Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, May 29, 2017

Voting in the 11th District

Residents, native and foreign, in countries around the world may be surprised to learn that they are living in a legislative district of the French parliament.  Of course, these political boundaries are really only relevant to French citizens. (Or are they?) The rest of us (citizens and migrants of other countries alike) need pay no attention to them - unless they are as curious as I am about what they mean and how they work.

There are a total of 11 French overseas voting districts around the world.  Here is what the world looks like during a French election:

In each district the French abroad elect a representative (député) for the National Assembly (577 total seats for all districts at home or abroad) for a 5 year term.  The French abroad did have had senators for some time but it was only in 2012 that the first representatives of the French abroad were elected and installed in the lower house of the French parliament.

The 1st district is the US and Canada and they are represented at this time by Frédéric Lefebvre The 11th district includes Eastern Europe, Asia,  and Oceania - from the Kara, Barents and Laptev seas all the way south to the Indian Ocean and the Tasman Sea.  The current representative for this district is Thierry Mariani.  Follow the links to find out what they have done and what they are working on.  Full disclosure:  I have voters in my family in both districts.

There is no rule that candidates must live in or have connections to the overseas district they will represent.  And neither Mariani and  Lefebvre appear to have lived abroad, though Mariani has a Russian (naturalized French) wife and both candidates have travelled widely.  

Is that an issue?  Well, Mariani is running for a second term but it just so happens that there are two candidate challenging him for this seat who are a long-term residents of Asia:  Francis Nizet and Anne Genetet.  Both are making overseas experience a campaign issue.

Francis Nizet has been a French abroad for nearly 30 years. He has lived and worked in Africa, Southeast Asia and now lives in Beijing, China with his family.  An engineer by training and profession, he now a professor of science at a Chinese university.  His running-mate (the person who would replace him if he were incapacitated) iFrançoise Nédélec a lawyer by training who moved to China in 1994, first to Shanghai and then to Beijing where she is now the director of the Latin Languages program at the International School of Beijing

Anne Genetet has lived in Singapore for over 10 years.  A doctor by training and profession in France, she was "deskilled" in Singapore because she could not get her professional credentials recognized.  (Yes, folks, that is part of the "real world of many expat/migrants.)  So she became a consultant and journalist.  

Both of these candidates are playing up their experience living abroad saying essentially, "We know the concerns of our fellow French expatriates because we are you."   "Je connais vos preoccupations, je saurai faire avancer ces dossiers avec tenacite." (I know your concerns and I will know how to tenaciously make progress on those issues.") said Francis Nizet. In an interview Genetet talked about the positive reactions of her compatriots abroad to her candidacy saying, "What I've heard from the people I've met is that they are so happy to have a candidate who knows what it's like to be a French national living abroad."

And that raises an interesting question, doesn't it?  If you voted from abroad and had direct representation would you rather have a representative who has also lived abroad (perhaps in your region)?  Or would you prefer to elect someone well connected to the political world in the home country?

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Americans and Study Abroad

When I was a college student in the 1980s (the first time) I had no ambitions to do a study abroad program.  I'd already made the leap from a smaller town with a population of about 34,000 to the nearest big city with a population of  about 500,000 which one could call my first migration.  That and trips to British Columbia, Canada to see my aunt were as much mobility as I wanted back then.  In doing my research into Anglophones migrants in Japan, I found that this was pretty common among the people I interviewed.  Almost all of them came from rural areas and regional towns or cities and many of them did exactly what I did:  move from a smaller place to a larger one and then abroad either as part of their university studies or just after finishing up a degree program. Who knew back in 1989 when I was graduated from the University of Washington that I would then move to a city in a faraway country with a population of over 2 million.

How things change from one generation to the next.  Both Frenchlings went abroad for university.  They left France for Canada - a journey that their French ancestors made in the 17th century.  From Montreal the elder Frenchling went to the US and is working on her Masters degree in Seattle while the younger just finished her studies in Osaka and while be returning to Montreal in the fall to finish her undergraduate degree.  Aside from the patterns of mobility there is another that I find interesting and it has to do with gender.  On both the French and American sides of our family, the women tend to have more formal education (academic degrees) than the men with only a few exceptions.

