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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Impulse to Conquer

"Yet this writer does not judge MacCannell as intending to encompass all forms of tourism in all ages and societies, but as providing a model for the leading sector of modem Western tourism. that of the middle classes “scouring the world in search of new experience.” This model of the educated classes seeking authenticity “out there” has a historical continuity with the exponents of the leading exploratory urges of the post-Renaissance Western world, who in order to more fully understand the world, bring parts of the experience home to understand it and make it safe-in other words, the impulse to “conquer” the Other, whether it be space, the wilderness. foreignness, the past, and so on. to order, categorize, and consume it, and often to show it off in museums (cf. Graburn 1977a 1982)."

Graburn, N. H. (1983). The anthropology of tourism. Annals of tourism research10(1), 9-33.

Of all the motivations for integration in a host society, the "impulse to conquer" is one that I would like to reject immediately.  It smacks of imperialism. It brings to mind the missionary or the military.  What migrant (or tourist) from the Western world wants to be associated these days with la mission civilisatrice?   The purpose of going abroad is not to change the society in the host country but to be changed by it.

And that is, indeed, what happens.  Living in a new place does provoke profound change as we navigate new waters and learn to live according to different standards. In theory, we are open to this; in practice, many of us come up against aspects of local ways that don't appeal to us at all.  If the local culture and ways, for example, insist that women stay home and care for children, do we change ourselves to conform or do we resist and retain our values that say that women must have a choice in the matter?  And if we resist, can this be construed as a refusal to integrate?  Or worse, can we be accused of attempting to change the society itself?  For as much as we find their ideas threatening, so is the host society threatened by ours.

My sense is that our strategy for deftly avoiding such things is to define integration in a limited way:  learning the language and culture.  This allows us to call ourselves integrated while circumventing the truly dangerous or disconcerting ideas that really would change us in profound ways.  I think that there is an argument here that we are attempting to make the host country culture "safe" for consumption.  Does this strategy work?  Hard to say because as we work to master the minimum, the culture is working on us in subtle ways.  The day I realized that I no longer had the same commitment and understanding of "free speech" was a dark one.  And I'm still not sure how to resolve it.  It remains one of those internal battles between the respective cultures of my home and country.  For the life of me I cannot explain how that happened.

Having defined integration in a very limited way, do we then go out to "conquer" the language and culture?  If "conquer" means to "master for our own purposes" then, yes, I think that's a fair description.

It starts with the Self.  We are learning the culture and language because, ostensibly, it's good for us.  We think of ourselves as better people for being bi-lingual and bi-cultural and we assume that others will think the same.  Not everyone has the opportunity to live or travel abroad and so we must demonstrate that we have not squandered this chance of a lifetime.  Furthermore, language and cultural competence serve two purposes at once:  it confers social capital in the home country and makes it possible for us to find work and make connections in the host country.  It can be a matter of survival because otherwise we are horribly limited in what we can do.  This is cultural capital that we are wise to accumulate because it can be converted to social and economic capital in the home country, and is the lowest threshold for being able to do so many things in the host country.

I find the argument that we are doing this for the native citizens of our host country to be questionable.  We are basically saying that we don't want to be a nuisance and inconvenience them like the terrible tourists that we see gesturing and talking loudly and their native language to the local people.  We are better than that - more considerate - and that gives us the moral high ground over other foreigners be they tourists or new arrivals.  I wouldn't quibble with the argument that it is more convenient for everyone when there is a common language.  That's just common sense.

However, I question how much native citizens really care if  certain categories of migrants master the language and customs or not.  Basic knowledge may suffice or workarounds.  The inconvenience of incomprehensibility is easily overcome with a competent translator or the mastery of a few phrases that cover most common situations.  The baker could care less if you can read Moliere in the original; she just wants a "Bonjour, Madame" plus something that indicates what you want (pointing usually suffices) with a "S'il vous plaĆ®t" tacked on at the end.  As for a deeper conversation, well, the French generally don't like to have long conversations with people they don't know (one exception I have found is the chemo clinic), and perhaps don't wish to know. :-)

We could also consider that mastering a language and culture can sometimes be perceived as a threat by the native citizens.  It blurs the boundaries between "foreign" and "native" making it harder to separate the "us" from the "them".  In places where native citizens view language as somehow connected to biology or birth within a particular language community they may be perturbed by examples of fluent foreigners.  I will never forget the Frenchman I met one day who asked if I had any French blood.  Yes, I replied, in the 16th century some of my ancestors left France for Canada.  Ah, he said, that explains why your French is so good.  I still find that reaction to be amusing.  No, sir/madame, there is no gene for the French, English, Japanese or any other language.  We all start from zero with a general blueprint for any language, though admittedly at different ages.

