Being a Temporary Visitor in Today’s America



The excitement of moving abroad has the potential to stifle any concerns about the economic, political or social situation of your new home. Thinking about the simple things that seem like impossible tasks will occupy your every waking moment – things like how to sign a lease without a credit score or keeping your phone battery alive long enough to navigate the subway home before you discover that everyone around you uses phone cases that charge their phones – and this separates you from the lives of the people who have always lived here.

The feeling of love for New York never goes away, but is interrupted frequently and without warning by the reality of modern day American life. The high salaries and the crazy nightlife are one part of it – the political upset, discrimination and economic disparity are another.

You are at times, an unwelcome visitor

The first time I learned about gentrification, I was in a conversation with a friend who described to me the situation of the Dublin docks – ‘Googlers’ moving in from other countries, not participating in local life, driving up house prices, forcing out communities who had lived there forever. It’s an issue that impacts lower socioeconomic classes and therefore regularly gets lost and removed from the stories told about cities. Brooklyn had always, because of teenage dramas, been portrayed to me as a hipster area where the fun people lived who didn’t have old money keeping them on the UES. Once I signed a lease and settled in Bed-Stuy in an apartment I could barely even afford and where I couldn’t even see the Manhattan skyline, I realized that I was a gentrifier. I had come in from some other, predominantly white country, and taken a place within a community with my ability to pay high rent thanks to my financial district job.

There wasn’t anything that could be done about the situation, given that the lease was signed and no one had told me this was socially unacceptable and made me a terrible feminist. All I can do is contribute to the community as much as I can and hope I’m mistaken for part of it. There’s no amount of social consciousness I could possess that would enable me to afford the rent in Manhattan, so here I am.

#NotMyPresident

The resistance is a powerful movement in New York; the bluest of bubbles. Protests take place most days about things I don’t understand and problems I didn’t know existed. Moving here as a social justice junkie can cause emotional turmoil through guilt for a lack of knowledge about the problems of this new foreign country. Discrimination that exists here is unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen in the world. I have never felt guilt or shame for being white before, as though I’m now part of a history of white supremacy and racism that I’ve never even been aware of. I quickly realized that the division between black and white doesn’t exist in other places in the same way that it does in the US. Coming from Ireland and having largely been surrounded by white people my whole life with very few exceptions, I only really became white when I moved to America. Race and nationality, like gender, are often social constructs that only gain meaning when meaning is given to them. Suddenly being confronted with the past of America’s slavery and the present of America’s explicit and systematic racism, when you think you’re moving to an elusive ‘land of opportunity’, is disheartening.

Rectifying this in your own mind isn’t easy. You have to separate what you came here for from the rest of the US. You have to keep in touch with issues going on at home, because they’ll have more of an impact on you than Trump will. You have to realize that these problems aren’t yours and that while you will always try to be a citizen of the world, you have to just live as you would have back home in order to keep yourself sane. You have to constantly remind yourself that this history is not yours, that the systems of discrimination that exist are not yours and that when American’s chant ‘NOT MY PRESIDENT’, you can only join in out of support because Donald Trump is literally not your president. Lastly, you have to acknowledge that your ability to retreat from this political situation and discrimination is, in itself, a privilege. Be thankful for what you were given and support those who weren’t as lucky.

Generation Emigration

Ireland is a land of young people who leave. America is a land made up of immigrants. This makes it difficult to understand the importance of culture and heritage to American people who can trace their ancestry back to Irish immigration during the Famine. It leads to thriving businesses built around ‘tracing your roots’ and ‘finding out where you come from’ for high dollar prices. The country’s history has resulted in entire communities unable to pinpoint their origins because of their great grandparents being brought to the US as slaves. And, on a lighter note, it leads to groups of purely American people telling you they’re Irish and that someday they’re going to go visit ‘Gaal-way’. It’s comical, to me and anyone from anywhere else, to think that three generations back has any impact on nationality.

When Irish emigration began, and the immigrants were classed as black in social standing, Irish identities were emphasized in attempt to separate ‘Irish’ from ‘black’. Now, in a new social turn, it seem that Irish-Americans use ancestral Irishness in attempt to be anything but ‘white American’, recognizing it as somewhat toxic and damaging. This draws strong divides in the country, between immigrants and people of color, white people who claim a distant culture and those who view themselves as truly American. The best thing a temporary visitor can do is let the Irish-four-times-removed be and accept what isn’t yours to understand.

Move away from people who cause you alienation

It can be easy to think that moving to a country that speaks English won’t cause you any cultural upset, but that’s not actually true. Americans around you will have full conversations, technically in English, without you being able to understand a thing. It can take a while to understand a new languages of slang and to not cringe when you say ‘hit me up’ or ‘hook up’ or ‘deadas’ (actually still not 100% on what that last one means). If you have any feelings of homesickness, spending time in situations that emphasize your differences will only cause more isolation and alienation. It will only remind you of the issues you don’t understand and the friends you miss and the culture you left behind, with all of its familiarity. You’re a temporary visitor and that means that you should enjoy your time away. It’s ok to surround yourself with people who make you happy that you took this leap.