An immigrant’s sense of belonging

I’m going to need to make a mindshift happen that I think I’m going to find very difficult.

The road I’ve been running on since I arrived in Egypt.

I don’t feel like I belong. Anywhere.

I know that I felt this as a kid growing up. But it wasn’t a problem then. I didn’t need to feel that I belonged. I was fine with how things were. I grew up in America. My Egyptian father made a point of letting it be known that I was not American; I was not one of “them”, even though I was. I didn’t know anything else other than what I was told. It had no real meaning to me anyway. I was a child. Things were simple.

I need to find a way to get my brain to think that way again.

Since the first time I set foot in Egypt as a 17-year-old to settle and go to university there, I felt I was finally home. I belonged. Egypt and Egyptians took me in with wide open arms. But that could have been because I was so open to my new Egyptian adventure. It was my first chance at independence as an almost-adult. It was my time to figure out who I was, or wanted to be, without my father’s direct influence. His indirect influence remained. I had been raised on his magical stories of his youth in that country. Egypt, in my mind, was going to be a magical place. And it was. For ever so long.

Now it’s not. Now it feels like a nightmare to me.

It’s tough because so many of my Egyptian friends and family still see the magic in Egypt. Or they see the magic that could be. And when I express how I feel, and it’s ultimately negative, I think they feel like I’ve betrayed them or Egypt or their perception of Egypt. That makes me feel very lonely and not accepted in the way I’ve always felt by Egyptians for so long.

So if I can no longer accept Egypt, if I no longer see its magic or even potential for magic, and I’m not made to feel accepted within a group that’s taken me in for my whole adult life, where then do I belong?

I’m more comfortable now in the UK. I feel safer there. But I don’t feel like I belong there. Egyptians have always noticed me. I feel seen by Egyptians. In Britain, I’m invisible. It’s horrible to feel like a no one after being an important someone for so long.

Could it possibly be that I’ve been looking backwards for so many years that I’ve not given myself the chance to look forwards?

Could it be that I’ve held onto Egypt for so long that I’ve not given the UK the chance it deserves?

Is it even possible to feel a sense of belonging to somewhere relatively new once we’ve reached a certain stage in life?

What does belonging even mean?

Is it our sense of history with a place or with a people? Is it a connection to our ancestors? Or is it simply where we most feel at home? I feel at home in my house in England. But I don’t feel like I belong.

Is there a way to change that? Is there something I need to open up within me to give England that chance to take me in?

Is belonging a basic human need? For everyone? Or are there people who don’t need to belong? Is there a way to shake off that need and to just be?

I’m currently visiting Egypt after a long pandemic hiatus. I have a pretty good idea why I don’t feel like I belong here anymore. The experience has led me to admit for the first time ever that I’m an immigrant. I emigrated from Egypt to the UK. I’ve avoided calling myself an immigrant because it felt so disloyal. It felt like a dirty word. Like I had given up on something I’m not supposed to give up on. Like I had abandoned my country. As if that was one of the most horrible things I could possibly do.

But is it?

Was Egypt ever even MY country? Or had it been my father’s country and all he ever wanted was to make it mine and so I did?

Certainly I’ve only ever felt Egyptian. But isn’t that because of how my father raised me? Or is it because Egypt and Egyptians were the only country and people who really really saw me?

And now that I feel like this attachment is broken, what do I do? I don’t know how to feel.

It’s disorienting.

As I feel less attached and enchanted by Egypt, I feel my Egyptian friends are becoming less accepting of me. Or maybe disappointed in me. Or perhaps they are simply fed up with having to listen to my internal conversations about all this. I keep getting told to enjoy my time here. I know they mean well, but it feels like telling me that if I’m not enjoying my time in this particular place then there’s something wrong with me. I can be here and enjoy certain aspects of my trip. But this is no longer the place I long to be. I don’t have a choice. My children live here. I have to come here. I really wish I could make my children leave this place and come live with me. But they are adults now and they need to have their own journeys and make their own choices.

Do I ever enjoy being in one place for long? Am I just a complainer? Do I need to learn to be more accepting of what is? Maybe if I learn acceptance I’ll start feeling more like I belong…wherever that is.

Maybe I’ve been fighting against how things are and I just need to stop.

I was going to say that maybe I want my kids close by to me all the time. That that would make me most happy. But no. That’s not what it is. I just don’t want them to be in Egypt. I’d be happy for them to live anywhere else in the world. Is that because Egypt scares the shit out of me? That I don’t feel like my kids are safe here? Or do I feel that way for more selfish reasons? Because I don’t want to have to come here? Or maybe I feel guilty about not being here with them and that it would be easier for me if they left so that I can be away without that feeling of guilt?

This trip is making me realize that Egypt is no longer the place for me. And that the whole of the Egyptian population might not be as accepting of me the way I used to think they were. Heck, I’m definitely not as accepting of all of them.

So where does that leave me?

I’m hoping that all these new realizations help me figure out what to do about the next few years of my life. I’ve felt stuck for a while. I haven’t known what to do about my career or about where my husband and I should live. Maybe these new realizations will set me free and will allow me to feel more flexible inside my brain and with my thoughts.

You know what it feels like? It feels like what an infant must feel after being weaned off their mother’s breast. It’s like: What do I do now? How will I ever survive? Your instinct tells you that you will survive but your heart feels broken and your mind feels lost.

Is that how all immigrants feel at some point in their immigration journey? Would immigration have been easier for me if I had been able to immigrate with the rest of my family? I’m sure it would have been easier, but I suppose I would still have had to go through many of these feelings.

So now I need to work on creating a shift in my mindset. I need to figure out whether I can survive without feeling like I belong somewhere; or if I need to find a way to belong no matter where I am; or if I need to find a place and people where I actually belong.

Those are three huge options. It’s time to try to figure it all out.

One comment

  1. It is not like an infant weaned off it’s mother’s breast.

    It is much more like a spouse who has cheated on their loving partner and has decided to they will leave them for the other person. A wealthier, nicer-looking person, who promises nothing but a good time.

    But they will never fill the deepest hole in your heart.

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