Thursday, February 9, 2012

'I Ain't No Immigrant!'

As a language professional, I came across the notion of integration very early on in my studies. Labov's studies on immigrants in the US were definitely among my favorite reads and I've always been amazed at the psychology of the phenomenon, even if I've come to master its whys and wherefores.

But I never thought I'd be one of the guinea pigs one day. Actually, I never thought I would be part of any of the processes, that I'd ever be faced with the same dilemmas. Let me explain.

The biggest part of my life I was just a language enthusiast, never leaving her own nest. To be honest I was not so interested in learning all these languages -- I was crazy about learning about them and the people who spoke them. But I was looking at the whole thing through a magnifying glass, from my comfortable seat at home. Or, sometimes, I was doing some small field research of my own, but with the detached amazement of the good Labovian student. Immigrants constituted a perti-pot type of material to me, interesting for their inability to do what they were the most anxious to do. Integrate.

The big question has always been, ever since Labov started pestering shop assistants and good citizens in their orderly queues (or was that Romaine?), why (and how) people manage to integrate into a foreign society and what are the reasons and attributes of failure. Most of the descriptions, taking into account differences between the cultures ivolved and the social status of the various groups and individuals, are very logical. However, as they examine the phenomenon (as good researchers do) from a totally objective point of view, they omit one very important thing. The human factor.

Since moving to Switzerland, I've been through a couple of very distinct phases of immigrant life. At first I was a tourist. Tourists are always (OK, most of the time) happy, because they are off from the worries of their everyday lives and they only take a couple of good things home from their trip. (I'm not thinking of Latin lovers and tropical diseases, two extremes that are hard to find in Switzerland. Though hell knows...) So I was chittering away with my cute accent and took a hundred pictures a day. I called the annoying interesting and the horrible strange. I guess it didn't register with me that I wasn't going back. (Not that there were too many things of the last two types...)

Then I gradually became a settler. The initial craze over, we turned to more practical matters. I plunged into the adventure of creating our new home with the same enthusiasm that characterized my chittering-picture-taking self a couple of weeks before. The annoying and the horrible became exciting challenges, which I learned to master by and by and felt all the greater for it. I still didn't manage to notice the ties I was cutting and the new ones forming -- and the claws getting latched on me. I was winning battles, never looking back.

I soon took the castle. I think I became an immigrant then and there. I was what is called a trailing spouse. I call this phase the phase of the princess, because you enter a home set up beautifully from someone else's money, who loves you and wants the best for you -- and yet you can't really feel at home. I think I'm still somewhat of a princess at heart. I hardly ever venture out of my castle alone and I'm quite happy I work so much because otherwise I would be sitting around in my beautiful little tower awaiting my prince.

Many of the princes and princesses (for they come in all shapes and sizes) soon become stay-at-home parents and find satisfaction in the occupation of raisig their children. It's one of the most curious stages of integration in my opinion, since what makes things more complicated is the stable, if somewhat restricted, financial background us royal descendents enjoy. It makes us feel good about ourselves and where they come from, and we see all the challanges of integration as attacks against those feelings.

I would never say that those who enter the country simply in search of a better life, skipping all these stages and immediately setting about earning their daily bread are in a less difficult position. But, if Labov et al. are right, some of them have a better chance of becoming part of the local society. According to the theory, if the two cultures are close enough (i.e. living in the target culture poses no unsurmountable difficulty) and the target group has higher social values and enjoy more socioeconomic benefits, you'll be more motivated and thus more likely to integrate successfully.

What happens in the case of immigrants with lower social status is often that the cultural differences keep them from understanding and accepting the target culture, and therefore they find integration painful and difficult. Princes and princesses, on the other hand, fail to realize the importance of a little social pressure. Their task is difficult due to the gaps between the two groups being too small. They fall back on their own cultural background when rectified or challenged, refusing to be 'lectured' by their equals. The expect to be considered kings and queens in the other realm too and forget the old saying, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

In fact, many of them call themselves (and each other) expats, and amazing size of the online expat community shows you just how powerful that term is. As opposed to immigrants, they consider themselves voluntary sufferers of the situation, since, as their attitude often reflects, it is not them who want to integrate into society but society that wants to suck them in. And they fight with all their might for that not to happen. They're here on their own accord, but they are wiser than tourists because they've all won the battles of settling down and finding some things to do. They are quick to lecture help you and most of the time they enjoy their status.

Well, all this sounds very nice but what are you to do if you find yourself in another country, plagued with a stable financial background and a lack of hatred toward your situation back home and none of these categories really attracts you? I can't blame you. Nor do they attract me. I definitely don't feel desperate in the strongest sense of the word, neither can I imagine myself opting for the family option to fill up my sparse schedule. Nor am I, to my utmost amazement!, arrogant enough to ignore the pushing and pulling of the strings of society. It's not so much about being a respected member of said society as respecting myself. In my world all opinions are welcome and most are equal and you certainly have the right to think you're right when I think you're wrong. I like to leave it to life to prove the relevance of any ideas and I simply cannot shrug off all the good natured criticism of the natives thinking or saying that I'll just stick to what we do back home. Because maybe we're wrong! But, to be honest, I can't nod along and feel utterly suppressed either, since there's also a (slight?) chance that it's the Swissies who are wrong. I'm sure I'm freakig them out with my insistence on dropping all ideas into the bowl, but that's for them to sort out.

For the moment I'm merely torn between all these notions. And language is just one of them. I'll have to dedicate another post entirely to language learning among expats, for I find it an area worth exploring. But I often find myself wondering why my French is as it is and why it's not moving either way. As I said, I don't want to focus on my language skills here, but I think they are a perfect example, since my social progress seems to be reflected in them to a great extent. I seriously love this language and the cultural background that comes with it, and am at a loss why I'm not progressing (faster). The problem might be that I set the bar too high. I'm not learning French on the basis of my mother tongue, making use of all the help that might provide (for it does help, believe me!) but I somehow want to become a native speaker from scratch. I'm not even consciously relying on my L2, English, which could help even more. I've rejected that idea when I realized that my slight American accent (don't ask me why it transferred) makes people think I'm some arrogant expat who would never ditch such an important benchmark. I'm trying to forget everything I know, language-wise and releorganize my brain. And that can be painful, because I start with being noone.

But is that necessary? No, I think not. I think the ideal solution would be to strike a balance. Someone once told me that the only way she could feel comfortable in all those countries she'd lived is was to retain her identity all through. Wherever she went, she picked up some things and when she moved on she integrated the new things along with the old. I wish I could figure out how to do that. Some people learn the language very well but (consciously or unconsciously) retain their accent. I often hear the Swiss talking about them with respect and fondness, all the while adding their nationality to their name. Whenever I hear people talking about me (sometimes they forget I can understand, which makes me grumble even more) as that nice little Hungarian, I get the wind up. Why can't I be just another person? The normal thing would be, of course, to feel part of their group but also feel proud of my heritage. To learn their ways and act accordingly among them, but retain my own 'accent'. To be the person I want to be in the place I want to be. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is integration.

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Hugz from freeeeezing Geneva


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