Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A poignant short film from 1957 captures the timeless experience of new immigrants.
My father had been living in Dallas for several months before my mom, little brother, and I came from New Delhi to live with him. I was in elementary school at the time, and America was like Disneyland for me. My brother and I would stand in front of automated doors and pretended that we were controlling them using The Force (which, admittedly, was pretty strong in us at the time). Grocery stores were full of light, jaunty employees, and brightly-colored packages of exotic delicacies, like chicken nuggets. My brother was obsessed with vending machines, which to him, were just another type of arcade game. And small, mundane aspects of our environment were luxurious: the fact that swimming pools came with apartments, or that apartments came with wall-to-wall carpet blew our little minds.
My mother was experiencing a more muted version of the same kind of wonder. But at the same time, she was intimidated. In India, she had a medical practice, a driver’s license, and a knowledge of how everything worked. In America, she missed the confidence that comes from being familiar with a place. She missed the control.
That complex mix of emotions is at the heart of every new immigrant’s experience, and is perfectly captured by a Canadian short film from 1957 called Arrival.
The film follows Louisa, a young Italian woman who has just moved to a big Canadian city where her husband, Mario, has been working for two years. At a time when more people are living in countries different from the ones they were born in than ever before, the journey of Louisa’s family in this 1957 film is particularly relevant.
“This new world—every sound, every sight, so strange,” she says to herself when she arrives at their new apartment. “I was happy to to be with Mario again. But in my heart, I was afraid and lonesome for all the things I had left behind.”
To Louisa, the buildings in this new city are too angular and cold, and the sky is too grey. She gets overwhelmed at the grocery store. “How do you like it?” Mario asks her as they walk through the aisles. “It’s big,” she replies, nervously. Later, when a chatty neighbor mistakes her lack of language proficiency for snootiness, she becomes distraught. She’s longs for the sunny familiarity of the Italian streets and for the laughter of friends she can understand; for home.
Except, Canada is their new home. Here, Mario can provide for his family; he can make sure his young son, Silvio, isn’t stuck doing the same laborious work as him when he gets older. This unfamiliar city gives his family a chance to attain a familiar, universal goal: a better life. And that means suffering the pain of leaving things, and people, behind. Louisa ultimately comes around to that idea, but only when she finally sees herself as a part of this strange new world, instead of a visitor in it. And when others in her new home see her the same way.