“I pity the poor immigrant”

The line is from a Bob Dylan song about how the struggle for survival can lead to materialistic, sterile values. But it’s a reminder of the immigrant experience in most family trees.
“I pity the poor immigrant
who wishes he had’ve stayed home”…

Most people in America, Australia and New Zealand, and white people in Africa and Asia, are descended from ancestors who emigrated in the 19th century. It’s worth taking a moment from collecting shipping lists and copies of naturalisation papers to reflect what a traumatic experience they went through.

It’s an experience not easily shared. I once had some contact with immigrants to Australia from South America. They told me their biggest difficulty was talking about their experiences in their native countries. Nobody here had any idea what they had been through. A regiment of soldiers knocking down the door at four in the morning to search the house for husbands and sons wanted by the government. Physical abuse and threats. The anguish of losing touch with their wanted kin, in most cases for ever, not knowing if they had been captured or not. The army visit the next day to pull down their houses and destroy their crops and render them indigent. Rape. Their survival only through the help of their church. Shipment to a foreign land where they did not understand the language. Nobody in Australia had been through anything like that. They received sympathy, but nobody knew.


Most immigrants went, and go through today, a similar experience. In the nineteenth century people were persecuted because they couldn’t subscribe to a state religion, and were consequently suspected to be traitors. They choose to follow their conscience, and left for another country. Some were persecuted, and regarded as criminals and traitors, for fighting for political liberty for their country. Some watched as their family members died in famine and pestilence that remained unchecked in their native place, and were forced to move in order to survive. In all these cases the immigrant went through an agonising and terrifying experience, as the world they had grown up in collapsed around them. So many Irish families had to watch as child after child died of infection and malnourishment during the Hunger. Home was too often the place where the new graves were dug.

But moving was difficult and a heart breaking experience. These people, most people in the 19th century, didn’t travel. They stayed put under normal conditions in their village and town. And they loved the place. Leaving the place of your childhood is very disturbing. Leaving family, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, your friends and your betrothed, and fearing you might never see them again, is a heart breaking experience. They promised to be back when they’d made their fortune, but it almost never happened.

Even more disorienting, because unexpected, is encountering foreign ways. Without realising it, we all experience a network of assumptions and behaviours native to our own cultures that we take for granted. It comes as a shock to realise that not all foreign peoples share these behaviours. The elaborate courtesy of the Latin races is not shared by Anglo Saxons. The carefully graduated recognition of social rank practised by the Japanese is uniquely theirs, the close bond of family is not universal, the touching and standing distance between peoples differs, and there are countless other changes to adapt to. The immigrant has initially no idea if they are encountering different customs, or a uniquely rude individual. Sometimes it’s compounded: a rude individual made so by disorientation to strange social customs.

There’s the problem of language. People forget that English people, Australians, South Africans and North Americans are totally different cultures. Just because they share the same language the assumption is sometimes made they share the same culture. But they don’t. The English language is subtly different in different parts of the world. Try following a conversation between English speaking Indians to see what I mean. Of course this is more so if the immigrant comes from China or Germany or any country speaking a different language to English.

I once spoke to an Italian waitress in a restaurant who told me that when she first arrived in Australia she could only understand the newspaper headlines. Not the body of the articles. Not bus destinations or street signs. How disorientating would that have been?

And it’s not just language. Words gain local currencies. Local idioms develop. Nino in They’re a Weird Mob has trouble with “Stone the bloody crows”. Where are the crows? Why are they bloody? How can you stone them without hitting another person?

At first thought this seems more a contemporary issue. Languages have developed and parted company in the 20th century. Surely in the 19th century, in Australia at least, the culture would have been recognisably English, the same as the home country? But not so. The Irish, for instance, included many who spoke a foreign language, their version of Gaelic. Some spoke no English at all. Some mispronounced it. English regional accents were sometimes not easily understood. This is the source of all those funny spellings you find on certificates. It wasn’t that the ancestors couldn’t spell. They couldn’t. But those who heard them frequently couldn’t understand them. The Irish and the Italians both can’t make a ‘th’ sound. Japanese have trouble with ‘r’s and ‘l’s.

