The Migrant Life – A Conundrum?

Migration has been a common phenomenon since civilisation began but has vastly expanded in scale since the nineteenth century, with the mass immigration of Europeans into North America to colonise the New World. The advent of globalisation has made migration much more commonplace in various parts of the world. As part of UCL’s Global Citizenship Programme – The Danube, my group and I have scurried around various parts of London in search of the people from the Danube region who are currently residing in London to discover more about their transition to the UK. We have been assigned to Slovakia, which is one of the 10 countries found along the Danube River. Through our interviews, we uncovered the factors for the movement of various Slovaks to London. These people included:

  1. Alžbeta, a student from Slovakia who came to London to further her education at UCL.

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2. Daniel, a restaurant manager in Czechoslovak Restaurant London and a student who has lived in London for the past 20 years.

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3. Nadia, an architect whose initial plan was a 5-month internship in an architectural office in London, but fate took a turn when she fell in love so she has since become a permanent resident.

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4. Barbara, an artist who was born in Slovakia and works in Prague, Czech Republic. She had come to London to give a talk about her mother and her artworks and a lecture about a migrant’s identity with reference to a landscape painting of Slovakia.

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We discovered that a central theme that recurs in every interview is multiculturalism. The majority of the population in Slovakia consists of white Slovaks, so it was quite an astonishment for them to suddenly become exposed to a variety of cultures and races in the same community. Daniel, Nadia and Alžbeta highlighted how coming to London made them more open to and appreciative of different types of people. In addition, they identified how people in London are more indirect and polite in their manner of speaking, compared to the forthright way of conversing in Slovakia. These notions triggered them to introspect on their identity and sense of self after living abroad, which is what I will discuss below.

Migration is in itself a conundrum; while the Slovaks we interviewed had come to London in search of better educational and employment opportunities, there was a general consensus of them wanting to return home in the future.

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Alžbeta came to London because it provided her with better educational opportunities. She is able to pursue a broad-based Arts and Sciences degree due to her interest in both Physics and Art History, unlike in Slovakia where the only option was to study separate degrees. Nadia, on the other hand, had a starkly different experience. She initially came to London for a mere 5-month long internship in an architectural office after her graduation, but destiny had something else in store for her when she found her love in London, who is her current husband. She has now lived in London for 7 years. Daniel, in contrast to Alžbeta and Nadia, seems to have had the hardest journey to enhance his career prospects in London and build his position in the restaurant chain. He first started off working in the kitchen where he did the dishes, then moved on to preparing food, followed by becoming a chef. It took about a year for him to become a chef. Subsequently, he moved on to looking after customers, being a waiter and working in a bar, finally progressing to where he is right now – a manager in Czechoslovak Restaurant London (apparently the only restaurant that serves authentic Czech and Slovak cuisine in London; one of the popular dishes is Chicken Schnitzel as the restaurant is well-known for its freshness and taste). He is also currently pursuing a degree in Business and Advanced Management in London. Both Daniel and Nadia seems to have carved out a better life in London than in Slovakia, whereas Alžbeta seems to have a more promising future back home. Her plan is to continue building a career in the fashion industry in Slovakia, as she feels that it is an easier path compared to starting from scratch in a foreign place.

Despite their varying circumstances, I think what is particularly striking is that while all of them are experiencing a fulfilling life abroad, there was unanimity in their longing for home. This connects well with Barbara’s lecture mentioned in her interview about the landscape painting of Slovakia which stirred reminiscence among the audience. In addition, she highlighted the anxieties of immigrants who feel like they are a “tiny drop in the ocean”, often doubting whether they want to become a part of the new culture because to do so means to relinquish a part of one’s identity, which is the very thing that connects them to their homeland. What often lingers in the lives of migrants is an unspoken fear, which never really goes away as time passes – it simply changes. The anxiety that once concentrated on making friends, adjusting to a new environment or mastering the nuances of the language (Nadia, for example, learnt English in the UK), turned into one that led these migrants to question what they are missing in their lives – their former selves.

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It is hard to deny that the act of leaving one’s country and settling in another fundamentally alters oneself, which is perfectly normal because being forced to step out of one’s comfort zone naturally demands that the individual adjusts and evolves into a new person. This may even be why some people choose to leave in the first place. Yet, while it is enormously thrilling to be whoever one wants to be without bringing along the baggage of one’s past, the individual begins to realise just how much of his/her identity is based more on the geographic location than anything else, for the migrant is ultimately “the entire ocean in a drop” rather than a “tiny drop in the ocean” (as mentioned in Barbara’s interview) because the countries one has lived in each represent different parts of oneself. It takes so much to carve out a new life in a foreign land, and it cannot perish simply because one has moved over a few time zones.

Much like how Daniel brings with him his country’s traditional cuisine to London just as Nadia brings her architectural talents to London, each migrant carries a piece of themselves while simultaneously forsaking a part of their former selves when they move to a new place.

By: Memta R Jagtiani