Some days, the world is an ill-fitting shoe. It’s annoys me, it hurts me, and I just want to take it off, throw it out, and get a new one that fits.

I am a good immigrant. I speak the language; I am a highly educated asset to this society; I am a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. My children are culturally 100% Americans; this is the best thing I could have done for them — to keep them free of the immigrant bull$hit. They are Americans; not Martian-Americans, not Wherever-Americans, just Americans.

But every so often, I feel, very acutely, how ill-suited I actually am for this culture into which I work so hard to integrate my family. How uncomfortable so many of the interactions are and how lonely the whole immigration endeavor feels.

All the parents of my kids’ friends are American-born. That means I am the only non-American-born parent on the basketball team, and the soccer team, and the swim team… And they are nice, lovely people, although they get visibly freaked out by me the first 74 times we interact. They get brownie points for trying to chat with me like I’m “normal” and for being surprised and then uncomfortable at their own surprise when I crack a joke and it’s a good one.

Still, I love going to kids’ sports. I love interacting with little kids, because they take things in stride. To them, I am just one of the moms. That may be one of the reasons why I love teaching undergrads; they don’t care about me as me, they just care that I am a teacher and a good one, and as long as I treat them well, with respect and humor, they are very happy that I am their teacher.

I went to lunch with two female colleagues yesterday and was in a bad mood all afternoon and all day today. They are nice people, they didn’t do anything bad. They talked, and I mostly listened. To be honest, I was really bored. I have very, very little in common with these women other than the fact we are all the rare women in a field dominated by men. Yet, they are arguably among the closest people I have around. And then I got angry that I have to socialize with people for whose company I am so ill-suited, and who can’t and don’t actually want to get to know the real me, or if they did, I know they would not like me, because the real me has no place in their world.

I haven’t thought about my childhood BFF in a long time. She died when I started this job, about 13 years ago (!), of a congenital heart condition. She was wonderful. I wish she were still around.

It would be nice to be known like  I had people know me once upon a time. Here, I play the part of a good immigrant quite well, and smile, and joke, and say “please” and “thank you,” and chauffeur various kids (both mine and other people’s) to activities, and go to boring lunches, and pretend I don’t totally judge the colleague whose control-freakishness and not legitimate food sensitivities has restricted their food intake to water and air, and hate that someone will come to tell me that having written the previous sentence segment means I am insufficiently sensitive about anorexia or that I don’t actually know what health conditions the person has, and pretend that everyone is special and that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough while at the same time watching 10-year-olds undergo soccer tryouts for very decidedly tiered teams that would make Real Madrid scouts proud.

So much is fake and hypocritical in this society and some days, like today, it’s hard to keep up the facade that I am a good immigrant and that I find all this sooo worth it and just peachy, when in reality I want to tell everyone everywhere exactly what I think about this society and all the hypocrisy and everyone pretending that they are awesome even though we all clearly see that they are not…

And then I write a blog post and feel a tad better, and hopefully tomorrow I am back playing the good immigrant all over again… And don’t long to be known and accepted as a whole person, how I used to be known and accepted, a long time ago and a world away.



  1. I am so sorry for the loss of your friend.
    Your post makes me think generally about the difficulty of making friends as an adult. I am lucky enough to have two BFFs from two parts of my childhood, and I love being with them because I feel so safe. I can be my own worst bitchy idiot and they will still love me and want to hang out with me again.
    I have friends that I adore from my current town – people who even visited me abroad while on sabbatical. But, despite that, I still feel like I never fully let my guard down with them…like the possibility of them seeing my worst would outweigh my best. My own caution makes me sad. I think I’ve become much more risk averse in personal relationships to the detriment of closer friendship.

  2. It’s a recurrent feeling I get whenever you talk about how your kids are growing up 100% American, they don’t speak your native language and don’t have any ties to your culture: you are very adamant that this is good for them, being full Americans and not having to carry the background of your immigrant past. I feel a pang of sadness for them, for what they are missing and don’t even know; and for you, for what you’re losing of yourself by raising children in an alien culture, even one in which you are completely integrated.
    I wish there was an interest on both sides on real integration and not just assimilation. I wish there was an appreciation for what makes people interesting, and different. As a teenager all one wants is to fit it. As an adult though, we’re more nuanced and should appreciate more whatever makes us who we are, including past lives in remote countries and parents that thought they were leaving all behind for a better life but sometimes feel they lost a part of themselves along the way.

