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.