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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.


Ellen said...

You've got my mind spinning, again. There are threads -- mostly complaints about dealing with the French administration -- on the Americans in France group on Facebook. We talked a bit about that last week. (What, just last week?) Then, there was that thread, really anti-American (the American capitalism is ruining France), the one that inspired my blog post. Anyway, the negativity has gotten to me and I'm trying to wean myself from a few facebook groups. As you know well, I feel I belong where I am and am very sad to feel that I don't belong where I'm from. This can lead to the impulse to be even more [local nationality] than the [local nationality], not because of feeling the need to integrate more to please the [local nationality], but from the desire to no longer be connected in any way to the country of original citizenship.
Right now, I'm comfortable being both American and French. I don't mind, too much, when the French remark my accent or the occasional mistake. I'm comfortable among neighborhood and former friends from work (French) and among those from the library and associations I belong to (mostly American). I'm most comfortable, these days, among my virtual friends from the machine knitting groups -- no talk of politics or immigration or anything but using and repairing our old knitting machines.

Blaze said...

When I lived in Montreal in the 1960s, I tried to use my atrocious French but everyone replied in English. While it made my life easier, it defeated my goal to improve my very limited French. However, my roomate, who grew up in Quebec was fluent in French. When we would go out, she would speak in French to francophones. They would usually reply in English. She would continue to speak in French. I thought it was a sign of respect for the other person's culture and language.

I was speaking with another friend about that today. I had no idea she lived in Montreal at the same time I did. She didn't know a word of French., she told me when she married a Canadian and moved to Canada, she replied "yes" when an Immugration Iffucer asked her if she was bilingual. He began speaking French. When she didn't understand and could not reply, he questioned her about why she said she was bilingual. It was because she was fluent in English and Spanish. As a 20 year old, she had no idea Canad'a's two official languages are French and English.

Her grandaughter has been accepted to McGill Law School. Fortunately, the grandaughter speaks English and French fluently. Abby (short for Abuela--Grandmother in Spanish) still doesn't speak French but she's a retired Spanish teacher in Canada. She's also long divorced from Canadian Hubby #1 and has been happily married to Canadian Hubby #2 for about 30 years.

I felt like an alien when I visited my hometown in Pennsylvania.. I haven't returned since my mother's death three years ago. I cannot even contemplate how I would feel being there in the Trump Era. USA has turned into USB (United States of Bizarro).

Maria said...

Though I grew up in Boston, and felt that it was my home, I always sensed that I didn't belong like my classmates and friends belonged. I had a Spanish name; I was born in Spain, not at St. Elizabeth's in Brighton, or Peter Bent Brigham at Huntington Ave, or Beth Israel on Brookline Ave. I could speak a different language, though I spoke English quite well after kindergarten, and my r's improved each year. Becoming a citizen when I was sixteen was an attempt to fully belong. Or, at least as much as possible. It wasn't that anyone actively rejected me. It was that, though my coloring was Irish enough to be considered a many-generation American at first glance, upon mentioning my name, people were slightly confused. Hispanic people are generally darker. I had to explain that in Spain there are many light-skinned people. But my name made me an outsider and destroyed a person's first impression that I was of Anglo descent, and therefore "belonged" more than one of Spanish descent.

In Spain, I belong because this is where I was born, and this is where my parents and ancestors are from. But I am different enough to be called the "Americana." When I first meet someone they will ask me if I am a foreigner, Portuguese, perhaps. That is because, though I speak Galego and Castillian perfectly, I still retain a shadow of an American accent that confuses people. My experience of having grown up in the US and not having gone to school here with my peers makes me different. I don't "belong" as much as my husband because I don't share experiences. I can't say I remember such and such a television show because I never saw it. I can't say I remember afternoon sandwiches of Tulipan (a brand of margerine) with sugar because they didn't exist in Boston. And other things that were so typical of this area thirty years ago which I never participated in.

Where do I belong? I belong where I feel at home. I belong to my family, to my loved ones. I am no longer anxious to fully belong as I was when I was a child. I know that I will always be the exotic Spaniard who grew up in a foreign country and therefore speaks funny. That's fine by me. I know who I am and where I want to be.

Tim said...


My impression is a lot of issues with small shops vs big chains in France and the US really have to do with economics. Wealthy communities such as Saint Germain en Laye or Versailles and Andover/North Andover, MA where I live in the US can support small independent shops and restaurants while poorer communities cannot.

For example not far from where I live in the US there is an independent local butcher something many in France I suspect would find it hard to believe still exists in the US.

