Is displacement universal?

About three years ago, I knew my time working with refugees was up. Funding was running dry, and I wasn't sure what was going to happen to my position. Luckily, a job opportunity came at just the right time. In less than three weeks' time, I finished teaching my last refugee class, filled out my paperwork, and started working at a university. 

At first, I thought I was going to be less satisfied working with international students than refugees and immigrants. International students had chosen to be here, after all. Due to their ineligibility for financial aid, they were cash cows for the university, which automatically made a majority of them solidly upper middle class. They had 10x more resources at their disposal than my refugee students ever had. 

And yet, they faced a lot of the same emotions: crushing loneliness. Depression. Isolation. No matter how many resources we create for these students--regardless of their economic status, education, and language skills--is displacement an unavoidable feeling? Dare I even say it's universal? 

But university students have a choice. They can always go back. Many of my refugee students never can. Isn't that the difference?

Well, maybe not. Some students would be sacrificing more than a semester abroad and some tuition money to return home. For many international students, this is their shot at a good education. They might not be refugees, but in many cases, they've exhausted other options. In some cases, once they've entered the U.S. higher ed system, they can't go back to the system they left behind. What many Americans seem to miss about foreign students is that yes, they might have access to free education in their home countries, but that free education tends to be ridiculously selective and much of the decision process comes down to a single exam. Imagine every school at your feet is Harvard and that you're taking the SAT, except it's way harder and if you don't get a near-perfect score, you're going to quickly run out of options. Oh, and you only get one shot, otherwise it's vo-tech for you.

So yeah, some of them can go back. Some can't. Either way, displacement has a lot of the same characteristics no matter who we are or what our circumstances might be. We seek out others who share our linguistic or national identities. We look for familiar food (during my studies in Spain, my quest for a New York-style bagel became an obsession towards the end of my stay). Our sense of self starts to slip away, and we alternate between craving the place we left behind and abandoning it entirely. 

Here's a simple example of this: when I studied abroad in Spain, I left behind my American identity--or at least, I tried to. I wanted to be a Spaniard, complete with sipping churros con chocolate and wearing size 000 jeans and being okay with eating an anchovy sandwich for dinner at 10pm. But Spaniards weren't interested in my quest to become one of them. They wanted to know about my American-ness and comment on how I looked American and sounded American. They wanted to grill me about the Bush administration and gay marriage. Their curiosity was flattering, but also furthered my sense of displacement. I was not going to become one of them no matter how much I abandoned my motherland and tried to be okay with rocking stilettos on cobblestone at 7am after six hours in the discoteca. I was afraid to talk to the students in my class, especially when my professor made it clear that all non-native Spanish speakers were absolved of doing the group presentation "because your Spanish is not good enough." In these subtle accommodations, I felt a mixture of relief and shame.

For university students, the solution is viewed as simple: go out and explore! Talk to Americans. Study English during the five minutes a day that you're not studying for everything else. Come here better prepared--surely, the faculty protest, we could be more selective in our acceptance of international students, and then we wouldn't have this problem? Language proficiency only exists in simplistic terms: good or bad, comprehensible or incomprehensible, broken or fluid. Cultural gaps are not acknowledged in that assignment about Martin Luther King, the Great Depression, or our universal love as a country for Taylor Swift songs.

For refugees, the solution seems simple too: go out and get a job! Study English during the five minutes a day between your day job and your night job. Identity only exists in dichotomies: legal or illegal. Employable or unemployable. Literate or illiterate. GED or no GED. Accompanied or unaccompanied, disabled or healthy.

We tend to assume that if someone feels displaced, they aren't trying hard enough. In some cases, this may be true. There are students who don't try to make American friends, and then there are those who do with mixed success. But in the end, sometimes it is not about the effort of the refugee or the international student. Displacement is largely determined by the majority, not the individual.

How many times have we lost our patience with someone's accented English over the phone? How many times have we made an effort to be understood without being condescending?

I confront moments like these every day. A few weeks ago, I was running very late to work and a woman waved me over to the ATM machine to help her. I almost mumbled "sorry, no time" and kept going, but when I realized she could not read the English prompts on the machine, I stopped to help her. I don't think we reached an epiphany in terms of our ability to communicate, but I did realize just how much displacement is related to time. The one universality of displacement is that it points to a lack of time. We don't have enough time to carve out space for slowed-down, broken communication. Refugees don't have time to learn all they need to know in the allotted three months they have to find a job. International students don't have the extra few minutes to read an article about the ostracizing policies of Donald Trump or study English slang. Instead, they are taking three times as long as native speakers to read Shakespeare and write a reflection paper; the very act of self reflection is something that many of them have never been asked to do in an academic setting before.

Taking this correlation a step further, the symbiosis between displacement and time goes beyond the struggles of people existing outside the linguistic, national, and cultural communities they identify most strongly with. When we are stressed and busy, we talk about feeling "lost." Free time is the anchor we need to explore our other selves and understand where we fit into other identities. The American idealization of being busy is directly correlated to our displacement not just as individuals, but as a culture. We cannot carve out time for miscommunications or for gray areas of identity. This might seem like a sweeping generalization, and as a concept it certainly isn't new, but it does point towards the fact that helping the displaced will ground us, too. Carving out time where time does not exist is the ultimate challenge. In order to give ourselves "place," we need to displace the supposed time we've run out of.

In Spain, I had the privilege of a lot of free time. I explored the city and sat in cafes. I went running through the central plaza, which generated a few weird reactions. I was convinced that I had found my place, even if others around me hadn't accepted it yet. Thus, displacement must always be renegotiated between the majority and the individual to see whether or not they agree, and whether or not it's okay to disagree.

So what's my point? it's important to think of all of the identities you have and where they overlap and where they seem contradictory. It's one of the most accessible methods to understand the displacement that someone in a new country and culture experiences. 

Here's a quick list of my own:

  • where I'm really from (New Jersey) versus where I tell people I'm from (Philadelphia)
  • my native language (English) versus the languages that speak to my soul (Spanish) versus the languages I identify with but don't speak (Polish, the language of my family)
  • what I do for a living (university administrator) versus what I do to live (writer)
  • where I live versus what I call home (right now, I don't consider myself to have a "home" in the warm, fuzzy sense of the word)
  • how I teach my students English versus how I teach myself languages
  • how I approach fiction as a writer versus as a reader

I read somewhere that readers must always displace themselves, at least in the act of reading, in order to fully absorb the story and empathize with its characters. I think this is something we are very good at doing in fiction, but not so good at transferring to the real world.

Take a minute to think of identities you have, and where they overlap. Which ones are hard to define? Contradictory? Take time to explain?

Do you believe displacement is largely determined by an individual or the majority?