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Are You a Hidden Immigrant?

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

In their book Third Culture Kids, Polluck, Van Reken, and Polluck discuss what they call "hidden immigrants." Hidden immigrants don't immediately stand out as being foreign; they look like the people they live among and they may speak the local language(s) without an accent. However, deep down, hidden immigrants are different. They may come from a radically different place with different customs and mindsets.

When I lived in Afghanistan, I would have given my right arm to be a hidden immigrant. Being tall and very white with Caucasian facial features, no amount of local clothing could veil the fact that I was foreign or prevent the accompanying stares and cat calls. I tried hard to fit in; I longed to walk the streets invisible and unnoticed.

Once I was walking down the street with a local friend who was emphatically assuring me that I didn't stand out at all, when a car that had just passed us stopped and backed up to where we were. The driver leaned out the window and hollered "foreigner!" at me. (You meant well, dear Naima, but we both know there wasn't a thread of truth to your kind assurances).

Yes, I would have loved to be a hidden immigrant.

I learned from my Mexican, Bolivian, and Indian friends who looked very Afghan that being a hidden immigrant had its own pitfalls. They were judged more harshly by Afghans who assumed they were Afghan. "Why don't you speak your own language?" they were asked. "Why don't you know your own culture?" "Why do you work with foreigners?" Although my friends knew these judgments were misplaced, it got old. Fitting in was just as much of a liability for them as standing out was for me.

Now that my pale skin and blonde hair have relocated to my passport country, I find myself at times feeling like a hidden immigrant here. When I walk into a grocery store, I don't stand out. But I feel like I do. I think differently. I evaluate situations differently. I don't always know the ropes. I hold global values and ideas that people here wouldn't assume just by looking at me. Before, everything on the outside notified people that I was different - sometimes they assumed I was more different than I actually was. Now, nothing notifies people that I am different.

Can I be OK with looking different? Can I be OK with feeling different? Can I be OK with fitting in?

What about you? Have you experienced being a hidden immigrant? Have you experienced being what we might call an "obvious immigrant"? What have been the benefits and challenges to both?

Note: I recognize that the opposite of being a "Hidden Immigrant" can be true as well. Someone can look different from the majority culture despite fitting in completely. They can be assumed to be an outsider when they are not. This presents a different set of challenges which I will save for another post, another day.

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