In another town(wealthy also) over there is an independent dairy farm and ice cream stand that was once visited by the President of China on a trip to the US.

Now there are most definitely Target, WalMart, Costco etc locations around where I live too and at least from my perspective they do serve a market niche. But I don't they dominate the local retail market in ways that is commonly imagined. Additionally there are a new category of chains such as Wegmans which is a very "upscale" grocery store that opened a location near me recently. My understanding is there are similar upscale chains in France too. I know Victoria was looking at chicken coops a few years back at some upscale grocery/garden chain in France.

Tim said...

The chain I was referring to in France is Les Fermes de Gally which has three locations I think. Back even a few years ago Victoria mentioned it was a "pricey" place.

I actually found a video online about the whole chicken coop thing at Fermes de Gally.

I have to laugh as the whole having your own chicken coop thing is increasing popular among a certain group of upper class Americans. So much for cultural differences between France and the US.

Tim said...

BTW, WGBH radio finally put out their original story on French expats voting in Boston on May 5th during the second round. I know I told you about this in April. According to WGBH radio Le Pen only won 83 out of more than 3000 votes at the Boston area polling place.

Ellen said...

Hi Tim -- your comment seems to be referring to what I wrote in my own post about the shops and a certain snob attitude. My daughter lives in a rural, isolated part of France and the towns are now empty. The box stores have won the battle. For a lot of large items, though, they will be beat out by internet shopping, especially when they drain areas so large it takes 30 to 45 minutes to get to them and when you do, they don't have what you are looking for in stock. .

Inaka Nezumi said...

"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."

I think that is true. And it is generally not possible to blend in completely, due to differences in things like childhood experiences and phenotype. So one has to choose what level of acceptance is good enough to live with and be satisfied with that, if one doesn't want to go crazy.

"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)."

Funny thing, I find that the rare incident like that bothers me much less after gaining citizenship. I don't actually bother to tell most people that I'm a citizen, unless asked outright or when required for paperwork. If someone seems to assume or assert that I'm not one, instead of getting upset, I find I have instead an inner calm that comes from the knowledge that when push comes to shove, my opinion is just as important as that other person's -- indeed, literally so in a legal sense, since I have the right to vote. It's like having a trump card hidden up one's sleeve. Empowering.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Ellen, That's a very interesting point tht you made - the idea of integration as being motivated by a desire to disconnect from the home country. Let me think about that. And I agree with you that the social media which was always a timesink is now becoming a cesspool.

Blaze, That is a great story. Are you bilingual? Yes, but not in the languages you are looking for.... :-) Seattle has changed dramatically, too. Every time I go back I see it - the economy is booming and it's far more "liberal" than I remembered. This is part of the country that didn't vote for Trump. However, it's also a world that is far removed from the power centers of the East. And there is a sense that the Feds are idiots regardless of who happens to be in power at the moment.

Maria, You beautifully captured those situations where one encounters those barriers to belonging. What always disconcerts me is this attempt by others to categorize me. People seem to want clarity - to make the other person "legible." And that leads to some strange situations. There was a great article I read in one of my classes where a Brazilian man came to the US and discovered that he was black according to local definitions. In Brazil he wasn't considered black at all. You could look at this as the US community trying to integrate and define him according to their own definitions. But this was in conflict with how he defined himself. Interesting stuff.

Tim, It's still a price place. For my basic gardening needs I go to Truffaut which is a chain that has reasonable prices. Still considering those chickens - I have kept a part of my garden clear for the eventual chicken coop.

Nezumi-san. I comeplete agree with this. "So one has to choose what level of acceptance is good enough to live with and be satisfied with that, if one doesn't want to go crazy." There is a great AA saying that goes "What other people think of you is none of your business." I think for sanity's sake this a good rule to live by. Where it breaks down is when active discrimination occurs. And even then you have to pick your battles.

I would also note that this signaling can be destructive when it becomes a kind of one-upmanship in the migrant community. I went to lunch with a friend from Canada here in Osaka and the owner (an American) came out to speak with us and he was going on about how had lived in Japan for over 10 years and had a Japanese wife and so on. He was a bit arrogant and condescending about it. And so my Canadian friend calmly replied that she had been living in Japan for 25 years and had a Japanese husband. He quickly retreated to the kitchen and his wife served us. :-)

Inaka Nezumi said...

Yes, the one-upmanship can be poisonous. Especially so when engaged in within minority communities. And that's usually where it is most vicious, is it not? Insecurity leads to competitiveness, complacency usually doesn't.