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Its tough to be an immigrant

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

When my family and I emigrated to spain nearly 14 years ago, I had a clear vision about our future. My plan was very straight forward, we were visitors in another country, we would be respectful, and would have the language mastered in a year maximum. We would certainly not be hanging around the expat community, no way that was not for us, we were there for the tapas, the outdoor life and the Spanish traditions, certainly not for the fry ups and the grotty bars. Our children would have all Spanish friends, would be bi lingual effortlessly, and we really would be living the dream.

My vision for our family was success all the way, my husbands business would be booming, and he would be spending much more time with us than he ever managed in London. Our weekends would be spent hanging out on the beach, or cycling along the paseo, a gentle breeze blowing through my hair. The kids would be giggling as passers by commented about how lovely it was to see an English family so integrated into Spanish life!

Fast forward 13 years, and the reality has not worked out quite like that. Living the dream never quite springs to mind, now don’t get me wrong, would I trade this life for our old one, no definitely not, but life isn’t easy, harder in many ways.

Firstly, as much as we tried initially, we couldn’t integrate. Our Spanish was nowhere near good enough, the one thing I did not foresee is just how hard it is to learn another language. We had had a few lessons before we left England, and although we could get by in a restaurant, we could not handle a chat with the cashier in the supermarket, or our next door neighbour. I became the woman who grinned inanely at strangers, hoping they would like me anyway. My son has also struggled, whilst my daughter has pretty much fully integrated, my son has resisted speaking another language and has clung to his English roots. Every parents evening, we are told he struggles with the language, that we need to do more. His teacher, who had bad experiences with English parents before, is cold and unhelpful majority of the time. She makes us feel exactly what we are, immigrants who do not belong. The rest of the school are lovely and very welcoming, but we are the only English people in the school and it is hard. I dream of being able to wander to the school gates and chat about my day, whilst I am starting to talk more, I rehearse my lines before I go, and if the conversation goes out of my comfort zone then I risk the inane grin returning!

A year after arriving, we did the thing we swore we would never do, we ran for comfort to the expat community. They welcomed us with open arms, new comers are always welcome, especially those who have failed to make the grade in the native community. We moved to a virtually all English area, and though we resisted regular trips to the local English supermarket, we all breathed a sign of relief when Iceland opened down the road and tomato ketchup and salad cream were once again on the menu. We stayed there for four years, until one day we felt strong enough to move twenty five minutes down the road to an all Spanish area. We really are the immigrants in the street now, we joke about people moving out because the English are moving in, and I can categorically say that even with five years of Spanish life under our belts, it is one of the hardest things we have ever done.

As the immigrants in the street, we are different, we speak Spanish to a degree. However hard I try and I have really tried, I cannot seem to master the language. I am not a natural, and learning a language is not easy. I hear on English radio all the time about immigrants needing to speak the language if they want to live in the UK, and I wonder how many people there are like me who desperately want to speak the language but cannot, like some people cannot grasp algebra, I cannot grasp Spanish. The traditions, the humour, the ways of doing even the simplest of things, they are not mine.

What I am trying to say is have some pity on immigrants in the UK, and look at how English people are in other countries. It would be great if all our immigrants blended in without problems, of course it would, but we don´t. English people abroad generally live all together, with English stores, English bars, majority of people in Spain think speaking Spanish means raising your voices and saying two beers please, splitting every syllable and talking very slowly.

I could never have anticipated what life as an immigrant would be like, I will succeed here, I am acquiring Spanish friends, who are happy to lead me through life here and show me their ways, but it has taken 13 years to even get anywhere near that. So next time you see an immigrant struggling with the language, spare a thought for me, and wonder how you would fare in another country, it is my bet that they are desperate to succeed.

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