  3. I know you’ve talked about how much you like living in your suburb, but I think if you lived in a more cosmopolitan American city you’d feel less alienation (although you might hate other things about living in the city). But in my crowd many parents are immigrants with accents or children of immigrants (like myself), and no one would bat an eye when hearing your accent.

  4. God, how horrible about your childhood BFF. There’s something truly irreplaceable about people who have shared your childhood — not only did you lose a true friend, but you also lost a piece of your childhood. Huge sympathy and condolences to you.

    I hear you on this one — certainly the feelings of loneliness at not being known for your true self. As pyrope said above, it’s tough making friends as an adult, but I really think it’s even tougher making friends as an adult who is also (a) an academic, and (b) a woman in the physical sciences. And on top of all of that, you’ve also got (c) your immigrant status. That sucks, and is a whole different dimension. As a female physics professor, you’re already alien to most people in multiple ways, and the midwest is not exactly known for its cosmopolitanism, so I think you are probably in a particularly tough setting.

    Your post also reminded me of my own university-based loneliness as the only woman my age in my building most days (the male faculty are nice, but not very social, and all >10 years older than me). But that got me thinking about my closest friend on the faculty — a junior woman in one of our other physical science departments — and how she’s leaving this year for another job since she didn’t get tenure here (after one of the worst-handled cases I’ve ever heard of… it’s also telling that NO woman has ever gotten tenure in physics at my university). I realized that she’s moving to your neck of the woods, and I should totally put you two in touch — if nothing else so that she knows you exist for purposes of her colloquium list. Gotta strengthen the women-in-physics-in-the-midwest link!

  5. My biggest disappointment in academic life has been realizing that people who allegedly got here by being studious and hard-working and inquisitive can nonetheless be enamored of the most banal ideas, and chat about them at length. I want to have a REAL conversation. Honestly, I think I had more REAL conversations as a kid.

  6. A lot of things you wrote here resonate with me, even though I am not an immigrant. My husband is an immigrant, but has several friends from his home country (New Zealand) here, and does things like get together with them to celebrate Waitangi Day. I wish you could have something similar! But even as a native born American, I’ve found it hard to make real friends as an adult. I finally made a real connection with the mother of one of my daughter’s best friends, and then they moved to LA. I make a point of seeing her every time I am in LA, and in fact am planning an extra trip up to LA this summer just to see her. It helps so much to hang out with someone who really “gets” me. Most of the other parents I interact with from my daughters’ school are nice, but we don’t really connect.

  7. GMP what a lovely poignant post on the immigrant experience and loss. So sorry about your BFF.

    Would it help to know I don’t feel alone because I have the privilege of your (anonymous) friendship? I’ve known you for nearly 10 years now through your blog. I’m not a good writer and could not sustain my blog and I’m truly grateful that you keep up the writing.

    “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue” said La Rochefoucauld. I too want to knock the veneer right off, sometimes it really under my skin.

    I cannot sustain many close friendships. Math is all encompassing that way and I know I’m just not available emotionally. My childhood friends spread all over the world understand that and somehow we can reconnect whenever one of us needs to. But friends made as an adult are hard to sustain. It’s probably part and parcel of doing research as a woman. The kids and the research just consume the brain capacity. – Dr. S

  8. Thanks for saying this – it gets at some tension I feel as an outsider in the US. I pass for American, but still feel out of place sometimes, even in a big city among self-styled ‘liberals’. Americans feel free to critique their own culture, but they’ll give weird looks to anyone else who dares to critique the inequality in their school systems (seriously folks, just cough up the money!) or how excessive all the patriotism seems (I’m sorry, but expecting me to applaud the vet on the same plane as me is just super-weird), or the sub-par healthcare (seriously, just go with single-payer!). Immigrants are expected to be super-grateful to be in the US, and to see it as perfect in every way. It never occurs to anyone that we might be putting up with things we don’t like, here because our talents are needed, and sticking around for the sake of our careers.

