Reprinted from the How’s Work? Life in the Workplace issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (3), pp. 25-26
A couple of years ago I flew to Vancouver from New Delhi, India, to pursue my master’s degree. Delhi had been my home for 23 years, but although I love the city to bits, I was not sure if I wanted to contain my whole life within its boundaries. So when I got the chance to pursue my master’s at one of the best schools in the world, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Once in Vancouver I finished grad school when the pandemic was at its peak. As a jittery new graduate, I couldn’t wait to begin a new phase in life. And I got a job not long afterwards! But as an immigrant or international worker, you leave behind an entire world and enter into a new one. Although you take the journey alone, it's just one piece from the whole that is displaced. After all, the world that protected you growing up goes on without you.
But what do you do when the rest of the world you left behind refuses to stand tall and strong as you take this journey? How do you thrive in a new world while your old world crumbles before you?
As newcomers, we are always expected to be super stoked about the new life we’ve chosen. And of course, the new job and new country are exciting. Still, the experience is not always as unidimensional as it looks. Working far away from the country and culture you grew up in comes with its own challenges.
For example, I often say that I straddle two worlds, neither of which would ever understand the complexity of living in the other. What does it feel like to live a dual life, you ask? Imagine being stretched out from limb to limb on a table. One half of your mind and body is constantly expected to look, feel and function absolutely differently from the other. Many, like me, struggle to make sense of this dual identity.
A day before I finished my degree requirements I got news that my entire family back home had severe COVID-19. Within days, nearly every single person dear to me caught the virus. This hit me like a boulder. I’d get this sinking feeling in my stomach as if I were sitting at the edge of a cliff, as if I’d fall any time. With a distance of 11,000 km between us, I would hear my father’s bedside monitor at the hospital beep rhythmically for hours on the other end of the phone line as I simultaneously worked from home and shared the silence with him.
I had just started my new job then. Work was very important to me, but I felt guilty for not being physically closer to my family. My mental health was in shambles. I’d barely eat and would get almost no sleep for weeks at a stretch as I tried to juggle both my worlds. I would keep a brave face while speaking daily to my sick family by phone, but later bawl my eyes out while biting down on my pillow. (Drywall is thinner than the concrete walls back home, so muffling cries with pillows is important; you don’t want to alert your roommates now, do you?)
I was insecure about showing my weaknesses so soon in a new job. Like many, I was scared to fall short of being the perfect employee. I informed my work about the situation back home, but I didn’t take time off. Instead, I put forward an unfazed, professional front and pretended that I was going to bed every night calmly, surrounded by the sweet smell of chamomile tea, and not with anxiety attacks and crippling guilt.
The cost of hiding newcomer challenges
Maybe if I had opened up to my colleagues about my mental health, they would have understood, but the idea of doing so was scary. I exhausted myself trying too hard to pretend I was just the same as any other Canadian employee, that I wasn’t dealing with anything out of the ordinary. I masked my emotions and, in the process, ignored my mental health. Singing along (rather badly) to old Hindi songs and writing poems were the only things that kept me afloat, but they also made me retreat into a cocoon. Until, one day, a former colleague offered to lend me their ears. With her help I slowly lowered my walls.
I realize now that masking my emotions only amplified my insecurities. Trying to be somebody I was not, I lost the “me” I had brought all this way. Trust me when I say that you do not want to be the person who, looking in the mirror, sees only guilt and disappointment. It is ridiculous to expect yourself to put aside everything that makes you human in order to fit into a new place. Your mental health trumps all.
Hiding your emotions is tiring and life is hard as it is. Do not make it exhausting by locking down your emotions and throwing away the keys. It is okay to be your true immigrant self, in all its confused, messy, directionless glory, because the best gift you're giving this new world is your amazingly unique self. Be unabashedly proud. Own your vulnerabilities. Most people only get to experience one world. We immigrants get to represent and celebrate two.
Getting help to inhabit multiple worlds
Although I still struggle with crippling doubts, with the help of a mental health professional and an understanding workplace I am turning corners every day. Moving to a new place is a huge change and can take a toll on a person’s mental health. It is OK to seek professional help and appropriate resources to make sense of it. Waiting out the feelings won’t help. I share my story in the hopes that it helps people in the same boat as me, and I try to make my vulnerability and uniqueness my strength every day. I’d love to wear a sari to work someday.
And a final note to all the employers out there: you might see a jittery new immigrant in front of you with hopes and dreams of a new life in a new world, but the new has come to them at the expense of an old, familiar world. I hope you give them the space to grieve for all the old things lost, to heal and most of all to keep celebrating their two worlds.
About the author
Originally from Delhi, Neha recently completed her master’s degree at UBC and now works with the BC Schizophrenia Society. She loves reading books in the park on a sunny day, bickering with her family over the phone and listening to quintessential old Hindi songs