Immigrant’s Adjustment Experience

Janusz Wróbel


Imagine:  one day you find yourself working for the U.S. army as a military officer.  You have a general knowledge about the army, but you have never gone through military training.  You understand a little from the military language that is used by your fellow officers.  They know that you are new and they are ready to give you a hand but they have no idea about the degree of your ignorance.

Or imagine that your been chosen to be a part of a free style relay in a high school meet and you can barely swim.

Or that your LPC license has been revoked, your degree ignored and you were told to start college on a freshman level.

Or that you are an immigrant who has recently arrived from Central Europe.

So what happens to you at the beginning of the new journey?

At the first stage, confusion dominates over all other feelings.  Suddenly, after years of existential silence, you are facing the very basic ontological questions:

Where am I?

What I am doing here?

Is this a place for me?

You are surrounded by a strange environment in which people do not share your values, beliefs and use a language that you may know but you do not feel it.  You feel like living inside a movie, like an actor who has to follow the orders of an eccentric film-director.

Despite of strange things that are happening to you, you are struggling to survive.  Imagine now your reaction to the stress that you are constantly experiencing.

After a busy and stressing day, finally at home, which is a shelter from the alien outside, after a drink or two, you fall asleep and you are back – to the city in your homeland that you used to live in and to the language that you are longing for.  In this way, you return to your inborn normality.  Even if it was quite abnormal normality like in the case of living under communism.

And then you wake up and you are facing the same strange reality you have left behind you yesterday.  No doubt, you are caught in the Identity Crisis.

Identity Crisis:  or  Not HERE, Not NOW, Who Am I?

Let us consider for a moment this confused state of mental affairs.  I believe that the following triad of pronouns:


in a simple way, describe our points of reference in the Universe:

The element “I” distinguishes between the person who describes himself or herself and the others, who might be marked by pronouns “YOU,” “SHE,” and “HE.”

The element “HERE” allows differentiating from another location marked by the element “THERE.”.

Finally, the element “NOW” separates the presence from the past, and the future (“BEFORE” and “LATER”.)

Aberrations from the presented order usually indicate certain unusual phenomena in interpretation of self and reality.  For example when “I” means also “YOU” or “SHE”, we could deal with multiple personality disorder, borderline personality structure, or with schizophrenia.

When the spatial element “HERE” becomes exchangeable with “THERE”, or when the temporal factor “NOW” becomes “BEFORE”; they can indicate hallucinations, delusions, or a schizophrenic process.

My general assumption is that in a case of the immigrant experience, the elements of the triad:

“I – HERE – NOW”

undergo the dramatic change, taking a form of the new triad

“I – Not HERE – Not NOW”

or, simply:


In other words, the immigrant’s identity is based on the former spatial and temporal experience.  What happens then to person who experiences such a state of mind?

Despite of the existential confusion, the immigrant has to live with it and to act according to the demands of the surrounding.  The external world is not aware of the true points of reference of the immigrants.  What they are forced to do, is, in fact, to lead the double life:  OVER HERE and OVER THERE; NOW and BEFORE – simultaneously!

Eva Hoffman illustrated this phenomenon in the apt way in her book “Lost in Translation:  A life in a New Language”:

Should you become a pianist?  the question comes in English.

No, you mustn’t.  You can’t.

Should you become a pianist?  the question echoes in Polish.

Yes, you must.  At all costs.

The costs will be too high.

The costs don’t matter. Music is what you’re meant to do.

Don’t be so dramatic.  I can play for myself.  For pleasure.

Don’t kid yourself.  You want to play for others.  You want to hear the applause.

That’s a shallow ideal.

It’s those eyes when people have heard you play…

I’m going to end up giving concerts in small towns and colleges.  There are too many pianists in the world going over the same tired repertory.  What can I add to all those recordings of the Chopin etudes?

Reasons, reasons… You’re passionate about it….You have a duty to yourself.

I live here now.  I can’t just close my eyes and follow my passions, I have to figure out how to live my life.

Oh God, I don’t know.  I don’t know what you should do anymore.

I like literature a lot.  I’m good at it.  Perhaps someday I can write.  Sometimes, I almost get the same high…

Not the same.  Nothing expresses as much.   What else will you love like that?

I’ll love other things.  I’ll love people.  I promise.

Remember how you felt…

No.  I don’t want to remember.

What do you want?  What do you want?

I want… I want not to have to change so much.  But I have to.  I have to catch up to myself.  It’s not just a question of music, you know.

Yes, I know.  But it’s going to hurt, giving it up.

Yes, it’s going to hurt.

But we’ll get along somehow.

Yes, we’ll get along.

It seems that music is only a symptom on a surface under which the state of alienation and confusion with a new HERE, and a strong longing for THERE is hidden.  Eva is well aware that the undefined and blurry border between THERE and HERE leads to instability and thus insecurity of I.  Unstable I will not provide enough support to supervise a successful adaptation process into the new reality.

