The Magda Incident from Another Immigrant’s Perspective

It’s an old story; immigrants come into your country, steal all the jobs, drink too much, eat strange smelling food, have sex with all the local women and get them pregnant, do things differently, and then when the economy breaks down they sit around claiming more than their fair share of benefits. Dirty bloody immigrants.

And so a narrative for something like this appeared from Ireland recently. ‘Magda’, who lives in Donegal, is an immigrant from Poland. She survives on government welfare because she lost her job in the recession. She was approached by a Polish magazine to report on how she was surviving in Ireland during said recession. Apparently this publication was running a series on Polish emigrants’ lives in recession ravaged European countries.

Ireland’s most read daily, The Irish Independent, decided it would be appropriate to translate and run a story on the insults paid to Ireland, its people, and to reinforce the robust belief that all immigrants are stealing our jobs and welfare money.

Now, first things first, due to the accuracy of the story, this happened. So, to get a sense of what really happened, you will have to visits the nation’s testing space, Broadsheet. Broadsheet is very good a copying down what people say verbatim, as in this case here where they have managed to listen to the translation from an actual Polish person who speaks  excellent English, as opposed to running it through Google translate, which it seems is how the Independent did it. Before the actual article was properly translated, this senator managed to run his gob a bit too quickly, and has consequently made a fool of himself. Madness. Only in Ireland, right? Well, I will leave that answer up to the reader.

While all the right-wing immigrant hating Irish were off sharpening their slash hooks readying for a Pole hunt, it turned out that the Bindependent was wrong. It was actually so wrong that they had to retract the story, and in the process not even whisper an apology to the lady whom they vilified, nor attempt to calm the storm. In the meantime, the Polish Ambassador was decent enough to offer a translation to the newspaper, and rightly called the newspaper to account. Since then the rag has been on the retreat, and even more so when Pat O’Mahony actually did some journalism, tracked down ‘Magda’, interviewed her, and found out this; Meet ‘Magda’: ‘I Don’t Want to Stay on the Dole. I Want to Work.’.

I saw a lot of this unfolding on twitter as both Broadsheet and some journalists kept me updated on the proceedings. This can be kind of fun sometimes, but it was also a bit scary to see what had actually come about. I couldn’t believe that this story had come to light. In fact, I thought that it had to be hatched from somewhere because it fitted into the anti-immigrant agenda too perfectly.

What’s peculiar about this situation is that I don’t think that Ireland has a large anti-immigrant agenda. There are some casual references, but most people are smart enough to know that a lot of immigrants work hard in Ireland and do their best to get along. Yes there are abusers of the system, but if there is a system in place it should be expected that someone is going to abuse it. If you don’t think that, and it upsets you that people actually abuse the system, and especially people who move specifically to a place to abuse this system, move to a desert or a forest where nobody lives. Why? Because the shocks will continue. Next shock; Irish people abuse the system too, and guess what? More of them do it than immigrants!

I have been relatively happy with the outcome so far from this incident. I hope nothing escalates, and I hope the Bindo loses several thousand readers for their troubles (although in all likelihood they’ve probably gained some). But, at the same time I’ve been seriously bothered by this outcome.

I’ve always wondered where Irish anti-immigrant attitudes come from. Sometimes you can feel them stronger from different sources, and sometimes they are hidden under the surface. There’s no explanation for them, and even worse, there is no understanding them given the fact that so many Irish themselves are immigrants.

This is even more so the case in today’s climate. It’s easy to hear the statistics on the number of people leaving Ireland and how this is affecting families and communities across the country. Emigration in Ireland is a word that is attracting people’s attention. In Ireland it is a political word, one that is used by both politicians, lobby groups, and the media to strike fear in each other so that each is moved to the impression that the entire social structure of the country is approaching destitution. Emigration starts the sharing of horror stories and imaginations running wild picturing sons and daughters boarding coffin ships to Australia.

This is the thing, in Ireland the story is always about the departure. There is rarely any story about the arrival, the adjustment, the learning process, the alienation, the racism, the difficulty of finding anything resembling a home comfort, and the distance from everything. If Irish people considered this aspect more then there would be much stronger understanding of the plight of immigrants.

