply of the style “From here”, I continue with a “What do you mean by here?” or “Where were you born exactly?”. I wanted them to feel how much I care for their background too.

Advice: You’re an exotic object and people have the right to be curious.


7. Enjoying being a welcome exception

One of the priceless perks of being an immigrant is to have the opportunity to be spared from the stereotypes locals have about our country of birth, confirming the old saying that “To every rule, there is an exception.” The good news it’s that the exception may be you!

For instance, in Venezuela, Spaniards born in the same region as me, Galicia, are assumed not to be very bright. The origin of the stereotype is that a lot of people from our region that reached Venezuela in the 20th century immigrated for economic reasons and often had only elementary education, if any. Over the years, this resulted in a multitude of jokes where Galicians were portrayed as thick.

As a result, during my 12 years living in Venezuela, it was not uncommon that colleagues and friends would praise my academic performance using sentences such as, “You’re so bright for a Galician,” or expressed disbelief at the fact that there was a Galician Nobel Prize laureate.

I also learned that people expected me to laugh at the jokes where Galicians appeared as slow-witted. Moreover, they couldn’t understand why I felt hurt. They explained to me that I should feel proud that the joke was shared with me as proof that I was considered an outlier.

And that explanation was so helpful. I could finally embrace the fact that they considered me as a noteworthy exception to the rule when compared to my parents, siblings, extended family, friends, and almost 3 million people born in Galicia.

Advice: When complimented on being an exception to the stereotype,

simply say “Thanks” and smile.

In summary, being a successful immigrant is not rocket science. Whilst there are some challenges along the way, those minor inconveniences can be easily bypassed with a little effort – and some tongue-in-cheek humor – from your side.

 

Dr. Patricia Gestoso is an award-winning inclusion strategist, keynote spreaker, and life/career coach. She helps leaders leverage diversity to tap into new markets, boost revenue, increase reputation, and attract and retain talent. Find out more about her work at https://patriciagestoso.com/


Photo Credits:

Russian peasant girls & Ellis Island immigrants, from Public Domain Review

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