And, more broadly, integration of the foreign is not always welcome for other reasons.  Where the home culture culture confers prestige in the host country, for example.  In one study I saw of French in the US, they appeared to derive more status by playing up their Frenchness as opposed to becoming more American.  Some Americans were frankly delighted to have an "authentic" French person in their midst and so, on all sides, integrating was not particularly interesting or desirable.  I think something of that sort also applies in Japan where association with North American or European foreigners can confer status on a Japanese or  Japanese institution. But note that this status is contingent on the foreigners remaining foreign and not too deeply integrating into Japanese culture.  For example the Gwen Gallagher case (1997-2008).  An older American who was fired from her position at a Japanese university  the Japanese court determined that she could indeed be fired because (among other reasons): "As the plaintiff has been living in Japan for about 14 years and is also married to a Japanese, she lacks the ability to introduce firsthand foreign culture found overseas, as is required of a teacher of level 3 [classes]."

This is an interesting example of how the "quest for authenticity" goes both ways.  Just as there is the search for the"authentic" French/Japanese/German/Thai experience and people on the part of the migrant/expatriate (who also seeks to master the experience and integrate), so, too, there exists a desire for the "authentic" foreigner defined precisely as someone who has not integrated too much.

That "impulse to conquer," I suggest, is reciprocal with all concerned having interests around integration that are not necessarily compatible. My sense is that the host country society has the greater weight - they define the parameters around integration for their own purposes which will always be more powerful than our intentions. This makes the charge of "imperialism" laughable because we are not as in control of the integration process as we might think, and we change in ways we never imagined. Dare I say that we don't "conquer" a new culture as much as it "conquers" us?

Not a conclusion that I like, mes amis, but one that makes sense to me.  Your thoughts?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Migration Systems

In my migration studies the theory that I liked (loved, actually) the best was migration systems theory.  I thought it captured the complexity and interdependence of migration in a wonderful way and one of my first papers was about the migration system that I thought existed between Quebec and France.

General systems theory goes back to the middle of the 20th century.  Since then it's been applied to a lot of other fields.  It argues that a system is a set of interconnecting elements that create a specific  environment that is much greater than just the sum of its parts.  In 1970 a fellow named Akin Mabogunje  (a Nigerian professor of geography) applied systems theory to internal migration between rural and urban areas.  And then it was applied more broadly to international migration.

What do I like about it?  It's a more holistic approach  In order to understand a migration flow you have to look at the whole picture:  sending AND receiving countries and the links between them be they formal or informal, economic or cultural.  In migration systems theory people are just one element among many others and it's the interaction of the elements and the creation and maintenance of links that make up the system. Furthermore, the history of those connections matter a lot; with Quebec and France I went back 400 years and traced the always evolving links to the present day.  

Evolution is the key word here.  Systems are dynamic in the sense that elements in it change and so do the links.  The demographics of Mexico, for example, or the strained circumstances of Americans on fixed incomes will change the migration system between those two countries.  The thirst for native English speaking teachers in Japan could change as could the number of Anglophones from the US, Canada, or Great Britain with university degrees willing to migrate and provide that service. Culture, science and economic ties matter, too.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans came to France and Germany to study medicine. In 17th century French urban dwellers went to Canada to become farmers. In the 21st century migration system between France and Quebec a common language is still a driver of reciprocal migration between the two - a good example of how migration between two developed countries (sometimes called north-north migration) has elements very similar to migration between developed and less developed countries.  

In 1989 James Fawcett published a very good paper that attempted to define the basic elements of a migration system. He identified four categories of linkages: State to State Relations, Mass Culture Connections, Family/Personal Networks and Migrant Agency Activities. A Mass Culture connection could be a common language or history.  State-to-state relations could be formal agreements to recognize each others professional and academic credentials.  Networks of people are another type of link where, for example, one person migrates because of marriage and other members of the family follow.  The most interesting to me are the Migrant Agency Activities which still exist and not just in the Philippines.  I think many Americans, Canadians and others would be very surprised to learn that Japanese companies in the education industry have a presence in countries outside of Japan and recruit young college graduates in major cities.  ECC. a language school in Japan is actively recruiting now in Australia, Canada, the US, and the UK. This is an important, though often overlooked, migrant recruitment that is very active and drives temporary and permanent migration from Anglophone countries to Japan.  

I find that migration systems theory a very elegant and comprehensive way of looking at migration flows.  For instance, with a systems approach to migration between the US and Mexico would look at all the links between the two and what is happening in Mexico is just as important as what is happening in the US.  It would consider how the flows are reciprocal:  Americans migrating to Mexico, for example, as well as Mexican nationals coming to the US.  These flow are not disconnected from each other or from the other cultural or economic links. With that in mind, many migration flows look more like an exchange of people as opposed to a unilateral exodus.  Granted, one flow may be numerically greater than the other but they are still linked and in very interesting ways.

