Postdoctoral Scholars Blog: "Time and Immigration"

The IHRC enjoyed the company this year of three gifted postdoctoral scholars with widely ranging interests. In a final column, they reflect on what “time� means in their respective studies.

By: Sonia Cancian, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the IHRC, Ania Mazurkiewicz, University of Gdansk, Kosciuszko Foundation Fellow at the IHRC, and Matteo Pretelli, Fulbright Research Scholar at the IHRC


Time brought us together this year at the IHRC as postdoctoral scholars from Canada, Italy and Poland. Because we work with different methodologies, sources, and themes, we discovered that different concepts of time exist across our fields in migration studies. Indeed, time is relative in migration. Not only is time conceived and perceived differently across global spaces in various disciplines, it is also experienced differentially by migrants.
Sonia Cancian, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the IHRC
One question we need to ask ourselves is how migrants and loved ones in the homeland negotiated their separation and the distances of time that it brought? Until very recently, the letter was among the most popular and most affordable means for migrants and loved ones to communicate with each other and reach out across distances, near or far. With the advent of the telephone, and later, the internet, communication across distances has changed significantly. However, while spatial distances between homelands and host countries have remained virtually the same, the letter has been instrumental in compressing and extending temporal distances. By looking at letters of migrants and those who remained behind, we can identify how time is relative and non-static in the act of “missing� loved ones. Letters allow us to observe how time was compressed by letter-writers in order to feel their loved ones closer. They did this by writing frequently, receiving mail from them, dreaming about them and recounting their dreams in the letters, by asking questions in their letters and expecting replies, and even by speaking about them to friends and family nearby so that the presence of their loved ones could be felt despite the realities of physical separation. Paradoxically, the slow passage of time and its resulting extension in the minds of correspondents manifested itself through letter-writers’ consciousness of “missing� their loved ones. “Missing� made time move very slowly. Days felt like months and months felt like years, even as time kept moving forward.
Ania Mazurkiewicz, University of Gdansk, Kosciuszko Foundation Fellow at the IHRC

Interestingly enough, the notion of longing and the compression of time is also found in the ways that Cold War exiles from Eastern Europe perceived time while away from their homelands. People who fled their homelands fearing persecution from the Communist regimes tended to perceive their forced migration as a temporary state. Therefore, for them awaiting and longing their ultimate return to the free homeland entailed a time in which exile felt longer than the real passing of time. Furthermore, many of them envisaged that time in their homeland had stopped, with the understanding that once the imposed regime would be taken down the idealized conditions of pre-subjugation period would return. Exiles believed they carried the last hope for the survival of their nations’ culture and tradition. On the one hand, just like separated lovers, the exiles measured time by their heartbeat. On the other hand, the “time of the mind� prompted them to act for the sake of future liberation of their beloved homeland. In either case, the notions of yesterday and tomorrow were more important than today. The biggest disillusions were created when those who eventually returned to their free homeland subsequently realized that time had not only continued to move forward, but that rapid changes had occurred much faster than they could have ever imagined.
Matteo Pretelli, Fulbright Research Scholar at the IHRC
The fluidity of time has had enormous consequences even in migrants’ identities. By definition, language is fluid and constantly changing, and it also plays an important part in migrants’ identities. For instance, the 1st generation of immigrants – who usually preserved a mythical image of the homeland – maintained the use of their native tongue. Yet, this language often has melded with the language of the host society as these immigrants learned to live in their new surroundings. Conversely, immigrants understood their native language as temporally “frozen� in the moment when they left home. The younger generations of immigrants more fully acquired their host society’s language, which is an integral part of their daily lives and their identities. They then had two choices: They could share the use of their parents’ native language (which in the case of Italian immigrants, was often a dialect of the standard Italian) in their domestic space; or they could renounce it, and learn their parents’ language afterwards in its standard form as part of their effort to rediscover their own ethnicity. In the former case, once they visit the homeland they -- and their parents – are amazed that the native language they have spoken all their lives is no longer the language of the homeland, where language continued to change. On the other hand, in many cases, 1st and 2nd generation immigrants speak a kind of hybrid language that has developed over time as a result of linguistic interferences with the host society’s language. In the latter case, the younger generation of immigrants who visit their parents’ homeland have an easier time communicating with native speakers because of their lack of knowledge of their parents’ language that was “frozen� in time.

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This page contains a single entry by herna130 published on May 13, 2008 6:14 PM.

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