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Migrant Song

By Shailja Patel


Published:
Katy Fischer, Water (detail), 2008, Gouache on paper, 6” x 8”

We overdress, we migrants. We care too much how we look to you. We get it wrong. We ought to look as if we don’t give a fuck. We show up ridiculously groomed, bearing elaborate gifts, we are too formally grateful. We cringe in silent shame for you, when you serve yourselves first, don’t offer food or drink, eat before us without sharing, insult us without knowing.

We hold back in conversations. Don’t contradict so we don’t show up your crassness, your ignorance. You mistake it for a lack of intellectual confidence.

We absorb information without asking questions, because questions can be dangerous. Can make us stand out, can cost us jobs, visas, lives. We watch and copy. We try to please.

We change the subject when you say: $200 is not a large amount…

We travel in packs, a gaggle of geese squawk in strange tongues.

When I arrived in America, my eldest aunt said to me: The first thing you say when a man approaches you is: I. Have. Family. Everywhere. All. Around.  Then he won’t think you’re unprotected. Try to take advantage of you.

It is the job of the migrant to protect the native from the discomfort of seeing inequality. To cushion and feed your sense of edgy hipness when you hang out with us, without challenging you too far.

A friend once gave my mother a scratched old Skeeter Davis record. My parents loved it – the lyrics encapsulated all their favorite philosophies.  Only The Strong Survive. I Didn’t Cry Today. I’m Gonna Join The Family Circle Once Again. They hummed them for weeks. Country western is perfect migrant music – hardship and loss and suffering all wrapped up in sentimentality to make it bearable.

We feed you. Can’t eat or cook without offering you some because it’s in our bones. We try not to wince when we watch you throw food away – good food, fresh food that you haven’t thought to share with us. Sometimes we cannot bear it. We retrieve it from the bins. We try not to chew the bitterness.

We calibrate hunger precisely. Define ‘enough’ differently from you. Enough is what’s available divided by everyone present. We are incapable of saying, as you can so easily: Sorry, there’s not enough for you.

We are proud of how much we can do without, how little we can get by on. It is our strength, this ability – but you find it comic. Pitiable. Miserly. It makes you uncomfortable when we eat stems and peels, dry our clothes in the sun, repair rather than replace. You cannot distinguish austerity, living without waste, from deprivation.

I had a housemate who offered me her heavily-used bedding when she was moving out. It’s worn out, dirty, she said. I was going to throw it out. But you often find uses for things I toss, so I’m appealing to your sense of parsimony.

A man I once dated offered me a broken lamp as a housewarming gift. I know you fix things, he said.

We admire your $65 haircut when you pay us $22 a day to raise your child. We love your children even when their strollers cost more than a year’s rent where we come from. We try not to wince when you let them treat food like another toy. Smile when you joke about how, as teenagers, they’ll do social justice work in Palestine. As if Palestine will never be anything more than a social justice summer camp for rich American teens with wanna-be radical parents.

We draw dignity around us like a cloak. Pull out our pride and wrap it round our necks like velvet. You’re so dignified you say, of our immobility to the spit in the face, the epithet on the street.

We feign interest in your artifacts, curios, fabrics and jewelry from your trips to India, China, Africa. When you tell us how cheap they were, but you bargained anyway because they expect you to.  How hospitable people were, how generous, and you took it, said they were always welcome to visit you, knowing they will never visit you. Even if they saved for years for a plane ticket, they would not meet the requirements to enter your country.

Like addicts in recovery, we mourn lost time. The years that slipped away while we worked, saved, waited, for the visa, sponsor, entry permit. The years we read out-of-date textbooks for what we hoped to study, spent our precious savings on language lessons. Only to find when we got here that what we had learned was obsolete, our carefully practiced conversation too formal and stilted. That we had to start all over again.

We work three times harder, twice as long. We’re so eager to share what we know, to teach, to learn – we’re wounded and bewildered when it makes you back off. Mock our earnestness. We are comedy fodder for you, in our sweaty anxious passion for education.

There is a moment when we lose faith in the journey. When we’ve invited all the neigbours to dinner, and you have not invited us back. When we’ve told ourselves it’s not your culture, you don’t know how to cook, you’re embarrassed. But we are chilled and hurt, nonetheless. We start to close, to harden, to lock ourselves to our own people.


Shailja Patel is an internationally acclaimed Kenyan poetplaywright, theatre artist, and political activist. She is most known for her spoken-word theatre show Migritude. CNN characterizes Patel as an artist “who exemplifies globalization as a people-centered phenomenon of migration and exchange.” She divides her time between Kenya and the USA. Her book, Migritude, was published by Kaya Press in 2010.

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