What are the prospects for Eva’s adaptation process?  I would say:  good.  And the reason for this guess is her highly self-psychotherapeutic intuition.  Eva has obtained two important therapeutic goals:  she identifies the source of the inner conflict and prescribed a therapy for herself based on existential basis:  as Yalom states, life is sometimes unfair, it is painful, and we are those who must take the ultimate responsibility for it:  Yes, it’s going to hurt.  But we’ll get along somehow.  Eva’s use of self-persuasion well fits into counseling standards:  a client comes to a therapist in a state of crises and pain caused by drives that cannot be fulfilled.  Therapist helps the client to realize the real nature of drives and helps to cope with them.  Eva has achieved those goals by an excellent and very honest introspection.

The example quoted refers to experiences of the Polish-American immigrant but has a universal value.  Internal struggles of Eva are typical of numbers of immigrants from various cultural environments, as the following example of Rose, the Chinese client, described by S. Messer shows:

She talks about how she can only curse in English, not Chinese, and that she never confronted her parents or disobeyed them because of her conception of what it was to be a daughter in a Chinese family.  She feels there are two sides of her:  the Chinese side, which is passive, obedient, holds back feeling, and the like, and the “social” side, which can get angry with man because she trusts them more than women.

The fragment quoted clearly shows that in addition to identity crisis, the immigrant has to face at least one more crises:  the value crisis.

Value crisis: The Polish Americans Case Study

In the widest sense it would be a conflict between the European and the American values.  In the more narrow sense, it would be the conflict between the Central European and the American values.  In the most narrow sense, it would be a conflict between the Polish and the American values.  I would like to illustrate it with the example of the typical Polish national slogan “God – Honor – Homeland” which translates into the demand that one should protect his or her homeland; if necessary to fight for her; and if needed, to sacrifice life for her.  As Maria Janion formulated it, from this perspective the homeland appears as a vampire sucking blood of her citizenry.

Another assumption is that those Poles who emigrated are the traitors because they “left” their homeland.  The citizens of Switzerland or France can choose to live in Canada or the US, a Pole, according to this system of thinking: cannot.

Let me add one more, stress causing feature, typical of the Polish American immigrants, namely the question that has to be often confronted by them:  “what did you do for Poland?” and the presumption is that the emigrant has stopped “doing things for Poland” in the day when he or she left her.

More trivial example can be taken from the field of Holiday’s celebration, especially Christmas.  The difference between Polish and American ways is that the Americans anticipate this holiday, and the Poles commemorate it.  In other words, in this country the Christmas tree is decorated in early December and thrown out just after December 25, and the Polish tradition is to decorate the tree on Christmas Day and to keep it almost to the end of the January.

The typical immigrant would have a tendency to follow traditions, which were brought from his or her homeland, unless children start to demand adjustment to it.  The pressure comes from them comes, to adjust the time of decoration of the tree to the habits of the American, neighboring houses.

I would say that the Polish adaptation to the U.S. could be measured by the progress in the number of days before Christmas that the Polish immigrant agrees to decorate the tree.

All the presented above characteristics may lead to guilty feeling which when added to the identity confusion, does not help the immigrant in process of assimilation to the new environment.

The third crises is the communication crisis

I participated in a conference on Polish affairs.  The conference was conducted in English.  When the floor was open for comments from the audience, a man stood up and said in English that according to his wife, when he speaks Polish, he sounds like a bright, eloquent, highly educated gentleman; while when he speaks English, he creates an impression of rather primitive and ignorant person.  The rest of the comments by this Polish-American businessman were delivered in Polish.

One of my Jewish American friends told me a story about her and her sister who emigrated from Poland in the 60’s to the US and to Israel.  One of the sisters learned English but did not know Hebrew, another one learned Hebrew but had no chance to study English.  Thirty years has passed and the sisters are still using Polish in their correspondence.

The Croatian born American psychotherapist reported to me that she had a significant number of Polish-American clients.  “Do you speak Polish?” – I asked her. “No” – she answered, “My clients talk to me in English.  But they feel that I understand what they are talking about, because I am from Europe.”

To understand and to be understood are two prerequisites of communication.  Without knowledge of language the immigrants are sentenced to isolation in their ethnic ghetto.  Language, which is not understood, may become a significant source of frustration or even may lead to mental dysfunction. No wonder that the immigrants are between two groups of population, which are characterized by the highest risk of developing paranoia.  The second group is the hearing-impaired people.

Of course the successful communication requires much more than the knowledge of language.  The immigrant who is willing to assimilate has to not only learn the language but also adjust his perception of reality according to the new language.  To do it, he has to change the habits of his heart.

