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Friday, August 19, 2016

'Whatever “it” is, Ireland has “it” in spades'

'There’s more to life than the weather, and whatever “it” is, Ireland has “it” in spades'

Australian born of Indian parents, Shampa Lahiri explores the migrant life and her love of her adopted country on The Women’s Podcast

I first came here in 1997 and back in those days very young school children used to stop and stare at me in the street. I was here during the last heady days of Mary Robinson’s presidency when the air of optimism and opportunity was palpable. It rained every single day, and yet every second car driving down the road was a convertible. This place captured my imagination like no other. A place where the weather was so awful and yet the people were so cheerful, I just had to come back and find out why.
There are many reasons why migrants leave. We leave our homes, our families, our friends and possessions. We leave our entire life’s worth. In The Irish Times series New to the Parish we read about some of these reasons - about adventure and opportunity, fear and persecution, love, sacrifice and hope. But regardless of our reasons for leaving, there is no doubt in my mind, that the life of a migrant is harder in almost every respect.

We have no family response units to resuscitate us with tea and sympathy when things go wrong. We live parallel lives, the lives we are trying to lead, the lives that we aspire to lead, versus the lives we should have led had we stayed and not broken our parents’ hearts. So when you encounter a foreigner who can’t quite speak English, who is lost in the street or who is struggling with some menial bureaucratic task, please remember this anguish. Not all of us are welfare shopping radicals plotting destruction. Most of us are here trying to lead a better life, we are trying to be better people. And when things go wrong, as they invariably do, it makes us question not just whether we should have gotten out of bed that morning, but whether we made the right life choice. Our successes here may be greater, but so too are our failures.

I was born in Australia of Indian parents. I was raised in between two cultures and I was effectively denied a cultural identity by both. People would always ask me “But where are you actually from?” It is a question I could never really answer because I didn’t really belong anywhere. Here in Ireland I am asked that same question and yet the undercurrent is of genuine curiosity, almost verging on incredulity. I think its because most of the Irish can’t quite believe that us migrants choose to live here when we could be sunning ourselves in warmer climes. But there is more to life than the weather, and whatever “it” is, Ireland has “it” in spades.

The Irish welcome that you are all so famous for is real. To hear my name pronounced correctly every day is a joy that I cannot overstate. That you would take the time and effort to say it properly means the world to me. To walk down the street is such a simple thing. But to do it without the threat or fear of physical violence and racial vilification unveiled is an incredible freedom. And the day that I swore allegiance to the Irish State and became an Irish citizen is one of the most defining moments of my life. Having been denied a cultural identity for so long, I now get to choose. And I choose Ireland.

While many countries try and fail to promote multiculturalism, the Irish succeeds. I think its because the fabric of your cultural identity is so strong that you don’t fear change. But I also think its because virtually every Irish family has itself suffered the wretched effects of exodus. Virtually everyone misses a son or daughter, a sister or brother, a friend or family member who has made the same decision we made to leave. I think people are kind to me here because they hope that someone will be kind to their child living the migrant experience somewhere else, a cultural “paying it forward” if you will. But whatever the reasons, I am incredibly grateful for the warmth and generosity which has characterised my time in this wonderful place. I know I will always be a blow in, but now when people ask me where I’m from I say “Dublin”.

20 years I’ve been cartwheeling around the world and sometimes when I wake up in the morning in that split second before consciousness I have to remind myself which city I am waking up in. Every day I try and anchor myself to this place, I try and make myself relevant because if I don’t, I fear that I might disappear and no one will notice, that I am lost to one life and invisible in the other.
If there is any advice that I can give to those who are new to the parish it is this: do not be invisible. You are valuable. Be valuable, contribute, give back to the communities in which you live. But above all else, be proud. Be proud of the decisions you have made and what you have achieved because not many people have the guts to buy a one way ticket. You did. You have courage and determination and you have proven that you can be fearless. So be proud.

But with pride comes humility and we cannot demand the same benefits that derive from birth right. We are not Irish. We must not expect to be first in the queue or place the same demands on the Irish State that the Irish are entitled to take for granted. We have to earn these rights, whether it be the right to housing, medical care, education and employment.

So one final piece of advice - earn your place in Irish society, show people that you deserve to be here, show them how valuable you can be. We are at a critical point in time in the public perception of immigration. We need to be a part of this conversation, not by marching for more rights or by placing further demands on an already burdened State, but by showing, by our conduct, that we can advance, not just our own self interests, but Irish society as a whole. And sometimes we just need to accept that we will, and should, be at the back of the queue.

20 years I’ve been gone and I still can’t lose this accent. 20 years and people still ask me if I will ever go home. It’s another question I struggle to answer and I struggle with it the most when I am standing at the airport clutching my Irish passport in one hand and waving goodbye to my parents with the other. Every year that we are away, their lives go on and we become just that little bit more invisible to each other. Every day they struggle and we are not there to help, another anguish that we bear.
Why do we stay? Why do we stay and suffer these distances, these endless airport goodbyes? Well, I wont presume to answer this question for anyone else, nor am I naïve enough to assume that my experiences can be generalised for all. But I will try and answer this question for myself.

I stay because here I am not just tolerated, but I am welcomed, I am embraced. By the passport officer who says “Welcome home” every time I fly back into Dublin airport and by the woman who chased me down Grafton Street one day to ask me what brand of fake tan I use. I am embraced by the vast majority of Irish people who see me not simply as a colour, but as a fellow human being who is just trying to be that better person. I stay because of my wonderful husband from Donegal, because he is, by far, my greatest joy. I stay for a hundred different reasons which serve every day to wash away the doubt and recriminations that never really leave you once you make that decision to go.

After all these years, I understand the cheerfulness and that it is often bittersweet, especially when it rains. And I stay because I know I will never find anywhere quite as wonderful as Dublin. I am incredibly lucky. I am incredibly grateful. And I love reading New to the Parish” because it makes me realise that I am not alone in my gratitude.
So I will finish by saying thank you. Thank you to everyone involved in the publication of New to the Parish. Thank you for giving us migrants a positive voice. To all the people whose stories have featured in the column, thank you for sharing your wonderful adventures. We are meeting you mid-flight, and I wish you great joy and great success in your journeys. And finally to Ireland, to the Irish, thank you for letting us into the house with dignity, for letting us sit at your table with grace and respect. There are not enough words, in either our languages or in yours, to express our gratitude.

You can download individual episodes of The Women’s Podcast on Soundcloud, Stitcher and iTunes

Shampa Lahiri