All this pondering about the past led me to ask a deceptively simple but very hard to answer question:  what motivates students to study abroad?  That question is so broad that I decided to limit my research into what motivates American students to study abroad?  In the program for the younger Frenchling's end of studies ceremony there were over 350 American students at her Japanese university with the next largest groups being Canadians and Australians with 22 students each. (The younger Frenchling by the way was counted as one of the Canadian students which tells me that some of those "American" students may also be originally from countries other than the US.)

According to the OECD 2016 report Education at a Glance only 6% of students in OECD countries at the college/university level study abroad.  On average in 2014 an OECD country hosted 3 international students for every student they sent abroad (p. 332).  One could speculate that students from OECD countries feel that they don't have to go abroad to meet international diversity because the diversity comes to them.  That was, indeed, a goal of the younger Frenchling's Japanese university where the Japanese students were encouraged to interact with the foreign students as much as possible.

 My daughter reports that some of the most interesting discussions she had with Japanese students had to do with bi-culturalism and dual nationality.  How could she be French and American?  Their conclusion was that she was some odd variety of haafu - a term that usually refers to a multi-racial individual but in this case was broadened to include culture/nationality.  The conclusion is less important than the discussion in which both sides learned something.  My daughter had to consider that what she took for granted was odd to others, and the others had to think about a world where it really was OK to be bi-cultural or bi-national.

According to NAFSA the US has a very small number of student studying abroad  - about 300,000 in 2015 which is about 1.5 per cent of all US university students.  Furthermore, US racial and ethnic minorities are seriously under-represented in study abroad programs.  I looked at those numbers and I was shocked.  My little center-right heart be damned, this is something begging for affirmative action.

Where do American students go when they do study abroad?  Europe, mostly:  And then Latin America and Asia. American students still dream London or Paris dreams.  That is a migration flow that goes back to the 18th century and you can read more about that in David McCullough's fine book The Greater Journey.

Is anyone in the US worried about these low numbers of American students studying abroad?  Well, there are certainly editorials in newspapers and magazines about it.  I dislike most of them because some journalists seem happy to imply that this is some great national failure which furthers the stereotype of Americans as insular, provincial, and uneducated.  I am more persuaded by the US State Department that does pay attention to this and actually has a list of financial resources for study abroad on their website.  There are scholarships and the like available.  I am sure there are others that I don't know about.

All the money in the world, however, won't help if American students aren't motivated.  Why did I never consider it back when I was a bright-eyed college student?  Looking back I think was a combination of finances and the fact that I didn't know anyone at my high school or university who had studied abroad. I did know young women who went abroad as au pairs. So work abroad was possible but study seemed to belong to people on another planet.  It just didn't seem possible for people like me (and, yes, that statement deserves closer attention but I will save it for another essay.)

Motivation for study abroad (or anything for that matter) is a complicated beast and it is painfully difficult to determine with any accuracy but researchers have looked at it. There was a 2006 paper by C. Sanchez et al that compared the motivations for and perceived barriers to studying abroad among US, French, and Chinese students.   They found that the top 3 motivations for Americans students for going abroad were:  new experiences and bettering themselves professionally and socially. (p. 35)  This was the desire for adventure mixed with a sense that going abroad would be good for careers and social position.

The top barriers for US students in descending order were:  family, finances, psychological and social barriers. (p. 38)  What is fascinating to me is that it was the French students who put financial barriers first and then family.  What did the American students mean when they said family was a barrier to leaving the country?  They indicated that they had family obligations and didn't wish to to be too far away from people they would miss and who needed them.  Both the French and American students agreed with regard to finances that they would have to go into debt to be able to study abroad and that "Study abroad was a luxury." (p. 39)

Looking at a more recent paper by J. Luo, and D. Jamieson-Drake which was published in 2015 the authors also looked at motivation and intent of American students.  Their study was limited but in their introduction they summarized some of the findings of  recent research and some are surprising; others less so.  American women are much more likely to go abroad than men and, yes, minority students are under-represented:

"From 2002 to 2012, for instance, nearly two-thirds of study abroad participants were women in each of the past 10 years, while only one-third of them were men. Also, Caucasian students studying abroad outnumbered minority students by a margin of almost 4–1 during the same time period,"

Luo and Jamieson-Drake also cited research showing that students from liberal arts colleges studying humanities were much more likely to go abroad than students from research universities or those studying engineering.  As for ethnic and racial differences, studies showed that Asian-American men (not women) were much less likely than white men or women to go abroad.  And while the parent's level of education influenced and increased white students intent to go abroad, the reverse was found in African-American students.

