Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Some thoughts about integration

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.

11 comments:

Inaka Nezumi said...

In your Native English Speakers in Japan survey, did you find any interesting correlations between feeling integrated and any of the other characteristics you asked about? I would naively expect, for example, that Japanese fluency would be a necessary, though not necessarily sufficient, condition for feeling integrated. But that might not necessarily be true -- would be interesting if not! Or there might be something else that is highly correlated -- age, years in-country, marital status, gender, something else? Maybe geographical location? (Don't know if you have that data?) Country of origin? (Could reflect different expectations between people from countries of immigration and those not?)

Any magic secrets to happiness found? :)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

That is an excellent question and I am looking into it. Lot of different variables to look at. I will try to make some sense of them.

I really recommend that anyone interested in integration have a peek at Milton Gordon's framework which is classic for a reason. It's damn good. He divides assimilation/integrationb into 7 areas: cultural, structural and so on. Two of his categories have nothing to do with the individual, it's all about acceptance by the host society. So a group isn't really integrated/assimilated until the larger society accepts them and says they are.

And that I think is what migrants (especially ones from North American) find so very hard to accept. The larger society into which you have inserted yourself has the power to look at you and say, "Nope, you don't belong here." Ouch! It's a conversation, a negotiation with the host society that can go on for generations.

And I will say that there was one group that consistently said they felt integrated and at home in Japan with or without fluency: North Americans of Asian descent. Too small a sample I think to draw conclusions but I thought it was interesting.

Anonymous said...

It's so good to hear your voice again, Victoria! Congratulations on finishing your coursework. I so look forward to hearing more of your insights. I am also a Gen-X product of Catholic schools, come from Portland, OR, but have lived over 20 yrs in Germany with my German husband, have German kids...My first job back in the late '80s was teaching English in Japan for three years-- now I teach at a uni and also work with refugees as a volunteer. I feel like everything you say relates to my life and my interests. Thank you!

Sauve said...

Funny you should make this a topic. Yesterday at the store I waited alone in a aisle for someone tall to come along. The items I wanted had been moved to the top shelf and of using my crutch there was not any possible way for me to reach it. I am, after all, only 5 feet tall. When I had entered the store I crossed paths with a black man obviously shopping for someone else because he had a list. This was in the kitchenware section of Auchan in Buchelay. Now, waiting in the aisle, here he came again. So I politely asked for his assistance, in French. He responded in English that he spoke English. I kept on with the French and he kept up with the English. I certainly didn't feel as if he were being judgemental about me. Just a few minutes later our paths met again but this time in fresh vegetable section. He was asking, in very good French, the clerk there for poppy seeds and the clerk had no idea what he was talking about. I did, so I intervened and took him to where that type of seasoning is found. He asked me where I was from and no problem, the States. Then he told me that he was Kenya. He appreciated the opportunity to practice his English with some one who was not upset to be practiced upon.

I've been here nearly 20 years now. I've no intention of moving back to the States ever. I've lived in St.Etienne near Lyon, Limours, in the Taninges, Verville-sur-Mer, and now in Mousseaux sur Seine. We bought a house in here. I feel quite at home as a matter of fact. I invite people over who have spoken English to me and they come. We have tea or coffee and they practice their English while I practice my
practice my French. They become friends over time. I think there are 2 things I have done which makes me happy with the choices I've made. I've never worked in France so that is not a factor which I am sure makes my experience very different from yours. I have gone to school in France, and that was French, not English. I've also turned down every single invitation I get to join some English or American immigrant club including the newest invite in November. It has always struck me that is a dangerous thing to do for an immigrant. How does homesickness ever disappear and when does one join the society they live in when they insist on being a hyphenated person, i.e.: American-French, Mexican-American, etc..

I've worked with immigrants in the USA at my jobs. Many Americans see immigrants only as those working as laborers in the fields but there are a great many in hospital who fill every niche from laboratory to ICU to Surgery. They are a rainbow of qualified education to having only a GED. Before that, I was raised by my Grandparents who had many Mexican Immigrant friends because they lived so close to the border. When I was sent back to my mother I returned to a woman who was so severely handicapped that she couldn't take care of an infant or toddler.

