A few years ago here in Japan a friend and I were standing outside a bus stop in Kyoto trying to orient ourselves in order to find the temple we wanted to visit. My friend is a fluent speaker of Japanese and has lived in Japan for over 20 years. A Japanese couple came over and, in English, asked if we needed help. My friend replied in Japanese, but the couple continued to speak English.
Fast forward a few months to another continent where another friend and I were in a restaurant in Paris. We are both fluent French speakers but now matter how many times we replied in French, the French waiter insisted on using English.
Oh, the shame, the horror, of being taken for a tourist.
These may appear to be trivial examples (the native citizens were just trying to be kind and helpful) but the underlying message they convey is not trivial at all: you are not culturally competent and you are not one of us.
Some might say that the problem is our attitude. Shrug it off, let it go, focus on the intention and not on the personal feelings it provokes. There is some merit to that. A migrant cannot spend her life in a state of anger and resentment if she is to stay sane and find happiness in her host country.
Nonetheless, it's asking a lot to accept it for 10, 20, 30 years. Attitudes are followed by actions with real consequences: not being able to rent an apartment just anywhere you like or not getting a raise because, well, you should be grateful we hired you at all given that you are a foreign woman with a family. To ask a person who experiences these things to just swallow it and move on is to ask us to be saints. (For the record, I didn't take it; I quit.)
With time and experience I've come to see such things in a broader perspective. These interactions (the trivial and the not so trivial) are negotiations. We, the long-term residents are asserting our right to belong to the society in which we live. We use the language, know the culture, own property, marry nationals and raise our children in the host country. These things, we say, show a desire to belong and give us a moral claim to acceptance in the societal waters in which we swim.
For many of us who come from countries of immigration that is the way it works back in the home country (or is supposed to work). Integration is not necessarily easy but as Milton Gordon said of America a person is said to be integrated once he can "get along in the country." He can speak the language and do the day to day things required of everyone. And it's OK if he wants to belong to the Sons of Norway club and speak Norwegian at home. This is not to say that integration works perfectly in the US or any other country of immigration, but that is more or less how citizens from multicultural countries see the ideal process of integration. If the migrant has the will and makes the effort, all will be well.
Not all countries see it that way. True belonging in some places is based in part on what Clifford Geertz called "primordial ties." It's not so much about how many years you've been in a country, but how many generations. It's not the fact that you've mastered the language and cultures, it's the fact that you had to learn what a child born in this society learned far earlier than you and from her parents and local schools no less. It's not that you look different (there are differences in phenotypes in all societies) but that you are different in a particular way (you are a European or African in Asia or an Asian in Africa or the Middle East) and it's easy for native citizens to point a finger and say, "Aha! Not from here."
This is frustrating for those who come from countries of immigration because the answer to "What does it take to belong here?" is a shrug and a "Well, nothing. And why is that a problem? You chose to come here, and if you don't like it you can go home." That's a pretty cruel response. Leaving the country can mean leaving minor children behind or a spouse or a business. These may not be "primordial ties" but they are important connections, maybe the most important connections in a person's life. To ask someone to cast those off is, in my view, unrealistic and immoral. That's not a fair choice that anyone should be coerced into making.
I have seen different reactions in France and Japan to this. They range from: a denial that there are any barriers to belonging at all; a weary acceptance that this is just the way things are; or assertions of belonging in the face of every perceived attempt small or large to deny it.
I don't have an answer for which strategy is the most successful and I certainly won't make any recommendations. What I will say is that I dislike intensely efforts by migrants to put the blame for barriers to belonging back on their fellow migrants. Well, if other migrants behaved better or learned the language more quickly or did this or that, then we would be accepted. It's always those vague "other people," isn't it? This is a very egotistical perspective. It presumes that belonging is all about the individual who has control over what the native citizens think and believe. In my wildest alcoholic-driven dreams I never had the illusion that I could control the feelings of 60+ million Frenchmen and women.
There is no easy answer here. Only the day to day lives of migrants trying to carve a place for themselves in a new land as best they can.