To shed some light on these findings  Luo and Jamieson-Drake  looked at students at just one university. When they looked at the general student population over those three year they found that "[n]early 90 % of students indicated their home was over 100 miles away from college."  That indicates a first migration within national borders.  Almost all of them were not studying in their home towns or cities. "Approximately 42 % of students in the 2005 entering cohort indicated a strong intent to study abroad, and about half in both the 2006 and 2007 entering cohorts reported so." (p. 39)

Their results were pretty consistent with other research.  Women were much more likely than men to intend to study abroad.  Liberal arts students were also much more likely to intend to go abroad than science or engineering students.  But they found other factors that I found fascinating:

"Additionally, artistic ability and expectations to improve understanding of other
countries and cultures, to join a social fraternity or sorority, to be satisfied with college, and
to participate in student clubs or groups showed a positive influence on intent to study
abroad, while mathematical ability and helping to promote racial and cultural understanding
displayed a negative correlation with intent to study abroad." (p. 40)

That was intent to study abroad but what about actual participation?   Well, intent was an important factor in following through.  They found that most students who were motivated to go abroad actually went. But of those who did intend to go abroad but didn't realize their intent   "off-campus study in the United States and involvement in a music or theater group and the student government negatively affected their participation in study abroad. For students with a weak intent to study abroad upon college entry, parental income and involvement in a political club and club sports had a negative impact on their participation in study abroad." (p. 42)

Lastly I looked at another study of business students at one university by J. Pope et al. In their introduction they said there was a very high number of American students with an intent to study abroad but they cited research that showed only about 3% of Generation Y students (those students born in the 1980s and 90s) actually followed through and left the country.  What could explain this difference? The authors argue that it is "temporal distance" with intent being measured in the first year of school and study abroad usually occurring in their 3rd or even 4th year.  A lot changes over 3 or 4 years. Personally, I wonder if it could also be a result of the Great Recession of 2008/2009.  The first two studies I examined here were prior that period while the Pope et al study looked at students in the period after the world economy had tanked.  How many American freshman entered university in 2005 wanting to go abroad and found that they couldn't?  A phenomenon cited in the paper and calle“Yes! [I would love to do that] But damn! [I can't do it]” 

Pope et al agreed that more women than men study abroad.  Their hypothesis was that Generation Y women are more likely to value "personal growth" than men.  They also hypothesized that parent's level of education, prior international experience, income and age, were also important factors in wanting to study outside the country.

What did they find in their study?  They found no difference between American men and women business majors intent to study abroad, nor did they find much difference in participation  For this population they also found that the parent's education level and income were not important factors in either intent or participation.  However, when they looked more broadly at all majors they did find that more women than men intend to study abroad and follow through. They also found that prior international experience was a factor in studying abroad but that "personal growth" was not one of the main motivators of those who had lived outside the US.

What to make of all of these studies that agree and disagree with each other?  Think of it as a blind men and the elephant scenario with researchers describing the different parts to each other. The size of the samples are important as are the boundaries they put around the study.  Context matters, too:  a business school in the American Midwest has a very different population than a liberal arts college on the West or East Coast.

But here are a few thoughts and questions I took away from this brief foray into the subject:

1.  There is no one answer to the question of what motivates American students to go abroad.  Positive intent and participation are multi-causal.  So throwing money at the issue is not going to solve it.  In particular, how do you persuade a student who has family obligations that it's OK to ignore them? Would you even want to?

