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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Immigrant Rage

There is one thing that consistently irritates me in almost every book I’ve ever read by an Anglo-Saxon who took up residence in France;  they write adventure tales about how they discovered the quaint and exotic natives and their strange customs.  
These books bother me for two reasons:
  • They reinforce positive but limiting stereotypes about the French.  
  • They never talk about the dark side - the long struggle toward some level of assimilation - that has you crying in your kitchen and swearing that you will be on the next plane out in the morning.
France is a country with nuclear technology (this includes nuclear submarines) and a highly developed, high-speed transportation system and is home to multi-national corporations in the areas of environmental services and software development.  If I were asked (and I am asked often) to characterize the French I would say:  quick, smart, and creative with a streak of perverse cruelty toward each other and strangers (it’s called ‘bizutage’) 
The culture is implicit which means you have a lot to learn before you can function.  The bizarre twist is that no one will explain the rules to you - figuring it out on your own is a test of your intelligence. It is a negative feedback system;  you don’t know that you’ve done something wrong until someone angrily points out your error.  
All this can lead to a state that Eva Hoffman called “immigrant rage” against the culture you find yourself swimming in. This is the dark side of assimilation.  It’s a state of high sensitivity where any innocuous statement can set you off.  You feel fragmented and lost  when all you really want is to feel “normal”.  From Lost in Translation:
“I don’t want to be told that ‘exotic is erotic’ or that I have Eastern European intensity or brooding Galician eyes.  I no longer want to be propelled by immigrant chutzpah or desperado energy or usurper’s ambition.  I no longer want to have the prickly, unrelenting consciousness that I am living in a specific culture.  It’s time to roll down the scrim and see the world directly, as the world.  I want to reenter, through whatever Looking Glass will take me there, a state of ordinary reality.”
For me I passed through the Looking Glass one day after I had dropped the girls off at nursery school and I was riding the bus to work in Nanterre.  I looked around me and saw the ados in black going to school, the old ladies in their fur coats and funny hats, and the North Africans chatting in a mix of Arabic and French and realized that I wasn’t afraid or anxious or angry.  They weren’t foreign to my anymore and I wasn’t out of place.  This world had become my new normal, my state of ordinary reality.


Unknown said...

I once read that the body cells change every 3 years. After 6 years living in Germany, they have changed twice. So I think after 3 years atmost, you belong to the Land you're living in. Your body cells are built with the materials and air from that land. There's also an old arabic proverb that say. If you live with a tribe 40 days you become one of them.
But the thing is that the mind is sometimes slower than the body in chaging. if the cultures are too different, you notice more the differences than the similarities. on the other hand you become very sensitive and suceptible when you change the environnment, you may think that the fact of being different is the main reason why the poeple behave in a way or another. One needs to be as extraverted as possible, which i'm not. So i had to compense that lack of openess with an ongoing analysis of my feelings and the reactions of others, and trying to rationalize and relativize everything.
Still i think that the most important thing is the language. the more you dominate it, the more you understand the people right...

Unknown said...

Lost in translation:

6 years ago, i had to travel to Germany to participate in a training programm in R&D and engineering. there were very few volunteers because the whole programme is taught in German. I applied and I got the assignment. so i had to begin by learning german from scratch. I went then to the Goethe Institut. After 3 months i knew almost everything about german grammar and enough words to express some simple sentences. I thought then that I was fit for Germany and that I would interact with poeple and make new freinds etc..
I flew to Germany the 5th Januar, i don't if you imagine the huge difference in weather condition at thos period of the year between morocco and germany. i was litteraly depressed when i arrived in Cologne. it was only 5 pm, and already it was nighttime. the trees had no leaves, and it was cold , very cold, it was polar cold for an north african like me. and the most terrible thing was that i didnt undestand a single word from german people, and my belief that i was ok in german was destroyed. i spent the first 40 days completly off. i looked like an idiot. the poeple treated me like an idiot because i didnt understand a thing. a this time of my life, i realised how important the language is. before that i took it for granted. but its not. if you dont dominate the language youre an idiot in the eyes of other, i then realized, why are poeple in my coreated like country treated like idiots, and behave like idiots, because simply they dont dominate the business education and administrative language which is french....why french?? that's another story

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi, Med. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your experiences in Germany.