On a personal level all of us who live outside of our countries of origin can use this theory to start asking a different, much broader question then the usual "Why I moved to [insert country here]." The better question is:  How do I fit into this broader migration system between Canada and Japan, the US and France, Mexico and Spain or any other combination of countries?  An American academic, for example, in Japan will find there is a long history in Japan of importing foreign academics.  He/she might also learn that US citizens do not pay a fee for getting a Japanese visa (State to State agreement).  The contract and terms under which a foreigner was recruited for the position is a Migrant Agency Activity.  The position itself may be known to him or her because of a personal and academic network.  And it may be (something to investigate) that this migration system was kicked off (or perhaps only greatly encouraged) by war and occupation, though it is not sustained by these things today. 

Now I am not saying that there actually are migrations systems between the countries I have mentioned - that argument would require much more research than I have done in this short blog post. However, I invite you to consider your own migration experience in  light of the links between your home and host country and to consider how your own migration may have been facilitated and shaped by being part of a larger system.  It was quite a revelation to me, for example, how a sister city association between Nantes, France and Seattle, USA was the French/American link that led to my own migration to France.  So follow the links and see where they take you.

The truly fascinating aspect of migration system theory for me is that "[e]ach migration system is unique in the sense that the combinations of links between two countries will be different from one migration system to another." (Quebec and France - A Dynamic International Migration System by V. Ferauge, 2016.) That means that every migration system can be analyzed by its links but when they are taken together every migration system will be singular. For that matter, individual migration experiences are, I argue, a result of different links in different contexts which makes comparisons between migrants and flows possible, but also allows each migrant to be unique thanks to different combinations of links as well as different personal life trajectories and levels of social or economic capital. This, I find, is quite familiar to me in that it very closely resembles Amin Maalouf's take on identity and individuality: "Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me; thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other."

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Boundaries of Belonging

I went to lunch the other day with Ellen and as always we had a fine time and a good chat.  I am happy to report that wherever we went we spoke French and everyone spoke French right back at us without blinking an eye.

That pleasant experience brought up a theme that I return to often which is the idea of belonging.  I had some negative reactions to a previous post where I described the same situation in two countries: the non-native tries to speak the local language and the native adamantly replies in the foreign language. I construed this as a negotiation where one party tries to assert that he or she belongs and the other contests that assertion.  Some of the critics made very good points so I thought I would revisit the topic today and try to do better.

Belonging has two sides.  The first is the sense of comfort and safety we feel when we belong.  We are part of something larger than ourselves.  It can be a nation or a neighborhood. It's the ability, even the right, to say "we" and to speak and act as a member.  The other side is the acceptance of the group. The other members have to acknowledge our claim and that is contingent on our meeting the requirements for membership.

As migrants we are usually (but not always) from a place where we take our belonging for granted. Perhaps we have those "primordial ties" to a culture or a community: we were born here; we speak the language; we are citizens because our parents were citizens.  Belonging to a political community was our birthright which Ayelet Schacher in The Birthright Lottery likens to inherited property and privilege.

This is the base upon which we go out into the world.  And what do we find there?  Places where we don't just belong as a matter of course.  Rather, we must negotiate our right to stay and belong.

My sense is that we underestimate the kind of existential crisis we go through when we are confronted with how out of place we really are. Through not fault of our own we are not like the people in our new place who were born there and have their own sense of taken-for-granted-belonging.  In the beginning of our settlement, our claims to belonging are very weak or even nonexistent.  We reach for anything that links us to the new place however tenuous: marriage to a national, language studies, professed love for the country and culture.  Over time we can point to other things like mastery of the language and culture, success in our chosen profession, children, how long we have lived in the country and perhaps our citizenship status.

Nonetheless, our claims to belonging on those and other grounds can be contested because we weren't born here, our parents were not citizens, this language is not our first language.  And where the boundaries to true belonging contain one or more of these things, our efforts to achieve the taken-for-granted-belonging that we had where we came from will be frustrated. It is perhaps unachievable, anywhere; even in the home country once many years have passed.  How many times I have heard return migrants talk about how their former country no longer feels like home and how they don't really belong there anymore?  Many, many times.

I think that many of us have this deep sense of insecurity in our host countries: a constant need to signal that we really truly belong here.  It manifests itself in comparisons. Some of us hold ourselves up as models of integration: we live in the "real" [insert country here] while those others live in an expat bubble and make grammatical errors when they speak the language. Over the years I have become very suspicious of this distancing and dramatic assertions of belonging.  What would happen, I ask myself, if I talked to their neighbors, spouse, co-workers and friends?  What would be the group consensus about their/our degree of belonging? How many of us, however long we have lived in our host country, would be comfortable being subject to such scrutiny?

Something like that happens when we are in public and a native refuses to speak the local language with us or when someone consistently refers to us as their [insert nationality here] friend (even if we have citizenship).  I agree that it is not necessarily nefarious.  But what it does is burst our bubble (if only for a moment) about finally getting to a place where we are again able to take belonging for granted.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Flophouse Garden

Taking a few weeks off to play in the garden.  A little pruning; a lot of weeding.  The biggest project was dethatching the lawn, removing the moss and putting down some fertilizer.  Here are a few pictures.  Hope you are having as pleasant a month of May as I am.