2. The picture these studies paint of the "average" American students abroad is one of a young woman from a liberal arts school getting a liberal arts or business degree.  That is something to think about.  I am not convinced that this is a matter of women valuing personal growth more than men. Just as racial and ethnic minorities are under-represented in study abroad programs, so too it seems are men (though to a lesser extent).  Why is that?

3.  Why so few engineering and science majors?  That one is a puzzle that merits a closer look. And the connection to sororities and fraternities that the first study found?  An odd one and I would like to know more.

4.  A "desire for new experiences, adventure, and personal growth" is too damn broad.  And I'm guilty of this myself since I asked it in my own survey.  What does a desire for personal growth really mean?  In what way does the individual wish to grow?  Could it be that personal growth mean having a better social status or being able to pursue a career one likes?  Or could it be that personal growth is a response to a moral imperative and shorthand for "People who don't go abroad are lacking somehow and I don't want to be one of the provincial. So I guess I'd better get out there and get my international experience." All this needs more clarification, in my opinion.

5.  And what about the desire of many universities to lure students from abroad?  For whose benefit?  The international students or the regular students?  For the regular students it is a way of having them exposed to international diversity without leaving home.  Is that sufficient for "international experience?"  You tell me.

6.  Why does Europe continue to be the number one destination for American students?  Some of that may be because it is familiar and because some very influential American writers, artists went and wrote about it in books that are still part of high school and college curriculums.

7.  Are there important differences between Americans who study abroad and those who leave to work abroad?  Yes, studying in a foreign country can lead to staying and building a new life but not always.

And that is as much thinking as I want to do after 3 cups of coffee on a Sunday morning.  As always, your thoughts would be much appreciated.

Bon weekend!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Day at Kansai Gaidai University

This morning the younger Frenchling and I got up early and took the train to her university here in Japan for an end of studies ceremony and reception for the international students.

I was very impressed by the university and her professors and the Kandai Gaidai University campus had the most beautiful landscapes.

For the ceremony the students were invited to wear a kimono to the ceremony. (Please, please appropriate our culture absolutely positively with our permission and under our supervision.)  With some urging on our part, the younger Frenchling agreed to this and that is how we found ourselves in a classroom at the school at 7:45 in the morning.

There was no putting on of the kimono by anyone - this was not a DIY project.  Instead each young woman chose a kimono, had her hair styled and was dressed by a very charming and meticulous older Japanese woman.  It took about 20 minutes to dress each girl.  There were undergarments and ties under the kimono to make it just just right.  And then there was the folding so they would lay just so.  Clips were added to the collar to make it stand out from the neck.  The obi was then wound firmly around the waist and tied into a bi-colored pattern at the back.  Next came the socks and the sandals.  The final touch was a purse.  Everything was, of course, beautifully color coordinated and, needless to say, there were no (and no chance of) wardrobe malfunctions.

What a wonderful day it was.  The younger Frenchling looked lovely, the ceremony went off without a hitch with her very proud mother watching and loving every moment of it.

Here are a few photos before I get a much-needed coffee.  Enjoy your weekend.

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 plaît" 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?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Migration Systems

In my migration studies the theory that I liked (loved, actually) the best was migration systems theory.  I thought it captured the complexity and interdependence of migration in a wonderful way and one of my first papers was about the migration system that I thought existed between Quebec and France.

General systems theory goes back to the middle of the 20th century.  Since then it's been applied to a lot of other fields.  It argues that a system is a set of interconnecting elements that create a specific  environment that is much greater than just the sum of its parts.  In 1970 a fellow named Akin Mabogunje  (a Nigerian professor of geography) applied systems theory to internal migration between rural and urban areas.  And then it was applied more broadly to international migration.

What do I like about it?  It's a more holistic approach  In order to understand a migration flow you have to look at the whole picture:  sending AND receiving countries and the links between them be they formal or informal, economic or cultural.  In migration systems theory people are just one element among many others and it's the interaction of the elements and the creation and maintenance of links that make up the system. Furthermore, the history of those connections matter a lot; with Quebec and France I went back 400 years and traced the always evolving links to the present day.  

