Lillian Alling and the immigrant experience

The Vancouver Opera has just concluded a run of 4 performances of Lillian Alling, a new opera by John Estacio and John Murrell based on a true story. Lillian Alling was allegedly a Russian immigrant who arrived on Ellis Island sometime in the 1920s and travelled across the continent, mostly on foot, with the stated intention to return to Russia via Alaska and Siberia. In 1927, she was arrested for vagrancy and possession of an unlicensed gun and sent to prison in present-day Burnaby. She then continued her journey to northern British Columbia and may have reached Alaska; her ultimate fate is unknown. The writers took more than a little bit of creative license with this material, inventing a fictional backstory for Alling and an ending with a twist.

This is the second new opera that the Vancouver Opera staged this year, after Nixon in China, which I have also seen. Nixon was an unqualified masterpiece. It had the larger than-life theme, the grandeur, the mystery. The score moved back and forth between soaring Philip Glass-like orchestral pieces and sonic dissonances reminiscent of experimental jazz. The libretto… forget everything you’ve heard about opera librettos being silly and disposable. It was brilliant, poignant, poetic. The breathtakingly choreographed scenes, and especially the theatre performance within the opera, will remain with me for a long time.

You can probably see where this is going. Lillian Alling didn’t even come close. Musically, it was far more conventional, entertaining enough but not that memorable. The story didn’t necessarily benefit from the rewrite, either. The real-life Alling must have been a fascinating character, a woman travelling alone through any number of rough places. I would imagine her like Sharon Stone in The Quick And The Dead, determined and resourceful; there’s even a vague physical resemblance. I don’t know whether I would have identified with her, but I think I would have admired her at the very least. Alling the opera character is inconsistent: somewhat silly at first, then sympathetic once her true motives are revealed in the second act, then… then she does something far too naive for a woman who’d grown up in Russia, not exactly a kinder, gentler place, and then crossed the continent on foot. Give me Sharon Stone any time.

I’ve been asked whether I could identify or connect with Alling’s “immigrant experience” as presented in the opera. The answer is no. Here’s her immigration experience in a nutshell: her English gets mocked a few times early on (all good-natured, of course), then during her journey she takes a moment now and then to look around and exclaim that this land is so wide (or so peaceful, or whatever) – and that’s all. We’re given to understand that within a few years nobody will be able to tell her from an honest-to-goodness Anglo-Saxon Canadian. That’s par for the course in opera where realism isn’t anyone’s top priority and characters are supposed to be drawn with wide brushstrokes. But I can no more identify with her character than I would with a recycled Christmas gift of someone else’s Mary Sue.

Here’s why most stereotypical immigrant stories fail as far as I’m concerned. Their immigrant characters don’t get to evolve. They’re defined forever by their relation to their home country: they might be pining for it day and night, or else there may have been a Major Traumatic Event in their past that they will never forget. Or something. They move like ghosts through life in their new country, never really affected by it, not learning from it, unchanged as people. Lillian Alling is actually better than average in this respect just because it ends with a well adjusted and fully assimilated Alling. Still, there’s no continuous path from here to there. Apparently she just kind of willed herself that way.

This leaves out everything that I’m interested in: the learning process, the changes that immersion in a different society forces on us, the mistakes we make as we try to adapt, the pushback when we try to fit in, the scorn when we don’t, the understanding when we screw up. The sets of behaviours that served us well back there might not be welcome here. The points of view we once held might no longer be defensible when confronted with the new reality. Our goal posts shift when we discover how much more we can accomplish in the new circumstances, then shift again as we bump into social constraints we hadn’t been aware of. That experience is not necessarily unique to immigrants, either. There are enough cultural differences in other contexts, race and class for example. (See here and here as well.)

According to the opera, Alling was able to conceal her immigrant background completely within a few years of arrival. If only it were so easy. The reality is that Eastern European accents are particularly difficult to lose, especially for adults past the age of 20. Speech therapists and professional voice coaches aren’t cheap, and the work takes a lot of time and dedicated practice. 21 years down the road, I still have to field inquiries from random strangers who need to know “where I’m from” and won’t give up when I skirt the question because evidently this is a really crucial piece of information that they can’t do without.

The immigrant experience is not a short-term adventure. It’s much more mundane and it drags on for far too long. At this point in my life, it’s mostly the misunderstandings and uncomfortable conversations that never really go away. Of course in my first several years here I had other concerns, what with living on a small stipend with no family around and no safety net. I’ll tell you about basement apartments in Toronto sometime. But we can leave the material hardship for later, and in any case I was no worse off here than I had been in Poland. Right now I feel more like talking about the comedy of errors when people try to relate to my experience, or when I try to explain it to them, and despite everyone’s best intentions we only end up annoying each other instead of actually communicating on some meaningful level.

