SHIFT: Do newcomers have a 'happiness advantage'?

When a man told my dad to go back where he came from, I saw the fatigue of immigrant life on my dad's face.

Lisa Machado 8 minute read August 3, 2021

Stan Machado in his happy place. SUPPLIED

My dad always had “home” shoes and “outside” shoes.

His home shoes could be anything from brown sandals (with socks) to worn runners. The sandals were for picking vegetables in his massive garden and the runners for mowing the lawn, climbing ladders and trimming the shrubs that stretched around our backyard. His outside shoes were always clean and polished, saved for “special” situations like work, dinner parties and church.

We lived in a nice enough neighbourhood where everyone was from somewhere else. Most families were Italian, but the couple to the right of us was from Russia and, down the road lived two Jamaican families. We were known as the Guyanese from South America.

The kid who lived across the street was Italian, “from beautiful Sicily,” his dad would say. His dad was bald with biceps and a round belly. Every morning, he climbed into a banged-up white van wearing a clean, white, sleeveless undershirt, loose paint-covered jeans and yellow construction boots with dry cement stuck in between the laces.

All the families on our street had a “nice” room — the one reserved only for guests. Ours was on the left side as soon as you walked into our house. The sofa was soft and smooth covered in a furry yellow fabric, with thick armrests and curvy wooden legs. The Italian family saved the entire top floor of their house for guests, with colourful sofas tightly covered in smooth plastic, and a bumpy brown leather runner on the floor that they would roll up and put away when they entertained.

They cooked all of their meals in a small kitchen in the basement — me and the other neighbourhood kids would lie on our stomachs on the cement outside of the tiny window above their kitchen sink, our faces pressed against the screen, whispering to our friend to hurry up and finish his dinner so he could come out and play.

The adults on our street were aways working — except on Sunday, which was considered a day of rest. And while they never really got together the way parents do in the neighbourhood where I live now — with BBQs and wine nights — they talked a lot, over backyard fences, or yelling from porch to porch, consulting on the latest plumbing issue or car problem.

Often, conversations would veer into home country territory, criticizing corrupt governments and sharing stories of what was happening “back home.” Sometimes, there would be a glimmer of longing and sadness — not a desire to be back where they came from exactly, but more like a wish that things weren’t so hard in this new place.


None of us had luxury vacations, or owned cottages — there wasn’t a lot of money for that. After all, there were the immigrant goals: mortgages to pay off and kids who needed a good education so they could have a better life. There were other things too that weren’t considered worthy of spending hard-earned money on: Oreos, Levi’s jeans, Roots sweatshirts. But man, how all of us kids wanted those things. When my mom told me years later that she would ask my Canadian friend’s mom to cut the designer labels off of her kids’ clothes so she could sew them into ours so we didn’t know they came from the discount store Bargain Harolds, I almost cried.

Certainly, it isn’t easy to be an immigrant.

Canadian winters are long and harsh and the city is concrete and cold, especially for those who grew up in tropical temperatures close to large bodies of water, like my mom and dad. Once he became established in his career as an engineer, my dad made sure that we spent some time every year somewhere warm and near an ocean — he’d swim out until we couldn’t see his bobbing head anymore. It was not extravagant, but those Florida vacations are some of my best memories.

When I was fourteen, we left that small immigrant suburb and moved a little further east to a yellow house with a huge lot — my mom called it her dream home. At the end of a long day of work and an evening tending to the yard, my dad would sit down to watch the news and joke that we had finally “arrived.”

We hadn’t been there long before I began to realize that in addition to their “home” and “outside” shoes, my parents also had “home” and “outside” food, and a “home” and “outside” style of speaking. When he was home, my father enjoyed spicy, fragrant curries and homemade roti, stews with chicken feet and cassava bread for lunch, but he brought ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread to work. My mom’s island accent was barely perceptible when she called our family doctor or asked the neighbours about the garbage collection schedule, yet at home — or in a Caribbean food store when she asked about the freshness of the plantain or salt fish — her English was accented and fast. The day the large man who lived beside us leaned over the fence that separated our houses and called my father a foreigner and told him to go back where he came from was the first time I noticed the fatigue of immigrant life on my dad’s face.

I never knew if he was more angry at what the man said, or the fact that I was there to hear it, but that night at dinner he began sharing stories with my brother and I about how difficult it had been to get a recent promotion at work, despite being the most qualified. Detecting an accent, his boss had asked him where he was from and then said that he “didn’t know that there were white people in Guyana.” He talked about his Asian desk mate who was advised not to bring “stinky” food for lunch and the company’s parking attendant who repeatedly pronounced our last name wrong, despite being corrected every day for more than five years. Still, he said he was grateful to be living in Canada.

Once, a cousin came to visit from Guyana and we thought it was funny how serious he was when he talked about the streets being paved with gold. It wasn’t just a saying for him — he really did have a grand vision of life in Canada as full of ease and prosperity. I was reminded of this years later when my post-colonial literature professor wrote this quote on the chalkboard: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.”

People leave their countries for lots of reasons, one of the most common being to seek a better life. According to the Cato Institute 2021 Immigration and Identity National Survey, more than half of first- and second-generation immigrants to the United States said economic gain was the main reason that they or their parents left their home country. This was the case for my parents as well, but they were also seeking safety — their village had been plagued by terrifying rioting and looting, they had seen friends and family brutally killed, and they barely had food to eat.

It makes sense, then, that my dad said he was happy, despite the systemic racism and hate he came across every day just for speaking differently and having a last name people stumbled on. Many immigrants would say the same.

Arthur C. Brooks writes in The Atlantic that immigrants actually have a “happiness advantage” — one study showed more than 7,000 immigrants to the U.S. over age 60 were generally happier than U.S.-born people of the same age. One reason for this, according to Brooks, who hosts the podcast The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks, is the link between immigrants and entrepreneurial spirit. Immigrants live “start-up lives,” Brooks writes: “They put social, religious, and linguistic capital at risk; they act out of faith in themselves and their future; they pursue outstanding returns, denominated in money or not.”

And there’s an important flip side to the happy immigrant, he says — newcomers are also good for everyone else. “The research is conclusive that societies that are open and welcoming to immigrants experience large happiness gains when they come, while societies with negative attitudes about immigration experience declines in average well-being when immigration rises,” he writes.

And yet, we continue to dislike immigrants, who are often “denigrated for political ends,” and seen as “interlopers,” according to Brooks. If my dad were alive, I think he would be disappointed to see that not much has changed in terms of how newcomers are perceived since he first set foot on Canadian soil. But he would also agree wholeheartedly with Brooks’ assessment of immigrants and all they bring to their new home.

“Immigrants are a model for how all of us can live without accepting our status quo, how the circumstances of our birth do not necessarily confine us,” he writes. “That is worthy not just of grudging acceptance, but of admiration and gratitude.”

This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.