Life for me is fluid with me accepting people for who they are and visa-versa. It has never crossed my mind that a French, Spanish, or Arab person who speaks English to me means to exclude me from their closed circle while I am speaking or attempting to speak their language to them. The result is my experiences are very different than yours. The only problem I've had has been with Americans when I am in America and not all, but enough to make me realize America is becoming a closed-off society. There are Americans who take it as a personal insult to find out I live in France. They are fewer in number than most people who accept me for who I am, but they are very vocal to me about what life choices I've made since moving to France.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Anonymous, Welcome to the Flophouse! I'm so glad you are here and that you enjoy my posts.

Sauve, Good to hear from you! Yes indeed, very different experiences. There is enormous diversity in migrant communities like ours in France and Japan. I wrote a bit about that in my dissertation. In Japan the context is a bit different. Japanese is a very difficult language and if you are white or black the Japanese often start with the assumption that you can't speak Japanese because of the way you look. And imagine if the French you met refused to speak English with you because, well, you're an American or a Brit and can't possibly have mastered the subtleties of the French language? It simply isn't in your genes because you are not French. This happens in Japan. In France, well, it's different but I can attest to having been on the wrong side of the us versus the foreigner a few times.

I don't agree with you about joining migrant associations. Foreigners here do experience prejudice and discrimination. A good example of this is when the university system in Japan started firing "old" Americans and British. Their lack of solidarity and organization, frankly, left them helpless in the face of what was a pretty stunning case of discrimination on the basis of age and national origins. The British in France are helpless in the face of Brexit. Who will represent their interests? Will they have to leave France? The world can change in a heartbeat. I have lived in France long enough to know that there is an us versus foreigners dichotomy. It is softer than it is in Japan but it is still there. I have only to sit at the dinner table with my pretty right-wing French family to learn exactly what they think about migrants and that includes the British in the south of France.

And another reason I disagree with your stand on associations is that here is a chance to HELP. I wish there were more organizations in Japan because this is not an easy culture to learn. France is equally complex. You have integrated in France and so have I but there are others arriving who want to, who need help, and we could ease their way. You have found a good life in France and you could make it possible for others to achieve the same. It is service and that is never a bad thing. My .02.

Laure said...

I'm really happy to read your words again. Always a pleasure and a lot of things to think about. Thank you !

Andrew said...

The host society is as responsible as the newcomer for integration.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Laure, and how delightful to hear from you! Glad to be back and thank you for reading.

Andrew, Yes, it is the responsibility of both to make it happen. Japan really opened my eyes to this. The integration of the Zainichi Koreans, for example, is still in progress in spite of the fact that they are on the 4th generation. :-) My research suggests that it's not much better for the other foreigners. Most (and that includes Americans, Canadians and Europeans) come here on temporary work contracts and Japan didn't expect and didn't want them to stay. The JET program run by the Japanese government actually decided to limit the number of visa renewals for teachers once they discovered that (gasp) some of these teachers were staying on in Japan. In another time and place I think the word for these folks was "guestworkers". :-)

Ellen said...

Hi. Just got back from being tourist - very visibly, a tourist - in Valencia. I'm so happy to see you're coming back to your old output of almost daily postings.
I remember that lunch - speaking English to one another and switching to French when the waiter appeared, only to have him insist on speaking English. In Spain, we were a group of three couples speaking French. Two in the group spoke Spanish well enough to ask questions and get the rest of us through the tapas menus. Waiters spoke in Spanish, or maybe even Valencia dialect (close to, but not, Catalan). Sometimes, when confusion got the better of us, they'd resort to English, but only as a last resort. Once, as we were leaving, one said au revoir. My point is they let us try to muddle or way through in Spanish, happy to make some progress over our four days.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Ellen,

Yes, that lunch (which was delicious by the way) stuck in my memory. And it was so bizarre to have the same thing happen in Japan (and it has happened more than once) when I was out and about with very fluent speakers of Japanese.

Spain is lovely. Sounds like you had a great time. I miss Europe.

Bises. :-)

Oh and tomorrow there will be a new version of the citizenship and international migraiton reading list. :-)

Arun said...

Waiters and other service people in France will, detecting my accent, sometimes respond in English to my French but I don't interpret this as them conveying that I am 'not culturally competent' or 'not one of us'. They're just practicing their English, being polite, or maybe amusing themselves. In the many years of living in France I have never been made to feel like an outsider on the sole account of not having been born and raised French.

Arun