It might be the person next to me on a plane who had travelled to Eastern Europe at some point, loved the old architecture and the tourist attractions, and is excited to talk to someone else who must have seen all those gorgeous things. The trouble is, I have not seen them. I’ve only been to Warsaw a few times, have a vague memory of spending an afternoon in Cracow as a little kid, and I’ve never been to Wieliczka. I’ve never been to Prague or Budapest, either. If I grew up in Poland in conditions that would normally be associated with poverty on this side of the pond, and you went there on a bus tour, that’s hardly a commonality. It’s a difference.

There’s the guy I met at a cocktail party who kept asking me for a short, one-sentence description of life in the then-socialist Poland. He explained that a Polish acquaintance from a long time ago gave him just such a description, and he was curious to see if mine would match it. How does one condense 23 years of one’s life, including childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, along with a complicated political and social reality, into a single sentence? I didn’t know, nor did I really want to try. He insisted for a while, but eventually gave up and told me solemnly what his acquaintance had said – that it was life under occupation.

Well, it was. Among many other things. As a matter of fact, there was a large contingent of Russian troops stationed in my home town of Legnica. We’d sometimes sneak in to buy groceries at the “Russki shop” a few blocks from my parents’ home. But if that’s the sort of answer you expect, then why is it a good topic for small talk between strangers at a cocktail party?

This doesn’t happen much among the academics, where everyone moves around a lot and there’s nothing unusual about having an immigrant background. But outside the academia, I wish I could just blend in like Alling’s character. I wish I could join a dinnertime conversation without having to worry that everyone around the table will abandon the topic and start asking me instead where exactly in Poland I was born and how often I visit my family. That’s how adults behave around children. I’m finding it particularly annoying because…

Because I gave everyone plenty of reasons to act just like that around me in my first few years in Canada. I was a literate, educated twenty-something, and all of a sudden I could not speak or write beyond grade school level. I wouldn’t have been able to follow a normal dinnertime conversation between adults, much less participate in it. It wasn’t pretty.

There were specific incidents when I misunderstood a word or phrase. On my first midterm in Canada, I didn’t even attempt to solve the bonus question because I didn’t know what “bonus” meant. When my landlady left a package on the porch “for pickup by” a friend, I didn’t know what that meant, either, so I took the package back inside the house. Then there were the times when I must have misunderstood something quite horribly or said something awful, judging from the reactions I got, and I never found out what it was. Grammar and vocabulary can be easier to learn than tone, context and social conventions.

But that was 20 years ago, maybe 15. Then it got better. Then it got better again. And again. I think I can converse with adults reasonably well by now. Ironically, the one subject that I often find hard to talk about is life in Poland. I remember well enough my own personal circumstances, the general quality of life, the major political events. But if you asked me for any deeper sociological or political analysis, I’m not sure that I could do it, at least not based on first-hand knowledge. My memories of Poland are those of a young and immature person. I left before I became capable of thinking about history, sociology, politics or religion on a level that I would now want to bring to any such discussion, or of observing the life around me accordingly. I can’t, in my forties, just parrot the views and opinions of the adolescent I once was.

I suppose I could read up on it now, teach myself Polish history and sociology on a deeper level. I’ve done some of it already. But, guess what? I’m here now. I have a job to do and a life to live, and they demand my full engagement. They have to come first. And at the end of the day I’m usually too tired anyway to try to explain Polish politics or history to someone completely unfamiliar with it. I’d rather just have a beer, complain about the rain and chat about local events like any normal Vancouverite.

No, I don’t expect that all this could or should be included in an opera. And you should not expect me to identify with an opera character, either.


Filed under life in general, music

3 responses to “Lillian Alling and the immigrant experience

  1. Hi Izabella,

    Thank you so much for coming to the world premiere of Lillian Alling and for your thoughts on the opera. Happy to hear that you enjoyed Nixon in China too.

    We look forward to seeing you again at the next opera.

    All the best,

    Ling Chan, Social Media Manager
    Vancouver Opera

  2. You’re welcome, Ling! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Marcin


    I enjoy all your posts… and I enjoyed this one particularly. My trajectory bears some similarities to yours (academic, ex-PRL, etc.), and I, too, get frustrated with the “I detect a hint of an accent” conversation openers. I know the interlocutor means well and is just trying to show some genuine interest, and for this I should be grateful. But it’s a question that, after 20+ years, I am just tired of hearing. What pops into my mind is “gosh, doesn’t he/she get tired of asking the same thing over and over again?” even though I know that that particular stranger has never asked me that particular question before. Questions about the weather are a lot more enjoyable, since the weather at least is variable, allowing me to vary my answers without having to make stuff up.

    As always, looking forward to your next post.