Expat Life - Neither Tourist Nor Immigrant

My life in New York is that of an outsider looking in. I have no discernible identity. I am neither an immigrant nor a tourist.

My father is an immigrant. He left Croatia forty years ago. He escaped communism and poverty, crossing mountains to neutral Austria. He boarded a ship that sailed into Station Pier in Melbourne. His sweetheart followed, arriving in time for his thirtieth birthday. They married and later, a son and two twin-daughters arrived into the world.

When I was old enough to be interested in life's bigger picture, my mother was no longer alive. I would ask my father instead what it was to settle in another country as an immigrant.

He recalled the early difficulties of finding work when he couldn't speak English. My father conveyed in vivid detail the days he would leave inner-city Carlton early on weekday mornings, walking to Spotswood, enquiring about employment opportunities at the surrounding factories. "No English, no job", was the standard comment he would encounter. Along Geelong Road he would walk, arriving home late in the day with no prospect of employment. Those were difficult days for him so he didn't exactly appreciate the ubiquitous "Wog" reference from the non-European contingent. But he persevered as did all the other European settlers of the time. It was a difficult life; he worked hard and successfully, as a widower, raised his three children through their teenage years, instilling in them the importance of an education. He wanted our lives to be easier than his.

It came as no surprise that he was alarmed to hear that I would follow Guy to New York so he could further his scientific education as a Postdoc (it is usually expected that a scientist, once receiving a PhD, works overseas for 2-3 years to consolidate one's expertise which hopefully can benefit Australian research endeavours). My father believed such a sojourn would be a waste of time when in Melbourne, I was earning a reasonable salary as a research assistant at a prestigious medical research institution. We were able to save money; in the future, we could purchase property and think about starting a family. To leave Melbourne, in his eyes, was to leave a comfortable lifestyle behind. Why would we choose to live in New York when we would struggle financially like he initially did in Melbourne? He didn't want me to experience the pain that he experienced as a foreigner. He also didn't want his daughter to leave him.

When we arrived in Manhattan, I knew it wouldn't be easy but I was optimistic that life would be kinder to me than my parents. I spoke the same language as the Americans, albeit a different dialect and I had ten years' experience working at a lab bench.

The first year in another country passes so quickly. There are new rules to learn, new ways of living in a frenetic city like Manhattan. One doesn't have time to stop, to take stock because at 31, I had to start all over again.

After the first year, one becomes a "local", knowing the ins and outs of the city: where to shop, bank and look for work. I knew how much I was worth and what to expect from potential employers.

This sounds so domestic (life is domestic) but a piece of the jigsaw puzzle is missing. After a year in New York, the emails from home are diminishing and the number of friends I have here, have not increased proportionately with time. I still feel out on a limb.

To be an immigrant, one has permanent residency. That individual forms a network of friends very often from their country of origin. This community supports one another through the teething period of resettlement. The people plan for their future and hope that their children will be financially more secure than they were, with numerous opportunities available to them.

I hardly qualify as an immigrant. My tenuous future here is spelled out explicitly by the bureaucrats. A non-resident alien with J2 visa status, I can remain in the US for a maximum of three years as long as I am married to my husband (with J1 visa status) and his employer continues to sponsor him. After that period, we must return to Australia (unless we apply for H1 visa status). There, we can reapply to work in the States if we wish.

Even if I am not an immigrant, I pay the same taxes as one. The social security tax I pay, helps fund someone else's retirement. I provide a service to my employer and pay taxes to the state I live in but the city treats me as an alien (which is how I am classified), constantly placing hurdles in front of me, withholding access to a credit card for example.

My network with Australians in Manhattan currently extends to one person. The few I have met, have transported their prejudices along with them to New York. What appears to be of utmost importance to some Melbournians is whether I studied at the University of Melbourne or not (as if it competes with the American Ivy League Universities). Such people are also interested in my position in society before New York. Being a research "technician" didn't help either since I didn't possess the status building PhD title as my husband does and I couldn't exactly compete superficially with the Australian high fliers in the banking/finance sector who make up the sizable expat population in the city. In a way, such a finding is not surprising as I have tended to latch onto Australians without considering in the first place, whether we would be suited to one another. Possibly in Melbourne, with family and friends to otherwise depend on for support, I wouldn't attempt to nurture such a relationship.

I do not qualify as a tourist either. There are the occasional exceptions of course. Recently, in Virginia, a cab driver asked us whether in Australia people have kangaroos as pets. He expounded the great virtues of Paul Hogan promoting Australia when many Australians cringe at the slightest reference to him. Of course, one constantly has to deal with comments such as, "I would love to visit Australia if I won the lottery" (or some variant on this theme). I personally would like to reply with the retort (but of course I don't in the interest of good public relations), "Well with a fabulous exchange rate, no tipping nor additional sales taxes, you can make it to the end of the earth if you really wanted to visit. How is it, that we Australians can leave in the first place and live in one of the most expensive cities in the world?"

When we stay in youth hostels and mingle with the Australians who travel the States, we are also treated differently. We are older than the usual twenty-something year old lad or lass, backpacking from city to city. Initially, we are interesting because we live in New York and we can impart some information to them when they invariably visit this city. The novelty eventually wears off; it is time for them to move on and have another casual encounter with a tourist.

Wherever I go, I am reminded that my life in the Big Apple is one continuous casual encounter, from one "pick up" friend to another. I have started to ask myself when I meet people I care about, "How long will the friendship last before it fizzles out?" - I have learnt not to expect too much from both the expat Australians as well as resident New Yorkers.

Life in New York without immigrant status, is one of constant flux. The trick is to stay sane in the maelstrom that is encountered. Maintaining a residual of optimism and a sense of humour help enormously. This is how I try to cope.

Vicki Burkitt