Why is it often so hard, for immigrants to integrate into western countries?
Cultural hardening? Insularity? Misplaced condempt for western culture, broadly?
Perhaps, but it is hard to ignore the role that the setting under which discussions on immigrant integration, influence the conversation itself.
Even in the online world, which ordinarily brings together diverging opinions on various topics, I find that discussions on integration of immigrants are largely limited to members of host societies, expressing personal opinions on what integration means, to them.
Often, these discussions end up being a wishlist of immigrant behavior, where the line between personal preferances of how an immigrant ought to act, and whether those attributes are a fair criteria to measure integration with, blur beyond recognition.
There are hardly any immigrant voices in this discussion, that bring out their side of this very important issue.
So, with that view, let's revisit this question, to encompass the other side of the issue.
Why are so many immigrants perceived as integrating poorly? And...why are so many immigrants finding it hard to integrate?
Because what constitutes “integration” is incredibly subjective.
Think about the 3 most obvious things you believe are evidence of an immigrant integrating into the countries they have relocated to - -
Learning the local language to a reasonable degree of fluency, perhaps?
Now, if that language is English, its easy to expect people to know it, because English is the global linguistic glue, the language of business and all that, right?
But what if, someone in Quebec thinks I failed to integrate, because I haven’t learned French?
Is it not justified that people who immigrate as adults and are not linguistically talented, try to get on as best as they can, with the languages they already know?
Is it not reasonable that their native language may be South East Asian in origin, having almost no overlap with French and therefore learning French presents a daunting perhaps even expensive, challenge?
If they otherwise manage to eke out a decent life and be productive and respectful in their new society, should they have to learn the language in order to be seen as integrating well?
Engaging socially, with members of the host culture, that’s an important one, right?
Since social gatherings inevitably involve cultural elements, let me take the example of an Indian person, in an American setting.
Let us examine the elements surrounding the typical social gathering in the US -
Food, drinks, English, friendship, location…
Now, consider a mildly conservative Indian man, who is shy around women, is averse to drinking, is a lifelong vegetarian, doesn’t have the best command over English and doesn’t do well in a setting where its mostly just banter and dining.
He doesn’t get the jokes, the pop-culture references and the political conversations…just who are the Cubs? and Patriots?!?
He LOVES cricket, but no one knows anything about it.
There was that one time, when he said something excitedly about hockey, but realized that the group was talking about ICE hockey, not well, hockey…..oops!
He didn’t like his soggy black-bean burger that cost $18, plus tax and tip….
After that, he largely just kept quiet, because his experiences, view-points and opinions, are really hard to explain to this group who have had wildly different experiences in their upbringing, education and culture….
Can you really blame him for opting out the next time?
Is it because he doesn't want to integrate or because he simply didn’t enjoy himself?
When it comes to their social lives, people do things they enjoy.
And if the typical social gatherings that they are invited to are sort of a chore for them, they simply won’t go.
They would rather hang out with people they can relate with, share meal preferences and interests with and people in whose company they feel understood and comfortable.
Now, this could be viewed as a failure to integrate, maybe even rightfully so…
But, it could just as easily be, an immigrant spending their free time in a setting they simply, enjoy more….right?
Are immigrants obligated to endure social engagements that they don’t particularly enjoy, in order to come across as well-adjusted to their host society?
If an immigrant otherwise interacts at work productively with colleagues that are primarily from the host culture, but their social group is largely comprised of people of their own ethnic groups, is that really a failure to integrate?
Accepting and adopting some of the cultural elements of the new country
It is genuinely hard, for those in the Western world who haven’t travelled to non Anglo-Saxon cultures, to even superficially understand just how different they really are, unless they have explored the topic in depth with a person of that culture.
Speaking personally, the social aspects of life in India, are a world apart from life in the US.
We may look like we aren’t as different from Western world, with our formals at the workplace and blue jeans at home, but when it comes to lifestyle, social interactions, our relationship with food, ideas of what is “normal”, we come from an entirely different cultural understanding.
What looks like everyday life to you, demands very real adjustment of immigrants, which absolutely should count as integration.
Speaking English for a majority of the day? Integration…
Eating burgers, sandwiches, pasta, tacos and salads for lunch? Integration…
Going without many, many cultural delicacies, festivals, traditional attire, beliefs and rituals without overt complaint? Integration…
Not reacting adversely in public, to the idea of people having pre-marital sex, children outside marriage, divorces, even if some of these are unacceptable in their home cultures? Integration…
Learning not to say things, display hand gestures or religious symbols, that might be offensive in their host culture…
Like displaying the Hindu swastik, a symbol of prosperity, which is completely, totally different from the Nazi one in connotation?
Not wearing traditional attire in their daily lives, or at work, because they’d stand out as being oddly dressed? Integration…
And yet, for all the learning and adjustment it entails, blending into and displaying acceptance of a culture that is not native to theirs, gives an immigrant no props at all, for having “assimilated”.
Why is that?
Many, many of my American colleagues and friends see my command over English and my liberal views, as “proof” that I am integrating well in the US…
But that could not be farther from the truth.
I have always been interested, fluent and passionate about the English language, right from my early school years.
I have been socially very liberal for nearly all of my adult life, much before I ever left Indian shores.
I have departed from several dearly held Indian norms and have expressed my criticism of them, despite tremendously valuing other aspect of my Indian-ness, much before the US ever influenced the way I think.
And yet, because it aligns with the western world, these are the elements of my personality, that count towards how well integrated I am, to my host culture.
Let me say this unequivocally -
It is absolutely true that there are immigrants that vehemently disapprove of their host cultures, despite leading entire lives there.
They cling to their own cultures and norms, to such an extent that they lead lives in “bubbles”, that are impervious, even hostile to influences from their host cultures.
And that is very unfortunate.
But the argument I’m trying to present here is that the reason conversations around immigrants integrating usually land on the conclusion that many immigrants find it hard to integrate, is because the conversations themselves,are inherently one-sided.
The myriad adjustments that immigrants may make, that represent stark departures from the norms they are used to, are simply invisible to the eyes that judge the extent of their integration.
This is because integration, is tacitly defined as changes and adjustments that an immigrant may make, that are apparent to members of the host country and align with the ethos of the host culture, which is, quite obviously, a biased view to take.
The reason a large number of immigrants may come across as failing to integrate, is because there is a significant lack of acknowledgement of the fact that simply being passable, in the western world, requires a tremendous amount of accommodation on the part of immigrants.
And while it doesn’t seem to qualify, as integration…
It most definitely, is.