Immigrants move into a country for all kinds of reasons. The most popular reason is usually financial. This probably doesn’t help reduce the stereotype that immigrants are there to steal the money and jobs of the working classes. There are also those fortunate enough who may immigrate if they are looking for a new worldly experience, or, as I once did, left Ireland for Korea basically to get the hell out of Ireland, but this may have been tied in with a lack of and desire for more worldliness. It’s often said that immigrants often leave for a bigger slice of the cake. But, if you ask me, the more cake you eat the more likely you are to find egg shells in it.

Immigration is hard. It is not, overall, a pleasant experience, although that being said some people can have positive experiences immigrating. Why is it not a pleasant experience? You always know that you are different, and you always get the feeling that people look and interact with you differently because you are an immigrant. You are not from the place you live, and there is a good chance that you possibly cannot function in this society properly, from buying bananas in the supermarket to crossing the street or opening a bank account. Life is different from where you come from, and if you don’t speak the language properly, and even if you do, life can be even more difficult. There are things that don’t matter to you, but then there are things that affect you every time you walk outside the door.

The process of immigration is made more unpleasant by the rules you must succumb to before living in a country. Yes, there are the legal rules, but then there are also social rules also. Korea and Ireland have very different and distinct social rules which determine how you must act around family, strangers, in work, when out drinking, or even in the supermarket. Learning these can be more taxing an experience than getting accustomed to more obvious differences, such as the food, the different kinds of money, and even driving on the opposite side of the road.

Prejudice against immigrants is an international trait. There is no country where people do not treat immigrants poorly for whatever reason. Often this factor can be most difficult to deal with, and as an immigrant you can do nothing but deal with it.

But also as an immigrant you become part of a new community which is now yours to be a member of. You spend your money in the local shops and restaurants. You pay taxes and use the local facilities, be they parks, museums or public transport. You are part of the economy. You invest in the place you live and you have a reason to be involved and to care about how decisions are made and how your taxes are spent. With that, you have a right to be angry when you are treated differently for doing what everyone else does, like taking the bus.

As difficult as immigration is, for most people who move to a new country and invest themselves into their new homes, their new homes matter a lot to them, and they care about them. Not everyone does this. For many, immigration is just a source of income. But equally so, the immigrants who spend more and more time in a location care more. The longer people stay away from their home the more difficult it can be for them to return to normal if they return. I know that this has been the case for me.

Being an immigrant is difficult. It is humiliating to line up in the immigration office with yourself written out on a form hoping that the person you speak to is in a good mood when they deal with you. It is demeaning that, despite working for a living and doing your best to become a law-abiding and functional member of society, still people look and treat you like you might, if given ample opportunity, open their mouth and urinate into it. It is demeaning that you find out that despite their being openness in the place where you live, you find it increasingly difficult to settle in and feel welcome as the amount of experience and skills you need seem to be set higher for you. Being an immigrant is even more demeaning when you consider that regardless of how much you work hard, how good you job is, and regardless of how good the home you have worked hard to provide for your family is, you are still looked on as an immigrant.

I’m privileged enough to have a favourable skin colour. Black, Asian, and South American immigrants have it a lot harder than I do. I don’t doubt that this post would be a lot angrier if I were from South East Asia and I was living in Korea, or if I was African and living in Europe, or Mexican living in the United States. Inside these brackets even there are differences; individual national identities are narrowed down to black, Asian, white…

But, you know, despite what they feel and experience most immigrants have had the resolve to travel and settle, change their life, fight for a job, get a job, work their arses off, and continue on living to the best of their ability.

Magda is one of these immigrants, and her story is a perfect example of all that is good about real immigrants. Magda will stick around in Ireland, and she will keep fighting and keep looking for a job and stay living in Donegal. Her interview, the real one and not the mistranslated one obviously, is a testament to all those people who have had to leave their home to make a better life for themselves.

Magda has put a big smile on my face because I know that because of people with an attitude like hers ,the world is a better place. The more we tell our stories of the truth the more the truth is known, then the more stereotypes change. People understand that the people with different colour skin and strange accents are people who, despite not being from the same place, have worries, dreams, and lives as important and troubled as everyone else.