Evolution is the key word here.  Systems are dynamic in the sense that elements in it change and so do the links.  The demographics of Mexico, for example, or the strained circumstances of Americans on fixed incomes will change the migration system between those two countries.  The thirst for native English speaking teachers in Japan could change as could the number of Anglophones from the US, Canada, or Great Britain with university degrees willing to migrate and provide that service. Culture, science and economic ties matter, too.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans came to France and Germany to study medicine. In 17th century French urban dwellers went to Canada to become farmers. In the 21st century migration system between France and Quebec a common language is still a driver of reciprocal migration between the two - a good example of how migration between two developed countries (sometimes called north-north migration) has elements very similar to migration between developed and less developed countries.  

In 1989 James Fawcett published a very good paper that attempted to define the basic elements of a migration system. He identified four categories of linkages: State to State Relations, Mass Culture Connections, Family/Personal Networks and Migrant Agency Activities. A Mass Culture connection could be a common language or history.  State-to-state relations could be formal agreements to recognize each others professional and academic credentials.  Networks of people are another type of link where, for example, one person migrates because of marriage and other members of the family follow.  The most interesting to me are the Migrant Agency Activities which still exist and not just in the Philippines.  I think many Americans, Canadians and others would be very surprised to learn that Japanese companies in the education industry have a presence in countries outside of Japan and recruit young college graduates in major cities.  ECC. a language school in Japan is actively recruiting now in Australia, Canada, the US, and the UK. This is an important, though often overlooked, migrant recruitment that is very active and drives temporary and permanent migration from Anglophone countries to Japan.  

I find that migration systems theory is a very elegant and comprehensive way of looking at migration flows.  For instance, with a systems approach to migration between the US and Mexico would look at all the links between the two and what is happening in Mexico is just as important as what is happening in the US.  It would consider how the flows are reciprocal:  Americans migrating to Mexico, for example, as well as Mexican nationals coming to the US.  These flow are not disconnected from each other or from the other cultural or economic links. With that in mind, many migration flows look more like an exchange of people as opposed to a unilateral exodus.  Granted, one flow may be numerically greater than the other but they are still linked and in very interesting ways.

On a personal level all of us who live outside of our countries of origin can use this theory to start asking a different, much broader question then the usual "Why I moved to [insert country here]." The better question is:  How do I fit into this broader migration system between Canada and Japan, the US and France, Mexico and Spain or any other combination of countries?  An American academic, for example, in Japan will find there is a long history in Japan of importing foreign academics.  He/she might also learn that US citizens do not pay a fee for getting a Japanese visa (State to State agreement).  The contract and terms under which a foreigner was recruited for the position is a Migrant Agency Activity.  The position itself may be known to him or her because of a personal and academic network.  And it may be (something to investigate) that this migration system was kicked off (or perhaps only greatly encouraged) by war and occupation, though it is not sustained by these things today. 

Now I am not saying that there actually are migrations systems between the countries I have mentioned - that argument would require much more research than I have done in this short blog post. However, I invite you to consider your own migration experience in  light of the links between your home and host country and to consider how your own migration may have been facilitated and shaped by being part of a larger system.  It was quite a revelation to me, for example, how a sister city association between Nantes, France and Seattle, USA was the French/American link that led to my own migration to France.  So follow the links and see where they take you.

The truly fascinating aspect of migration system theory for me is that "[e]ach migration system is unique in the sense that the combinations of links between two countries will be different from one migration system to another." (Quebec and France - A Dynamic International Migration System by V. Ferauge, 2016.) That means that every migration system can be analyzed by its links but when they are taken together every migration system will be singular. For that matter, individual migration experiences are, I argue, a result of different links in different contexts which makes comparisons between migrants and flows possible, but also allows each migrant to be unique thanks to different combinations of links as well as different personal life trajectories and levels of social or economic capital. This, I find, is quite familiar to me in that it very closely resembles Amin Maalouf's take on identity and individuality: "Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me; thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other."

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Boundaries of Belonging

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.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Flophouse Garden

Taking a few weeks off to play in the garden.  A little pruning; a lot of weeding.  The biggest project was dethatching the lawn, removing the moss and putting down some fertilizer.  Here are a few pictures.  Hope you are having as pleasant a month of May as I am.