  9. … but you really don’t know people’s true health conditions

    It’s just, you’re so worried about people judging you and not wanting to know the real you but you also are harsh and judgmental about others for whom you really do only have a partial story (like that poor kid you mentioned on our blog) and here you seem to be saying you are intentionally closed off to other people. I’m not saying you should be more open, but if you make an effort to hide then people will usually respect that. I do think that if you don’t want to be judged a good way to start is to not jump to the worst possible conclusion when trying to figure out their motivations. Because then it will seem less like other people are doing the same to you and it is easier to feel free to be more socially awkward.

    I know here I should start with sympathy for the loss of your friend, and I am truly sorry about that. And I do really sympathize with much of this post. But… being upset that people point out that you don’t know the full story when you call someone a control freak or make fun of their dietary restrictions… I dunno. That seems like a recipe for unhappiness or bullying. Is what you want to hang out with the cast of mean girls snickering about other people’s perceived imperfections?

  10. Maybe. I mean, who knows what negative things you’re thinking about my children and my parenting and my eating habits and so on based on the limited amount of info we put out there. And then possibly broadcasting those thoughts to strangers who don’t know us. Yeah, maybe a break is in order.

  11. This post brought tears to my eyes. As a fellow-immigrant woman scientist in a male-dominated department, I have faced many of the same issues myself and I completely sympathize. I really wish you were in our department — we could be good friends! 🙂

  12. xykademiqz, I kind of agree with the comments from nicoleandmaggie. I really like your blog and always think I have so much in common with you. However, you are way too insecure in your skin to the point that you are in denial of yourself and who you are. Value your past, cherish your upbringing, and stop wanting to act native born American if you are a foreign born Ametican. and stop being hostile when someone disagrees with you! Focus on the good you bring into your work, students, people around you, and the whole community. You are in a blessed and unique situation to have so many people follow you and listen to you, so be happy for what you are. You are truly unique!

  13. Hello Professor, the issue is not about trying to act native born American or insecurity. GMP is talking about the immigrant experience which most other immigrants understand. It is also hard to put in words. Your grandparents or older ancestors would understand.

  14. GMP let me share with you one powerful thought I had that broke down barriers for me. I was driving to work one day and suddenly I got a full sense that the earth is round (everyone feel free to chuckle at this revelation) and I could grasp its hugeness from a vantage point in space and below the land deep down on the other side my mother was buried not in another country on the other side of the planet but in the ground below my feet. See this photo to get a sense of what I mean

  15. On a lighter note for the past six months I’ve been forgetting to get my 6th grader a new pair of formal shoes for band performance (he loses points if he wears tennis shoes) so he’s been squeezing his foot in a shoe that is now two sizes too small. Loved the first line of your post.

  16. Hello Professor, the issue is not about trying to act native born American or insecurity. GMP is talking about the immigrant experience which most other immigrants understand.

    I’m not an immigrant, but that is how I took it too. She was discussing the areas where the Americans she interacts with share unspoken beliefs that can’t be criticized but aren’t necessarily shared by outsiders. We are all judgmental in certain areas but some our society allows us to express more openly than others.

  17. @Dr. S: Let’s avoid pretending that there is only one “immigrant experience,” shall we? That is unnecessarily reductive. I am an immigrant, and some of what Xyk writes about I can relate to; other things I can’t. There are *many* immigrant experiences, because people are different, cities are different, etc.

    The rest of the comment was removed by blog owner because all it does is snipes at Dr. S in a personal way while adding nothing whatsoever to the discussion. anon, your comments will henceforth be moderated (again).

  18. I am not an immigrant, but I appreciated all of GMP’s rants here.

    I identified a lot with the stuff about how it’s hard as an adult to make friends that really know you. There’s something special about your old friends.

    I LOVED the rant about the food “sensitivities”. I didn’t see it as insensitive to people with health conditions at all. I am a physiology professor and it is true that most (not all) of the dietary restrictions that people claim these days are self-indulgent BS. Physicians agree. Yes there ARE true allergies and sensitivities, and I also respect people who choose to avoid animal products for ethical reasons. I accommodate all my friends’ “sensitivities” whether or not they are truly medically necessary. However, MOST of the people who are gluten-free or dairy-free or sugar-free or flour-free etc. have no biological problems whatsoever. There’s a remarkable correlation of people with these nitpicky dietary “sensitivities” and other woo-filled unscientific behaviors, such as: giving babies amber teething necklaces, homebirth, anti-formula, shopping at Whole Foods, claiming they’re sick because of “inflammation”, being anti-GMO, and whatever the hippie woo du jour is. It is not science-based medicine, and when academics get absorbed into this subculture and believe the garbage hype, they are extra defensive when confronted about it. I do major eye rolls when I encounter this stuff too, and God forbid you hint at it not being based in reality. It’s a way for rich white people to feel special — it’s a marker of class and status to be so delicate that you can’t eat a whole bunch of normal stuff, even though you have no medically recognized pathology. It also trivializes the struggles of people who have true food allergies. Based on your comments, I’m sure some people who do this stuff will hate me for saying it, but oh well. The fact that so few PhD physiologists and MDs have these these behaviors is telling.

