Recently, I had an interesting discussion with a friend about a hot topic: are we immigrants or expats? The classic immigrant struggle – terrible living conditions, scrubbing ﬂoors, sacriﬁcing the best years of one’s life for a remote possibility of “making it in NY” – makes sense when one has nothing to lose. For my friend, who ﬂed her home country for political reasons, the choice was simple: struggle or die. But what if you come to New York not running from persecution, poverty or starvation? What if your hunger is of a more sophisticated nature, like a burning desire to join a Broadway show? What if the life you left behind in your fairly “privileged” Western European country wasn’t a survival story but rather a comfortable and enjoyable middle-class existence? Are you still an immigrant or did you become an expat? Does it make any sense to scrub ﬂoors for an indeﬁnite period of time, and when are your sacriﬁces no longer justiﬁed?
I often wonder whether I am an immigrant or an expat myself, and I have no deﬁnite answer to that. A highly educated Western European from a reasonably well-off family, I came to NY with a speciﬁc goal in mind: I wanted to become an artist. But why on earth would you come to America to become an artist instead of going to Paris or Florence? If you are an expat, you continuously examine alternative ways to invest your life. It is not a coincidence that most of my friends from Western European countries have left New York after 2-7 years, as soon as their visas expired. These escapes from home that turn into “runs to go back home” arise because the amount of effort and sacriﬁce a person needs to stay in America is so tremendous that for most people from privileged countries is not worth it.
I guess the need to expat to another country must be beyond escaping wars, and survival. Perhaps that need informs you more about who the person is. Maybe it’s about the values that a person identify with. It must sound silly, but I’ve never identiﬁed with being an Italian. I always felt like a “legal Alien” in Italy. It was a struggle to live according to Italian cultural values and policies. Like Jerry Seinfeld said, “Italy is like a pretty girl who never gets old.” So true! It is gorgeous, but then you get tired of pretty things when they don’t bring anything else to make you grow.
Somehow Italy felt small, too small, too narrow-minded for me. I felt paralyzed living there. Everything was slow or didn’t seem to move at all. Ideals were old, actions were suffocated. The place looked and still seems immersed in supernatural inertia. I needed more than just afternoon delicious ice creams. My imagination required somewhere more prominent, a country where it is believed that everything is possible. I found my home in America, and believe it or not I knew I belonged here since I was seven years old.
Italians can’t understand patriotism and regularly observe American patriotism with suspicion. They can’t relate to the pride Americans feel about their country, because themselves have none about their own. They envy the value of teamwork so prevalent in American culture. They crave it, they recognize its profound importance, but they don’t want to sacriﬁce their selﬁsh interests for it. At the end is indeed about love. If you can’t love yourself, you can’t love others and cannot love the country you inhabit. And since it is about love, I couldn’t be in a country that had so little love to offer.