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?


Andrew said...

Agree. Integration largely asymmetrical towards the host society.

Thought you might find this early, official, Canadian government definition of interest - Canada Year Book 1959, citizenship section, which captures the ongoing Canadian approach:

In keeping with the democratic belief in the dignity and freedom of the individual, it is felt that integration should be voluntary and should not be pressed. It is assumed that integration is more moderate in its demands on the immigrant and less painful for him than assimilation would be. Assimilation usually means the complete absorption of the newcomer by the dominant culture. In the process, cultural and social differences are worn off and a more-or-less homogeneous society emerges. Integration, on the other hand, recognizes and respects the cultural contributions that may be made by people of diverse ethnic backgrounds who, nevertheless, are devoted to the welfare of the same country.

The ultimate responsibility for integration rests with the Canadian people for, without their acceptance of the newcomers into community life, there can be no integration. One of the main objectives of the Citizenship Branch therefore has been to encourage understanding and co-operation between old and new Canadians and between the various ethnic groups in the population.

Inaka Nezumi said...

I agree that the notion that an immigrant is likely to "conquer" anything other than his or her own feelings of inadequacy is laughable.

The issue of integrating too much, or not remaining foreign enough to be interesting, is an inherent risk in accepting positions where "being foreign" is part of the job description. It is kind of like any other time-limited job, like modelling or professional sports. There will come a time when the initial sellable asset simply won't be there any longer. For self-defense, there should be a game plan that extends beyond that initial period. That will typically require accepting the unglamorous task of learning to live as an ordinary person, doing the mundane things that are not prestige-raising either where one lives now, or back in the old country. Just like immigrants to that old country had to do, if truth were told. The world is just not that into migrants.

N Larbi said...

Your point about being a "threat" to the host country if over-integrated reminds me once when I was buying another delicious morning pastry in a Bakery in Paris, the saleswoman asked me if I was from Switzerland or Germany and I said the US. Then she said, "How is it that you speak French so well."

I had been trying to learn the accent and the language for years and took much pride in making progress. Her comment made me feel like either way, I couldn't win in their eyes. You must show that you are not rejecting their culture but not too much.

You are keenly perceptive about this nuance and I appreciate your writing enormously. Thank you.


Victoria FERAUGE said...

Andrew, What a wonderful, clear statement on the difference between assimilation and integration. And from 1959 no less. And I appreciate the argument that a migrants should be valued not denigrated for their experiences, culture, language. I agree with Milton Giordon that assimilation happens in the end but over generations. The dominant culture will win in the end.:-)

"The ultimate responsibility for integration rests with the Canadian people for, without their acceptance of the newcomers into community life, there can be no integration." Yes. And that point seems to be lost in many immigrant integration debates. The assumption is that migrants are not integrated because they are not trying. or that they have some nefarious purpose in mind. I am thinking, of course, about the debates in France over migrants from North Africa and their citizen children.

Nezumi-san, Yes, that's an excellent point. Milos Debnar calls this the "cultural services industry" and it is definitely a source of employment for migrants from certain countries. It can be very precarious and not just because a migrants loses his or her "authenticity" over time but because 1. it rests on positive sterotypes which may change and 2. it's limiting in the sense that native citizens perceive certain occupations occupied by foreigners to be a case of "round peg, round hole" and they then herd migrants into those occupations where they are expected to stay. But that creates a dilemma - how can the migrant learn the language and culture if he/she spends the entire working day speaking his native language and acting [insert nationality here]?

Nancy, Yep, I have had that "can't win" feeling. I have on occasion felt that my host country natives would prefer that I stumble along in French because it would confirm the sterotype of Americans who can't learn other languages.

And thank you for your kind comment. I appreciate it so much. It is heartening to know that you enjoy reading my work as much as I enjoy writing and researching it.