Belonging: An immigrant’s view
When you work hard for years to fit in … then realize you shouldn’t have to.
I came to Chicago back in 2012, starry-eyed and ready to take over the corporate landscape, bringing my experiences of working in India managing global client teams along with a whole lot of love and a head full of memories from my homeland. I have since met many wonderful people throughout the course of my career, and I’ve had the luxury and opportunity to travel to almost all the major cities across this country. There have been some life-changing experiences along the way, from living alone in Chicago, building new friendships, and finding love to moving to Boston and now having a tiny little human that has transformed my life for the better!
Yet, throughout my journey, I have had a constant feeling of something missing from my life and only recently, while listening to Brené Brown, I realized I was struggling with the idea of belonging and fitting in. As I started researching these concepts, I saw a pattern in my struggles and those of others with similar trajectories — it came down to being part of a community while being an immigrant.
People consider immigration as a transaction; you get the visa and start living in a new place. It’s even considered as a metric for happiness. “You’ve got your visa; you must be happy!” Well, sure I am. I’m glad I get to live in and explore a new continent, and work for an amazing organization that values my efforts and skills and tries its best to align that work with my goals and expectations. But happiness is not just measured by success and promotion at work, or by how many people know and acknowledge your contributions. Those factors help make Slalom a great place to work, for sure, but they’re not everything. Happiness is a combination of satisfaction, joy, and belonging in both work and personal life. And since we spend a minimum of eight hours at work (maybe even more without realizing it, since we’re working at home/living at work these days), work life contributes highly to our happiness index.
There are many ideas out there around how an organization can help improve an employee’s sense of belonging or help them assimilate. And there’s a lot of effort and investment right now in diversity, inclusion, and belonging (or DIBs as Pat Wadors calls it). It’s of great importance that DIBs be a continuous focus for organizations as a higher-up change is the only way to create an environment where we can all — including those of us who are immigrants — feel safe and welcome. But here’s the catch. While we are all being invited to more I&D or DIBs events, and everyone’s making an effort to learn how to improve company cultures, I believe we’re all missing out on the basic and inherent need to be able to find the kind of common ground that enables us to start connecting with each other.
I love my job. My coworkers genuinely ask me all the time how I’m doing, if I had a good weekend, if I have plans for the weekend, or how I’m going to spend my time on a week off. I love those questions because they help me have a dialogue with them about what my life really looks like and learn about theirs. However, on many occasions, I’ve noticed that my responses are not what they’re expecting to hear. Sometimes, their well-intentioned replies even make me rethink my life choices.
Bear with me as I walk through this. As an immigrant living in the US, both my rights and opinions are vastly different from those who have lived here their whole lives, and even from those who have immigrated from other parts of the world. I have different tastes in clothing, food, and flavors (spice is life!). My preferences and habits are completely different from others, and my knowledge in each of those areas is completely different. And while, yes, we’re all unique individuals with our very own tastes, people living and growing up in similar environments will tend to have larger overlaps in their choices compared to those who have either lived elsewhere or have lived differently. For example, my knowledge of politics until a few years ago was all about India, with some global insights. My knowledge of music was all Bollywood. Now I might know Taylor Swift and listen to her (don’t come at me, she’s good!), but my love for Rafi, Kishore Kumar, and Sonu Nigam isn’t going anywhere either! Not only that but my choices, if I’m being bold about it, are completely different from US folks, and that’s by virtue of my experiences before my life in the US started.
Once, I was at dinner with some of my American colleagues and we were playing this fun conversation game: “If you had all the resources in the world, what would be the one thing you would do?” When it came to me, I said, “I’d go to Paris!” to which there was a lot of sighing and surprise from the group. They tried to grapple with my answer and understand why would I or anyone not be able to do this already? It’s easy! Just hop on a plane! I would have loved to explain at the time but going into my life story would’ve shifted the conversation from being lighthearted to grave, and I wasn’t ready for it.
Here’s the truth: As an immigrant, my life is governed by different constraints, whether it’s traveling cross-country to visit family with limited PTO, or work arrangements, or government bureaucracy. Visiting Paris isn’t as simple for me as it is for my colleagues. Without understanding that, it’s difficult to imagine why something as simple as traveling to Europe is on my bucket list rather than my to-do list.
Another good example is when a conversation turns to plans for the summer and everyone is surprised that I don’t want to be on a boat or drinking chilled beer in a bar, because those are basic summer must-dos. Don’t get me wrong, a boat sounds adventurous and fun, really it does, but I’ve never lived that life. I grew up near a desert, so my only summer escapes were either going to the mountains far east where it was cooler or going on a small pedal duck boat for 15 minutes once in a while. On most days we just played in the gully, and at nights we’d gather under the stars in our open terrace and play antakshari — i.e., Indian karaoke without any backing music/devices. Those were the best days of my life. (See, I can channel my inner Bryan Adams too!)
My experiences make me who I am, but they also equally and easily distinguish me from American life. This is why I (or we, if I can brazenly expand the scope to other immigrants) tend to find assimilation and belonging difficult. We end up looking for people “like us” to hang out or communicate with. It’s easier since we don’t have to spell out or explain ourselves in a way that causes emotional and mental strain. Assimilation means a larger effort on our end to understand American life and culture, but we often get little in regards of understanding or knowledge from the American world.
A while ago someone said to me, “You come from the land of snake charmers, right?” I’m sure the intent was to generate a discussion, but my reaction was to shut the conversation down because it was outright disrespectful. When people make assumptions or use stereotypes during a conversation, it doesn’t help build a connection. In this case, it dissuaded me from pursuing what might have been a great relationship in the making. That relationship and others like it take a lot more effort from an immigrant’s end; we teach others what is and isn’t a right thing to say or do, and we constantly deal with a lack of interest.
So where does that leave us? Let’s try this: We meet in the middle. We try for equal investment from all involved, and we try to learn a bit more. I’ll keep learning more about American culture every day, exploring how people live their lives and what excites them so I can join in the fun. Alongside that, we immigrants ask you to be equally interested in our past experiences, our cultures, and the many celebrations we enjoy. You might be surprised by how exciting our side of the world is as well. And it’s easier than having a one-sided conversation where the onus is on immigrants to continuously learn. We’re all here to learn and grow together. We could all do a bit more to open our minds and grow as individuals. Being curious without judgment, asking questions with empathy and compassion, and truly wanting to learn rather than making assumptions or attaching stereotypes will take us much further than being afraid of each other and avoiding a discussion.
My intent here is not to make you tiptoe around immigrants, far from it really. I want to build a space where we don’t feel like outsiders or have to explain ourselves if we don’t match the stereotypes attached to our color or country of origin. And you never know, one simple open-ended question from you could brighten someone’s day and bring that micro-moment of belonging into their lives — and into yours!
This blog post was originally published here.
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