I think you're right and it takes about 3 years to start to feel at home and the mind is slower than the body.

I' not sure that being extroverted is better. I think people like you who prefer to observe and analyze may be slower in the beginning but in the long run they end up with a deeper and better understanding of the host culture.


Victoria FERAUGE said...

Med, I understand exactly what you mean about feeling and being treated like an idiot because you have an imperfect mastery of the language. There were times when I first moved to France when I wanted to shout that in my own country and my own language I was perfectly competent. Just because I was slow to produce a grammatically correct sentence in French did not mean that I was slow mentally.

So, why French? (I just have to ask :-)

Unknown said...

why french? it's a long story that begins with the french protectorat on morocco, which is a kind of colonisation. meaning, they kept the king, but they actually ruled the country. objectivly, colonisation of morocco had bad and good consequences. i can't mention alla of them in a little post. but certainly France did modernize the country. in 1956 Morocco got his independence. The Moroccan administration kept the french system which you critisize in some of your posts :) the administration and the business language is french, the education system is Hybird, arabic and french, it begins with arabic and switches to french as far as you go in the education system. i don't have anything against french which is a beuatiful language, but imagine this situation:
an average moroccan child is born in an average family, he speak moroccan dialect which is derived from arabic, or berber or both, these are actually the mother tongue of ours. then at the age of 7, you go to school, you start to learn classical arabic which is a very structured language. after 2 years u start to learn french as a "foreign language". in primary and high school, the scientific classes are in arabic, and in college it switches to french, and after that at work it's mostly french in written and a mix of arabic and french in conversations, what u already noticed. the problem is that mastering french is a condition for a successful profesional life. good education in french is not available for all.
in my opinion, this ambiguity, dichotom, schizophrenical situation is one of the reasons why wo don't develop as fast as we want to. and that we're as innovative as we should be. compare us to a spanish or french american ....the mother tongue is the education language is the work language is the TV language ...ou may say speaking many languages is richness, which is true, but one should have a strong language as a reference. because language is the tool of thinking

Victoria FERAUGE said...

When I arrived I was amazed by the fact that nearly everyone spoke French. Now I understand why. History makes for interesting cultural combinations. What you describe sounds similar to what my friends there said about India. A child starts life with a regional dialect, learns a national language in school and then English. (I invite my Indian readers to correct me if I have misunderstood this). My impression was, that for really good jobs in India, English was a requirement. And this was a result of colonialism which, as you point out so well, can be good/bad depending on the situation.

i see what you mean about having one dominant language to think in. This is actually a very controversial topic amongst linguists. i think it's called the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis and it's been under attack. In my own experience I think there is something to it but it is contextual. For subjects and contexts I learned prior to moving to France, English is easier and My thoughts flow more easily. For subjects and contexts that I experienced in France and in French, the French is more fluid. Anything having to do with IT, for example, is always better in French. When I examine technology issues my head wants to use French.

Unknown said...

When you describe French people as creative with a streak of perverse cruelty toward each other and strangers (it’s called ‘bizutage’), you’re totally right !
Actually, the perverse behavior is everywhere around us here. We have been raised with…
In family, at school, on the street, at work, etc…
The scholar system encourages people to be perverse by developing traps questions. You have to develop a perverse mind to prepare you to the perverse questions and getting the best rate.
I’ve experienced in my own country, few times, to be drove at the opposite way that what I’ve asked !
While a person ask to help me when I’m at the corner of a street with a map in my hands in San Francisco, New York or Philadelphia.
I’ve never experienced that situation in France, even with a map inside my hands.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hello Pascal,

If you haven't read it already, you might be interested in Pascal Baudry's book, French and Americans: the Other Shore. (The book is on-line for free and is available in French and English). He has an entire chapter on "Criticism". This is what he says:

"The French first notice the negative aspects of any situation. What is wrong with what others
said or wrote? How are they trying to con me? What do they want from me? What am I going to lose? In this context, the American tendency to emphasize the positive is regarded by the French as ridicu-
lously naive."

