“Is there some kind of hierarchy of foreigners?”
Nadya Ivanova, 24, is originally from Bulgaria. She moved to Chicago in 2006 to study journalism at Northwestern University. Since 2009, Ivanova’s worked as a reporter, producer and grant writer for Circle of Blue, the world’s leading online source for water news. Ivanova has traveled to China and Australia to investigate the global water crisis. For VBB Ivanova reflects on her immigrant experience: highlighting the freedoms of being in America and an imposed global hierarchy of foreigners.
Andrea: Why did you move to America and Chicago?
Nadya: “I came to the United States to study in September 2006 to study journalism and I got the opportunity to stay and work after graduation in 2010. So for the last two years I’ve been a reporter and producer for a small non-profit news organization based in Michigan.”
Andrea: What does the word immigrant, or migrant, mean to you?
Nadya: “Well that’s one of those very loosely defined, loaded terms that are haunted by a very strong legacy of stereotypes, or economic considerations and so on so—it’s hard to define it. The simplest way [to define immigrant] is someone who’s going to live in a foreign country permanently. But you know I’ve always wondered about the difference between immigrant and expat for example—why would a British citizen living in China commonly refer to himself or herself as an expat, but a Chinese citizen living in Great Britain would be referred to as an expat? Are these two terms interchangeable? Or is there some kind of hierarchy of foreigners—I just don’t know. But it’s an interesting question to think about.”
Andrea: What does the work immigrant, or migrant, mean to you?
Nadya: “Not to simplify it because it’s a very, the immigrant experience is very nuanced. My personal impression is that being an immigrant in the U.S. is somewhat more liberating than being an immigrant in Europe. For example I base this on my experience living in Cyprus with my parents when I was a kid and just being around Europe. When you think about it, the U.S. was created as an immigrant country; it was created by immigrants and it grew up as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, while European countries are very much based on the idea of the nation-state. So basically the idea that the political entity coincides with the ethnic and cultural entity in the same territory and so on. Europe is really grappling with the idea of immigration, especially after the fall of communism and the influx of immigrants from Africa. So being Bulgarian as I am, and being an immigrant in Europe would have these negative connotations, which makes the experience more difficult. Whereas in the U.S. because you’re part of a more diverse group and because my country is so small and unknown in the U.S. it gives me the liberty to choose how to describe my identity. So for example, I can tell an American that I’m from Southeastern Europe; or I can say I’m from a former communist country; or I can say I’m from the Balkans; or I can say I’m European; or from the Mediterranean if you will, and it probably wouldn’t make a difference to them. It gives you the freedom to choose what to do I think. While in Europe you’re often constrained by the very strong stereotypes attached to your nationality.”
Andrea: Is there any way that you bring your home with you?
Nadya: “I usually carry small things that people in Bulgaria give me. Small things that my grandma gave me, or I’m wearing this bracelet that’s connected to a Bulgarian tradition that we have on every March 1. I cook Bulgarian meals sometimes; one of my roommates is Bulgarian. I think it’s easier to carry your country with you emotionally these days because the world is so interconnected. For me Bulgaria is mostly my family and my friends, so when I keep in touch with them, or when I stay in the loop about what’s happening with them I bring Bulgaria in some small ways in my everyday life—by just being in touch with them.”
Andrea: What has your greatest challenge as an immigrant been?
Nadya: “I don’t know if I see myself as an immigrant in the U.S. I think the greatest challenge probably has to do with proving yourself in a situation in which there are institutional barriers to what you can do. You know, anything from going through a daunting interview process at the U.S. Embassy to come here to getting a work visa, which is so much more difficult for a foreigner than a citizen, naturally. These have been the biggest barriers.”
Andrea: Anything else?
Nadya: “When you said that you wanted to do this interview, I was thinking about what it means to be an immigrant. I think a lot of immigrants see themselves as products of the system. You have somewhat of a choice—you come here you can choose to isolate yourself in an immigrant community, and not learn the language, and stay with your own small group of people because it’s a protected space and it’s what you know. Or you can choose learn the language; soak up the culture and mingle with Americans, or locals and have a richer American experience, which I think more people should be doing. It’s what I’m trying to do at least.”