Process of assimilation in the new environment is of complex character and is a reflection of the relation between the new HERE and NOW and the old one.  Or it is the relation between the two factors:  Assimilation and Ethnic Identity.

Assimilation and Ethnic Identity

I would like to focus now on relation between Assimilation and Ethnic Identity.  Let us consider the following model based on two-dimensional model of acculturation of Berry (1980):




They present a negative view of own culture, attempt to assimilate at any price, use of English (even broken) at home with elimination of native language.  They attempt to minimize the influence of the ethnic culture and customs, and to live according to the pattern:


(It is not the best model, because for creative, imaginative and productive life we need not only wings but also roots)




They present a positive view of majority culture and respect for own culture.  They represent so called “Third Value” that is a combination of the best of the two.  The live their lives according to the pattern:


I-HERE enriched by THERE-

NOW enriched by BEFORE

(We might say that those persons are equipped in both: roots and wings)





They hold a negative view of both:  majority culture and own culture.  For those immigrants the old was lost, but the new was not found.  Using the example of Polish-Americans we could say that they forgot Polish language but did not learn English.


M. Schlottmann aptly described “the marginal man” who “stands on the edge of two worlds:  [and is] a part of both, but a partner in neither, a man caught between two cultures, two languages and feeling at home in neither.”

They live according to the pattern:

(Not)I – Not HERE/THERE –




Those persons are obedient to own customs, traditions, and have a negative view of new, majority culture.  The Amish people belong to this category.



Among the four presented models there is only one optimal.  The immigrants need professional, psychological help in recognizing the options that they have.

I am convinced that there is as urgent need for counseling services for immigrants.  It is a vital American interest to address this need and to help immigrants to become satisfied, successful and productive American citizens.

Counseling Services for Immigrants: How to Help in Adjustment to the New Country?

One of the most important things in educating prospective immigrant clients is to make them aware that the disintegrative process in which the immigrant experiences crises in self-perception, communication and systems of value is inevitable and normal, expected, and perfectly OK.

In the second stage of the prospective therapy, an attempt should be made to turn the disintegration into a positive track.  Polish psychologist, K. Dabrowski formulated the theory of “positive disintegration” in which he stated that disintegrative processes are painful but necessary steps in achieving higher level of self-realization.  One has to squat if he wants to jump higher.

For the immigrants from East Central Europe it should mean that in their second life (this is what experiencing of emigration is about) they should instead of dropping their unique ways of acting, feeling and understanding, just modify them, keeping them alive but within the new framework.  In this way certain specific psychological features of the East Central European immigrants like tendency to revolt, the use of extra-systemic way of thinking, or abilities to survive in difficult and hostile environment could be turn to the advantage of these people.

Which schools in psychotherapy seem to be the most useful here?  I believe that the Adlerian school of individual psychology in which he stresses the need of becoming all what we can become, and striving for the most we can be, rather that striving for being “normal”, would be a useful inspiration for the counselors dealing with the immigrant population.  According to Adler, every person wants to grow, expand, reach beyond horizon, above average, normal range, and for immigrant it is quite attainable.  What’s more, the immigrants seem to be especially predestined to such experience.  Why?  Because the immigrant who really wants to survive in the new environment, is simply forced to do it .

Another inspiring element that could be used in counseling services for immigrants could be the Yalom existential school with the following

1.  Recognizing that life is at times unfair and unjust

2.  Recognizing that ultimately there is no escape from some of life’s pain  (…)

3.  Learning that I must take ultimate responsibility for the way I live my life no matter how much guidance and support I get from others.

The immigrant is in position to fully experience existential challenges presented by life.  A counselor should make their clients aware that those challenges are not disadvantages but their chances.

About Janusz Wrobel

Janusz Wróbel - praktykujący psychoterapeuta, nauczyciel akademicki. Żonaty, pięcioro dzieci. Autor książek "Contact" ( i "Language and Schizophrenia" oraz tomiku wierszy "Cztery pory tutaj” ( Janusz Wróbel - college professor, licensed counselor and psychotherapist, who currently maintains a private practice, "Balance and Harmony." Married with five children. Author of the books "Contact" ( and „Language and Schizophrenia” (
This entry was posted in Janusz Wrobel, Psychologia, Szczescie and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Immigrant’s Adjustment Experience

  1. Well says:

    I’m 1.5 too. My parents are from Philippines and we iitegrammd to the US before my 5th birthday. They supposedly spoke Tagalog, English, and Spanish when I was a baby. But I remember going to ESL classes in the 1st grade. I went to pre-school in the Philippines but skipped kindergarten because we were moving around, my father was in the military and we moved around from LA to Florida to relatives in LA before finally settling down.My parents forced me to speak Tagalog at home and I remember hating it, but I’m really glad they did.

Leave a Reply