My Frenchlings are being educated in the French school system and it has been excruciatingly difficult sometimes for me as a mother to watch how my children are being programmed. I love the fact that they are being challenged academically (the standards are very high) but I don't like the methods of control. Public humiliation, cutting remarks, and not a lot of encouragement. Sometimes I feel like the kids have been given an impossible task - they are told to work and strive for perfection but the message is that they will never EVER be good enough. The kids acquire a very tough exterior to cope. Was that your experience, Pascal?

Unknown said...

My Brother in law lives in the USA since 15y, with his wife they have 2 kids. We spoke about the difference between both countries concerning the educational system. The philosophy is really different in the US of America, less courses time, daily sport activities, learning by playing, encouraging by positive critic and many other details…
The cultural system pull-up people to give the best !
A recent (2y ago) psychological study made at an English school shows and demonstrates that positive critic, public best practices, empathic behavior improved the results for a test class. I’ve observed this kind of behavior in France, rarely…
Who knows the sandwich effect ? the +-+ strategy ? This recipe means one positive layer, the negative one and one positive layer to close. Practically, insert a negative remark between two positive ones. The negative message has been sent without creating a frustration and the change is coming soon !
I don’t remember about a big frustration at school, maybe because I was discrete and a good leaner ?! Or because my observation skill was too young ? Or maybe the resilience worked ? Who knows…
Actually, I think I’ve improved my observation when I started to travel in Europe and in the USA for my job and for vacation (comparison). I have spent many months abroad ! As social, cultural, psychological behaviors interested me, it was a good field, isn’t it ?
I knew Pascal Baudry and his wife Nathalie and I’ve downloaded some of their books on the Internet. But I’ve never took the time to read one of them… Shame !

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Read them, Pascal, they are quite amazing. Baudry says (and I believe him) is that he left home to explore another world and he ended up learning the most about his own culture.

I laughed when I read your comment because that is exactly what my Frenchlings say. For them, because they have never known anything else, the French education system is "normal". I see no signs of trauma or angst.

So, I conclude that it is just me projecting my own cultural values here.

But I do sincerely wish (for my own peace of mind) that a synthese were possible. Take the academic rigour of the French system and marry it to the American "you can do it" spirit and then you would have an education system that would shake the world.

CarnetsSeattle said...

Hello Victoria,

As a french person, I totally agree with you, and I kinda resent my own culture about this.

Yes I was never told that it was good enough. Nobody, not even my parents told me what I was doing was good. Even when I was the best, the most as got was: "See, you can do it, now do it all the time".

It was very refreshing to start working in a very positive atmosphere, where there is no problems but only solutions that are yet to be found.

And while I think the american system of telling the kids they are the best (I'm summarizing briefly) is not perfect either (I see a lot of people that are convinced they are absolutely awesome to a point where it is kinda ridiculous), I agree with you that a blend of both educational systems would just rock the world...

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Loic, about the inflated encouragement in the American system. It can be very hard on people to be told, " you can do anything, if you just put your mind to it." This implies that if you fail at something, it's entirely your own fault which may not be true at all.

I was talking to my doctor yesterday. Her daughter is in the same class as my elder at La Bruyère here in Versailles. She said that, since everyone knows that really good students go to Hoche, the kids at La Bruyère (especially the ones in S) are treated like failures. "If you were REALLY good, you would have been accepted to Hoche. Since you're here, you obviously aren't that good..." I wonder how much talent gets wasted (kids just giving up) because of this kind of thing. I also wonder how many of those kids at La Bruyère would be BRILLANT if given some encouragement.