  19. Having lived in the US for multiple years (and loving it) I can relate to what you describe. I think you never really understand what it is like to be an outsider until you are an outsider – and nobody else can ever have that exact same experience.

    Also, as much as there is to love about America and Americans (save one lad in DC) – I can immediately recognise what you describe. That is not to say that it is bad or fake – just that as a non-native newbie in US there are some things that strike you as inherently American and that at some point can simply be too much. I have never felt European, for instance – until I lived in the US. When we got together with a bunch of European scientists I suddenly realized how much more I had in common with those people in terms of thinking and attitude and behaviour, no matter if they were from Norway or Spain or anything in between. Cultural heritage (your own and the others’) can simply not be denied, but you only notice it when you are the outsider.

  20. Immigration can be a lonely adventure. Sure, you meet tons of new people, but you are not from the same culture (no matter how western your country of origin) and you can feel isolation.

    Hypocrisy is everywhere (I am writing this from my European country of origin after some family hypocrisy events today!) Not everything can be looked through immigration lens…it is just people…and you would be pissed off in another country too.

    I usually have a more calm and practical outlook, but you do remind me of a very dear family member. Who is very blunt and burns in the flames of outrage easily…what I learned to understand is that it comes from a good place of wanting things to be better and for a more just world for everyone. This does not mean that you care for everyone’s views and habits or way of life, but that is just fine….because no one really does 🙂

  21. Just to set the record straight, I am an immigrant as well. I concur that the immigrant experience is as diverse as the immigrants thenselves. Perhaps I have come to accept to be an outsider in some circles. On the other hand, I have a pretty strong network of people from my country of origin and the binds are strong and are clearly based on ethnicity. I have had my share of feeling out if place occasionally. My kid asked me a few years ago to buy the largest American flag for our house because other kids in his/her school had told him/her that he/she is not a true Ametican because his/her parents were born elsewhere. I have recntly noticed that ag every important function at our university, very very few non-native borns are invited! The way I come into peace with this is that I strongly feel that my immigrant background has given me a strong leverage in how I see the world and I thinks the balance tips towards me in issues of substance. I do not care less if I take my kid to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s and get totally ignored by the “TRUE” Ametican parents or I get a bit worse customer service because of my midly brown skin.

  22. Not technically an immigrant yet, but have been living in the US on and off for the past couple of years. What you say about loneliness or feeling out of place resonates a lot with me, but something similar started happening in my home country. When I live “back home” I quickly get disgusted with our own navel-gazing and lack of forward thinking. I see better eye-to-eye with people back home, but end up not doing it because everyones wrapped up in a social shell of former high-school and childhood friends and everything is too stagnant for anyone to have to open up. Sure, if I’d grown up with one of those shells I could probably be comfortable, but I chose not to .. I moved away and the spell broke.

    My privilege is that “I look and speak American” (I’m white and assumed a passable accent) so I can pass for a native when I try. Still .. all the people I now call friends are foreigners for whom the spell also broke. That is part of the magic of academia; we immigrants outnumber the “real americans”.

  23. Sorry for the loss of your childhood friend. I will say that your descriptions over the years of your interactions with acquaintances and colleagues suggest that you tend to assume the worst about others’ motivations and other internal states, and only the best about your own. If this is genuinely how you roll, it is definitely a recipe for isolation and anomie. Perhaps you could try to assume less about others’ internal states and accept that the vast majority of people you interact with are flawed, but decent, just trying to live their lives (same as you)?

  24. Physioprof, assuming the worst about others’ motivations and best about your own is a very typical central European cultural thing, so I think she just is as people there are. The question is, can this be accepted in her new society.