And between the leaving of home and the arrival in a new country was the voyage. Immigrant ships were overcrowded in the 19th century. Many immigrants never made it across the oceans, and found a sailor’s grave, the victims of poor health, onboard infection and sometimes, incredibly, starvation. Women died during onboard confinements. Seasickness must have been a light relief on some of these voyages. And the distances were terrifying. From one side of the world to the other. Through stormy seas in slight craft which must have shipped a lot of water. Luckily most immigrants had little idea of geography. They were not intrepid adventurers staking out new continents. Most of them thought Australia and America were just across a lake from home. Even when they arrived they were not much wiser.

Once through all this disorientation, personal tragedy, illness and heartbreak, the immigrant had to start again. Armed with only a strong right arm and primitive tools, men had to cut down trees, make a clearing, and learn to make a house that would not fall down, and keep inclement weather out. They had to bring up children without medical care but that they could provide themselves. In Australia they were ruined  time and again by the flood and drought climate. But they had their families, songs, and drink and tobacco. They survived it all.

And hats off to the women. The women in skirts and underskirts, enveloping and restrictive clothing, far more so than the men with their woollen suits, hats and waistcoats. Dealing unaided with gynaecological problems, coping with loneliness and lack of support and 200 years away from a mobile phone, chopping down trees, making a home and bringing up children.

Tough people, our ancestors. I couldn’t stand a tenth of their experience in coming to a new country. Look again at those ancestors of yours who did, and give them a cheer.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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About phillipkay

Welcome. The essays you'll find on BestQuest are my opinions, my attempt to re-evaluate their subjects. I think the ideas, books, films, music, myths and history explored here are valuable just because they continue to be discussed, so let's hear what you think.

4 responses to ““I pity the poor immigrant””

  1. heneker52 says :

    Great post. I have worked where I interviewed refugee’s. And to hear the stories of the atrocities they experienced in their country before coming to Australia gave me a whole new view of their lives. Seeing their whole families shot in front of them, coming to a new country, as you say with no hope of ever seeing families again. Even in my job, as a nurse, I meet people from other cultures often, and many Indian people who work in the medical field go home for a month or 2 to India to visit. They come back so torn, saying how much they loved spending time with their families and how much they miss them. How daunting to think you are going to live in another country, even if it is your choice to do so for a better life. To think of moving to another country, and never seeing home again, or at least knowing you will never live there again in all probability must be a huge adjustment. Our ancestors who came from a green beautiful English countryside, and in my family went to the outback to live and work, how did they survive. And like you mention, the women, living in hot lonely places, giving birth, with the men off for weeks and months working on railways, or carting supplies with horses and carts. The mind boggles at their loneliness, their sporadic contact with family back home….and we complain of the heat, with our airconditioned homes and cars, and they living in tin and bark cottages….thank you, your article has given me so much to think about.

    • phillipkay says :

      That’s true. The contrast between a green and wet climate at ‘home’, and the Outback the immigrants encountered must have been shocking in itself. I wanted to put in something about the songs they sang, and contrast it with Henry Lawson’s stories like “Water Them Geraniums” but the post was getting too long. A lot could be said on the topic.

      • heneker52 says :

        Yes it sure could. Not sure where you are from or what state your family members emigrated to, but in Adelaide my ancestors who were here 3 years after the colony was founded, were sent to Emigrant Square in the parklands near the city. Apparently the conditions were horrific, they could only stay about 1 month until another boat arrived, and I think the idea was well meant, but from what I have read they must have wondered what hell they had come to?

  2. phillipkay says :

    We’re a Sydney family, with roots in New Zealand, England, Ireland and France (details are on other pages of this site). Your comment reminds me of a man I worked with who migrated from Holland in the 50s. He said he was herded from the ship into a wire fenced compound where all the immigrants lived in barracks while the bureaucratic process of naturalisation went on. Many had memories of Nazi persecution during the war, and the wire fenced compound had bad memories for them.

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