Dr Alain J.E. Wolf, lecturer at the University of East Anglia, offers a personal reflection on the loss and belonging that can accompany the experience of emigration and suggests that there are responsibilities on both sides – immigrant and host nation:
As a lecturer in languages and cross-cultural communication at a U.K University, and a product of immigration myself, I have found myself asking why do some people, who have come to this country for all sorts of legitimate reasons, become so intensely critical of its people, its institutions, even its very democratic procedures? And why are some of them driven to acts of such violence against the people of this country, desecrating its monuments, toppling its statues at the service of a pernicious and misguided ideology?
I would like to offer a few simple insights on what it means to live on the boundary, between native and foreign land, and what kinds of relationships we need to foster between immigrants and host countries.
Emigration: abandoning our past for the land of our future
We are all commanded at some or other time of our lives to leave our own family, our own region, our own country. We experience ideas and beliefs beyond those acceptable within immediate circles of friends and family. This is a necessary condition of our growth as mature individuals. Emigrating, in this sense, means going to the land of the future and abandoning the land of our fathers and mothers. In order to do so, one does not even have to move physically. It can be an intellectual, a temporal, not a geographical, emigration.
I still remember the day I ‘emigrated’ in thought. It happened on my first day at secondary school in the Provençal town of Nimes where I was born. My English teacher, Madame Diop, breezed into the classroom, wearing colourful clothes the likes of which I had only seen in illustrations of Mary Poppins, and smilingly commanded to the class in English: ‘Sit down’. Those very first sounds of English were like sweet music to my French ears. Later in the lesson, we learnt the names of animals which rhymed with numbers and we sang, distinguishing between long vowels, ‘number three is a bee’ (Ah! How that long vowel on ‘bee’ buzzed into infinity!) and short vowels ‘number six is a pig’ (Ah! How clipped and prim and proper we had to be to pronounce that short ‘i’ in ‘pig’). At the end of the lesson, I remember saying to Madame Diop as I left: ‘I will become an English teacher’. Little did I know then that 12 years later, I would be teaching English literature in a secondary school to a group of teenage boys completely unaware that English was not my first language…
And so, on my first day at secondary school, I ‘emigrated’. I found out later that others like me had experienced the same kind of phenomenon. André Gide, a French writer, claimed that in order to acquire a foreign language one had to distance oneself from one’s mother tongue, as a form of abandonment: ‘Dans l’apprentissage des langues, ce qui compte le plus n’est pas ce qu’on apprend, le décisif est d’abandonner la sienne’ (What counts most of all in learning a foreign language is not what one learns, but the deciding factor is the extent to which one is prepared to relinquish one’s own, my translation).
This temporary abandonment of my first language was, for me, a necessary condition of engaging with my second. This can, of course, be perceived and felt as a traumatic loss of one’s own identity. And the question which ‘migrants’ should ask themselves is: ‘if the relationship we entertain with another language, another culture, another country potentially threatens our sense of identity, then what must that relationship be like?
Intersectionality: reconciling one’s repertoire of diversity
I came to this country aged 16 on a scholarship which allowed me to study for one wonderful year at the French Lycée in London. For 5 years before then I worked with the help of the wonderful English teacher I talked about earlier to acquire a mastery of the language and its literature such that I could study at a UK university on an English and Philosophy degree. I remember with fondness what theorists of culture shock call ‘the Honeymoon period’ when I perceived everything about England through the prism of loveliness. Of course, there were difficult times, the ‘frustration’ phase inevitably comes about when someone says to you: ‘No matter how hard you try, you will never be one of us’.
I would be dishonest if I said that this comment did not aggrieve me at the time. And yet now, I am immensely grateful for it. One can never take living in the adopted land for granted. Time of exposure is important: I feel more entitled to being here after 40 years than someone who has just arrived on our shores. You build your allegiance and your justification for being in the adopted land slowly, with humility, by increments. There is, or should be, no other way, because the daily rituals and habits of expression that make social bonds meaningful take time to establish on both sides. Demands for immediate integration by those who either ask that immigrants be granted full rights of citizenship on arrival, or those who see any constraint on granting immediate, full citizenship as racist – ignore this important reality.
Perhaps because the village I live in has retained much of its history, the Jacobean Hall and its medieval Church, a central part of community life, it has been able to include my partner and I, who very much represent the Global. We have a same-sex intercultural relationship; we were born in Essex and in Provence, respectively. Despite the various intersections we occupy, we were welcomed by the Local with open arms. We take part in its various activities and because of my former training as a vicar in the Church of England, I have been asked to lead services on several occasions. The village then is a harmonious resolution of the tensions between the Global and the Local. Our intersectional identities meant that, in the words of Homi Bhabha, newness came into the world of the village.
But again, newness comes into the world slowly. It cannot be imposed on local people by diktat such as the EU’s freedom of movement. This is because as newcomers we have responsibilities, the responsibility that lies in showing we can handle our diverse intersections, the responsibility that lies in managing the temporary abandonment of our own language whilst dwelling with acceptance, if not pleasure and gratitude, in the language of our future, in the linguistic and cultural abundance it offers us. As I said, not all immigrant’s experiences will have been the same: not all will have come with a prior connection, real or imagined, and not all will have had the same privileges of education and class that I have been lucky to have. The othering of some immigrants may have been, and may continue to be, more brutal and exclusionary.
But this does not absolve either immigrants or citizens of responsibility for their mutual relationships: a peaceable mode of living depends on such a relationship of mutual recognition of both difference and commonality. The cultural context within which these relations are forged needs to be strong and confident. The continual criticism of my European acquaintances echoes the carping of some of Britain’s homegrown bien pensants, who take every opportunity to disparage their nation in which they no longer feel at home. That is their problem: we should not let them make it ours. Learning English and coming to live here, I have experienced what George Steiner (1975: 497) calls ‘the almost bewildering bias of the human spirit towards freedom’. This freedom not to be trapped in one language skin is obtained by the grace of God and through those who have helped me along my journey on the boundary, between native and alien land, a holy place to be.