The Politics of Naming

On the page, I play with the words and definitions I have scribbled: exile, refugee, expatriate, immigrant, emigrant, displaced, and evicted. The meanings of these words complement and compete with each other. Each label is by turns romantic and a badge of social disdain.

Exile: forced removal from one’s country, a person involuntarily separating oneself from the original home of place of birth.

Refugee: one who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.

Expatriate: to withdraw (oneself) from a residence in or allegiance to one’s native country; to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere.

Immigrant: a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.

Emigrant: a person who departs one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere.

Displaced: one expelled or forced to flee from home or homeland.

Evicted: to be forced out; ejected.

Or are the definitions in opposition to each other, something like this?

exile/refugee expatriate
immigrant emigrant
displaced evicted

Unbalanced in their linguistic weight, these definitions cross over and intersect, changing positions with each other. None of the descriptions can be categorically applicable to my mother or father, or even to me.
Where do the characters of my family fit?

immigrant (mother, father, self)emigrant (mother, father, ? self)displaced (father)evicted (father)

exile/refugee (father) expatriate (mother)

Each of us, in our own particular way, can claim our own tales of displacement. True, my father was the only real exile in our family, a man condemned by history, by geography, by politics, by war. Still, he was also an immigrant tracing a circuitous path from Ukraine through England to America. The word exile, though, provokes suspicion. Exiled from what exactly? By whom? For what wrongdoing? This demarcation, in particular, tracks an individual through the years and is a mantle not easily discarded.

Likewise, the essential emotional core of an expatriate is forever unchanged: I may live here, but I belong elsewhere. An air of romance infiltrates the definition of an expatriate as if the label suggests universal impermanence, a bargain between here and there that is not fraught with uneasiness but with intrigue. As a foreign property owner with an offshore bank account and a returning citizen to another country other than the one she lives in permanently, my mother is an expatriate.

Still, both my parents were legally and culturally classified as immigrants, foreign citizens with American passports, and in my mother’s case because of the occasional Midwestern vernacular that percolated under the surface of an English accent. Immigration is a choice for some like my father, or a fait accompli for others like my mother. Unlike the categories of exile and expatriate, the classification of ‘immigrant’ is chronically untidy and debatable by those without a clear self-definition.

How do I describe myself? Am I an exile like my father? Absolutely not. Am a British citizen? Yes. My birth certificate bears the stamp of the county government of Bury St. Edmunds. Am I English? Told by my parents for as long as I can remember that I was English, I believed this to be accurate, yet the family joke about my lineage has been that my bloodline is not unlike Heinz 57 steak sauce: a tablespoon each of English and Ukrainian, several teaspoons of Polish and Scottish, a pinch of Irish, and a third of a cup full of American by experience. Over the years, the Heinz 57 metaphor became my truth.

Am I an expatriate like my mother? I opened an offshore bank account in Jersey a few years ago, but this tangible authenticity does not make me an expatriate. Am I an immigrant? I am legally considered an immigrant, but because my accent is not English and I have never lived for what others think to be a sufficient length of time in England, many do not consider this to be one of my truths. Still, to be naturalized into another country of citizenship at the tender age of thirteen when so much of one’s understanding of origin and place in the world has already set like gelatin is perennially troublesome.

Sometimes, my immigrant status reveals a romantic view of others. Years ago, on a shopping trip with a friend and her mother to find a maid of honor dress to wear at my friend’s wedding, the mother prattled on about how my parents’ lives were like the characters in the movie, Dr. Zhivago. Romantic, larger than life, so delightfully foreign and mysterious, both affected by war, by separation, by immigration. I felt like I was on display next to the mannequins.

“Where are you from?” strangers ask, and my response changes with my mood. I am filled with dread when this question arises because any answer I give feels slippery or shifty and is always at least partially inaccurate. The borders of my strange history are porous like Ukraina’s geography or the edges of England’s seacoast that is slowly being taken back by the sea. What does it mean to be “from” somewhere, anyway? Does this reference mean a dot on a map? A culture? A family lineage? A particular house or street? A landscape or a continent? A specific time in history?

How long does it take to claim a place as home anyway? I always seem to be more committed to the four walls I live in rather than its actual geographic location, four walls like my grandmother’s house, the apartment at the Veterans Administration, or my mother’s own haven in Sioux Falls. There are the English four walls I write about, those I write in, the home I imagine buying in England. But how does one describe what it feels like to be unmoored from one’s own history when the ground underneath either shifts or sinks but is never firm?

Is there another set of definitions, ones that apply to me more than all the others? Do not be trite. Do not even consider writing words like a gypsy on the page. You are not a gypsy. You are not a wanderer. You are not a newcomer. Fine. How about rooted. Absolutely not, I grunt, crossing out the word with my pencil. Rooted implies something entrenched, fixed, a person with a historical lineage that can be easily accessed. Try again.

I am English because of my birth and experience, and, in truth, I am Ukrainian by blood only. What would my life have been like if my family had returned to England? Was it my intolerable grief over my father’s death that forced my mother to choose to stay in America in the end? Did I ever really want America? Is my longing for home a particularly American obsession or an immigrant one? I scribble the word “unrooted” in the margins of the paper.

Am I unrooted? Without question.

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