Lives are never relative. We all live through different existences. But, our lives are all related together by sharing our existence with another 7 billion people. The better we can exist together, the less we’ll have to worry about the things which spurred me into writing this post in the first place.

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4 thoughts on “The Magda Incident from Another Immigrant’s Perspective

  1. Lol… were on the same hymnsheet here on this issue, even if my verse is not to your liking!!! rotfl!!!

    To see the hatred vented here in Ireland on the incident was truly scary, indeed Sinéad Hubble of Midlands Radio 3 ran the article as her status update, with “Polish” in capitals, with predictable anger, some genuine, some pure racist.

    As you would expect, yours truly weighed in on the argument (possibly with a few misspellings too!!!) and while we did not win the day, a few other noble souls of the silent majority said their tuppenceworth, one posting a link to the Broadsheet article featuring the Ambassadors proper translation.

    On the topic of immigration, yours truly has a nephew going to Pyongtaek at the end of the month teaching English. Yes, a nephew of mine going to confuse all those poor Koreans with a Longford-Laois hybrid of the English language on a TEFL course!!!

    But dont worry, he doesnt write poetry, never mind the rhyming type!!! hehe!

    He says there is problems getting laptops with English keyboards, and the basics such as deo etc is very expensive over there. He got “advice” on one forum to have it posted over, it would be cheaper. As you live there, any chace of doing a post on the essentials of immigrating to Korea for the likes of that, how and where to set up bank accounts, etc?

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  2. Marvelous post.

    For a lot of us who came here as teachers, it doesn’t register right away we are immigrants – even though we need to go to an office called ‘immigration,’ and such. It’s because for so many who are doing this, it is a temporary gig, be it one or possibly two years, then back wherever home is. Most native speaker instructors in Korea would be better termed as something like ‘migrant workers.’

    Sometimes it happens gradually and it takes a while to catch up to us. In my own case, I had been here more than half a decade, and I looked out the window at Namsan one morning and realized, “This is my city now. This is my home.” But how could that possibly be so? I’m not Korean, I don’t speak the language and the culture will always cause some bafflement.

    Doesn’t matter. It is simply so. Home turns out to be the place where you end up.

    And here I am.

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    • I had never thought of considering them as migrant workers, but it is one of the better classifications I’ve heard for them. Certainly more appropriate than ‘expats’, but I won’t go into that now…

      Yeah, this post was mostly driven by the discussions about emigration in Ireland which are dominating the media. Much of the discussion is based on the departure, but there is very little about the existence in these emigrant destinations, and why, exceptions aside, many people are finding a very worthwhile and happy existence.

      Myself? I’m far too romantic to ever just accept that Korea is my country or my home. Of course, this issue is a bit more complicated than it might appear.

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  3. I’m a university student from London on my year abroad in Italy. I’ve been shocked how different attitudes and behaviour are here. The people who stare at me in the street disapprovingly, who mock me for not speaking the language well (when I’m actually pretty good when someone isn’t laughing in my face), who have groped or made scarily persistent sexual advances towards me because ‘English girls are slags’ is disgusting and demoralising in the extreme. I live in one of the biggest cities in Northern Italy so there’s no “small town ignorance” excuse.

    On a superficial level- food, drink, culture, shopping- everything is brilliant. But this anti-foreigner attitude colours my overall perception of the country, and makes me so upset. When I came here, I had hopes of making Italian friends, experiencing Italian daily life and learning about a new culture. Probably like all immigrants. That didn’t happen and while I would say I could have worked harder to make it so, I think it’s just as much the locals faults for making immigrants feel so unwelcome. It hurts a lot.

    Ironically, when I spent the summer in Asia (Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam), people were nothing but nice to me, despite it being a completely different side of the planet. I genuinely felt like they went out of their way to welcome me and show me their culture, and not just people who wanted money from me. If I was stared at, or felt like a zoo attraction at times, most of the time it seemed to be genuinely light-hearted (“Oh, your yellow hair is so lovely, can I have a photo?!”). 90% of the time, I was just ignored but in a perfectly pleasant normal way. Maybe it would change if I moved there full time or went to a less touristed part of Asia, but I struggle to believe it could be worse than the experience I’m having in what is supposed to be a Western city with European ideals, and therefore shouldn’t have much of a culture shock.

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