Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Seeing beyond stereotypes and getting to know a new place

When you truly live in a new place rather than just pass through, you become acquainted with it in a slower, truer, more intimate way. It’s the great privilege of emigrating anywhere, writes American immigrant in Dublin Erin Fornoff

Tue, Mar 5, 2013, 20:00


Erin Fornoff

I am a young American immigrant in Ireland. In answer to a daily set of questions, I am not on a study abroad programme, I am not on holidays, and despite the distant Kellys on my mother’s side, I did not come to explore my roots.

I came here because I got a job.

I arrived on a half-empty plane to a packed airport full of people queuing to leave. When I told people I was here to work, I couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Ireland was a new place full of possibilities for me, yet eventually I realised a large portion of Irish people my age were gone or planning to go.

I have stayed for these years now because I have grown to love this place and all that’s it given me. I love it for everything I learned here, for how the stereotypes I brought with me in my hand luggage are both matched and defied. Like me, it’s complicated.

I love it for all the ways you can generalise a nation of millions: the beauty, the history, the funny and brilliant people, the thriving artistic scene, the global social conscience, the way taxi men have an opinion on what’s playing in the Gaiety, and how a person starts singing a song in a bar and the whole room quiets.

When we travel, it’s easy to only see what we came looking for. We arrive with a mental checklist garnered from movies and postcards, and make our experience of the place fit the picture we have created in our heads. We come with a notion of a place we’ve been trained to covet.

When I was a teenager in North Carolina, a group of Japanese tourists came on a tour of our high school, giddily taking pictures of us wearing our baseball caps backwards, eating cheeseburgers at lunch and high-fiving each other. It felt odd–as though we were delightfully meeting their expectations, but living out a cartoonish caricature.

I resented them for what they thought of us—for what they wanted us to be. But we really did wear ball caps backwards, and eat burgers, and ride yellow school buses home to our overweight families. We went to prom with flowers strapped to our wrists, and played football games every Friday night under the lights. When our quarterback grew up, he really did marry the head cheerleader.

In any country, we sell a myth and then get irritated when people buy it, because we know we’re more than the myth. I’d say I fit at least 75 per cent of all stereotypes about Americans—and if people look at me expecting to see those, they’ll find them. But they’ll miss the rest.

Soon after I arrived in Ireland, I drove around the western tourist loops with some Americans hell-bent on finding a flock of sheep crowding a road. Sheep on hillsides or in fields were not satisfactory—they had to be herded tightly down a boreen, preferably narrow and winding. Ireland in their minds was white sheep on a black road between gray walls edging green fields. Hell, I have bought and sent that postcard. We drove around until we found it. It was what they came to Ireland to see.

The last night of the trip, with cameras full of pictures of sheep and perfect Guinness poised on wooden tables, I asked them what they wanted to eat for dinner. “Irish food,” they said. I took them to Bewleys, that old grand dame, but the menu didn’t match their checklist.

We moved on, passing a number of local places full of Irish people, until we lighted upon a pub with a menu posted out front boasting Irish stew, cabbage and bacon, and something called “bubble and squeak”. It was Disneyland Ireland, but my friends were happy. When I first moved here, I would have loved it too.

But when you truly live in a new place rather than just pass through, you become acquainted with it in a slower, truer, more intimate way. It’s the great privilege of emigrating anywhere.

I have friends here now who match every stereotype I carried with me when I came—gingers with double-digit siblings who Guinness-fart while they chastise the British, blame themselves, and occasionally, as though gripped by a force beyond them, launch into a genuinely weepy ballad. One friend even has a grotto in her front yard. It’s like, awesome, dude.

But I’m proud to have been here long enough to know that traits like these make up only fragments of a much more complex national identity. I have adjusted my ear to the subtleties of accents, and learned what some think they signify. I have come to recognise TV references from other people’s childhoods, and learned how old political wounds linger in the present.

Living in a new place, you learn to navigate mindsets that make you stumble in their cultural difference to your own. When I first moved to Ireland, which can lack American bluntness, I thought no one was being honest with me. I couldn’t tell if someone was flirting. I had to learn not to feel hurt by the harmless banter that is the Irish way of showing affection. I even had to Google the word “slagging.”

I wince now at the seemingly limitless depths of my ignorance. New friends, co-workers and taxi men knew the intricacies of pending legislation in US Congress and the biography of my senator, but not only could I not pronounce the word “Taoiseach”, I had no idea what one was.

In going somewhere new, I could confront how little I knew about the world, and begin to remedy that. Emigrating gave me a chance to make myself better. It forced me to face myself in a new context and grow comfortable with my own company.

As travellers or emigrants, we come or go clutching plane tickets with a vision in our heads of what to expect. Some of it’s true—you find validation for just about any stereotype. But the greatest lesson of emigration is that the world is so much more complicated than we think.

Erin is 30 and works for a non-profit organisation in Dublin. She tweets at @jarsofshine.