I grew up as a first generation Canadian. My parents came from Germany, met in Canada, got married and had children. Growing up, I had experiences similar to some of my ESL students’ children. I heard two languages, but was English dominant by the time I went to school. I ate different foods at home than some of my friends and I celebrated holidays differently. I understood immigration from the standpoint of a child whose parents were both immigrants.
To me, it was obvious why my parents came to Canada: to have a better life. Due to World War II, my father’s family no longer lived where he grew up, so moving away from that area of Germany did not seem like he was leaving home, other than saying Auf Wiedersehen to his immediate family. Since some members of an older generation before him had come to North America, the seed had been planted. My mother told me once that she left Germany because all around her were the signs of war. The rebuilding of the economy was in full swing when she emigrated, but she wanted a new start. Since her brother had already left, coming to Canada meant staying connected with a least part of her immediate family. For my parents, immigration meant a new start and the hope for something more than if they had stayed behind.
When I visited Germany as a teenager, having relearned the language enough to converse, I was surprised by the puzzlement of the relatives my parents had left behind. They could not understand why my parents had left! They loved living close to family and being rooted in a town, even if their history in that town was not that old. They had no desire to leave and several of them couldn’t even get up the courage or curiosity to get on an airplane to come and visit. In turn, I was puzzled. How could they not see that my parents had (in my opinion) a better life? My German relatives lived well and had opportunities, but from my vantage point, the freer social structure in Canada meant my parents had so much more. To me it was a natural conclusion that immigrants’ lives are better in the “new” country.
I thought the bias in thinking was a natural conclusion, but I have recently had my thinking shaken up. Last year my oldest son left Canada to live in Japan. Suddenly I, this child of an immigrant, am now the one left behind. As a teenager and adult visiting Germany, I contemplated what it would be like to move there to live, but always concluded that I would not be as happy as I am in Canada where the social structure is not only familiar, but makes sense to me. Yet, here was a young man deciding to leave all that was familiar and start anew and I felt. . . confused again! As I ran through thoughts of “why”, I can’t say that I found any answers, but one thing that dawned on me is: this is how it must have felt for my relatives that were left behind. And this is how it must feel for some of the relatives of my students. This fall, when I teach ESL classes again, I will walk through the door with a new understanding of the complexities of immigration. I am curious what learning that will bring.
Dr. Roswita Dressler, Ph.D