    RFon, I have so far lived in four countries and I agree that once the spell is broken, you can’t go back to your own culture anymore. There is a name for people like this who first lived abroad as children and were brouht uo between two cultures, the Third Culture Kids (TCKs). For us mobile academics, I think that many of us become TCKs even if we moved as grown ups. This means we can rarely make real friendships with local people who are not interested in widening their perspective (=the vast majority of people). And I think this is a singularly immigrants’ experience, which locals can’t imagine, until (if) they move to another country.

  25. hugs to you, xykademiqz. i’ve also experienced the us as a land of contradictions. “don’t be judgmental, but let me judge you for being judgmental.” this is only one of many examples. i still love it here, in the land of contradicitons.

  26. I thought this was a beautiful post.

    And I say this as a mathematician who doesn’t eat wheat because it gives me liquid poo (this is not a medical diagnosis, nor do I have one, but I know it’s not just in my head because it’s in my toilet too! haha. no amber teething necklaces, though, even though they sound pretty) and a daughter of immigrants who is trying to raise my kid to know her family language and feel fully hyphenated-American, rather than non-ethnic-(whitish-)American. Pretty different outlook than GMP… and still, it was a beautiful sad post. None of the feelings are less real because someone else would find a different coping strategy.

    I do wish sometimes we could have a GMP/Xyk-reader-party in person. I am so curious about the people I’ve gotten to “know” virtually, one-sided as that knowing may be.

  27. Your post kind of broke my heart, and I suspect that anyone who is an ‘outsider’ in any capacity experiences what you described to some extent. The extent depends on how you are an outsider, and how many dimensions you are an outsider.

    But the real reason that I am commenting: I have a couple of very strong food dislikes, and I got so tired of people telling me I should *just try* xyz that now I simply say that I am allergic. Problem solved! Fake food allergies are definitely real and picky people are legion. And sure, if I was starving I would gladly eat some shrimp with the little wiggly legs and the dead black eyes, but I’m not and I won’t. Maybe this is self-indulgent BS, or maybe people should f off and stop telling me what I should eat.

    Also, shame on all of you omnivores for eating shrimp. Haven’t you heard how they are produced?

  28. Thanks GMP for making sure the conversation doesn’t get personal. There is so much I have to say on this topic I’m thinking of blogging again. If I do you’ll be the first to know. 🙂

  29. I can’t fully sympathize because I’m not an immigrant. Well, technically I am since I’m a Canadian living in the Midwest, but it’s not the same. I like it here — people are generally very nice — I would say maybe not so much “fake” as maybe just superficial and “normal”. And this is certainly not true of everyone, but of the culture in general as compared to say – the coasts or more hippy-type places. It’s not too different from Canada, but I’d say Canadians are a little bit more laid back and probably a bit more fun. I don’t have a lot of close friends; I have a reasonable number of acquaintances. I don’t think it’s so much that I’m guarded, or that I don’t like people, but that I don’t do a good enough job of nurturing friendships. Also, my husband is pretty anti-social, which doesn’t help. I am a mid-30’s female, and believe I have some genuine friendships in some of my male colleagues in the sciences here, who are middle aged (40-50). They are all pretty unique (ex-punk-rocker from SoCal, child of missionaries who grew up home-schooled on some island somewhere, and huge super nerd). Females are harder, though I’ve found a handful that I *would* be much better friends with if I did a better job of staying connected.

    In general, I’d say my values are pretty different from those of the average American, though not different enough that I feel like an outsider. I hear you regarding the sensitivity. I think really it’s about insecurity. Not taking things so seriously, being confident, and not being easily offended… being able to criticize one’s self.

    Mostly the reason I was even prompted to reply to this thread is because when I thought back to my grad school days, I realized that even though the *majority* of my best friends were guys, some of my very best female friends and favorite people were immigrants: a girl from South Africa in undergrad, a girl from Russia/Korea (weird combo, I know) in grad school, a couple of female friends from Eastern Europe, and a female roommate from England. There is something about them… typically a higher level of intellectualism, less insecurity, and just generally being more interesting and chill. Basically my most favorite people are weird people, so we would probably be friends, though I suck at being a good friend.

  30. Pingback: TGIF | xykademiqz

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