Carriage before the Horse

Though my muse ran away with me in the creation of this website and blog, it should never go without saying: I am exceedingly happy that you have taken the time to visit and read my (mis)adventures. I hope that from my experiences those of you who are moving to another country (perhaps England like myself) will be armed with some added foresight and forewarning that will make your own transition less nerve wrecking. For those of you who are on the receiving end of such a transplant, it is my desire that you gain some sense of how it may feel for those moving to your homeland and possibly give some insight on how to ease this transition and provide you with some additional knowledge that will aid in your supporting your friend/colleague/loved one through this challenging time.

I know I will be relying on the loving support of my fiancee. We both hope to embrace this challenge head-on and not shy away from the troubles as they surface. It will, at times, be frustrating for my fiancee at times, as there are certainly things that he knows and accepts as common knowledge (and to an extent, takes for granted) that will be foreign concepts to me; completely outside my normal that I will have a hard time accepting.

The largest complaint I hear from those who have people from other countries moving into their own native land is that these foreigners “do not integrate” into the new society and live within their own bubble communities. This… refusal (I hesitate to say it this way, as I feel that it is more a case of a lack of understanding more than an outright rejection that causes this more than anything else) to assimilate can cause outright hostility from both sides of the exchange.

This is, I believe, the root of the “them versus us” mentality that so many adopt when faced with a culture clash. Because it leads to such strained relationships with the “outsiders” and the “insiders,” it skirts dangerously close with discrimination.

Being from the “melting pot” that is the United States of America, I have seen and experienced this in my own life from the “insider” perspective as well. Coming from what is considered a “typical” American middle-class family, the neighborhood I grew up was within walking distance from the heart of the city. When my family moved there when I was 6 years old, it was largely populated by those of African-american decent. Out of all of the houses on my street, there were only three homes that were not – mine included.

As I grew and there was an influx of Latin-american immigrants relocating to the area, I noticed that, on a whole, these newcomers did not interact with the rest. In fact, the children of these families would not even speak to someone who did not speak Spanish in front of their parents (I was told by one such child, I remember, that this was because she was “not allowed to speak English at home”).

Perhaps I had something of a leg-up on some of the other neighborhood children when it came to socializing with new children in the neighborhood; because I was the daughter of a second-generation immigrant (my mother’s father was from Peru), one from a latin country at that, the parents of these children were less concerned about me, as I looked much like them and openly embraced learning their language (the first phrase I learned was “¿Como estas?” – “How are you?”). Because of this, there was very little tension between “them” and my own family.

Of course, there were many that objected to the newcomers. Many people openly joked about how many people “they” could fit into one house, how there was never any parking on the streets available on the weekends – and if there was, it was joked that “immigration must have been called.” There were many that turned their noses up at the states of the houses in which “these people” lived, often assuming that, if a house had no grass in their front yard, or that the front porch was packed to the gills with bags of clothing or furniture, that house was automatically a “Latino home.”

For many who were less tolerant, the neighborhood was “becoming a little Tiajaunna.” Did it ever come down to actual hate crimes? Not that I ever saw, but the animosity was impossible to ignore.

It was very unfortunate; if people only tried to interact with the newcomers, they would have found them to be just as friendly and eager to please as anyone. So many of the immigrant families wanted to be accepted and to be welcomed, but because they were afraid (as some did not speak English very well, if at all, they did not really understand beyond what one can glean from body language) they withdrew into themselves, creating this clustering effect.

You might have noticed that this was in a past-tense. It -was- like this; so what changed? The children that were my age got older, they got married and because many of them were born and raised in America, they knew and understood things better than their parents – they studied in the same schools as everyone else, after all – they spoke English (some still better than others), they were more aware of what America had to offer beyond job opportunities and free schools.

This generation of children became parents, and their children are even more “Americanized” than they are, and the generation after them will be more still. Leaving me with this one conclusion; as frustrating as it is for the onlookers, all sub-cultures, once exposed to a new culture, will eventually adapt and converge with it. If the first generation doesn’t “get it” the second will be more receptive and each one after that will be more so.

To my knowledge, unless the first generation is actively receptive (such as my cousins, great-aunts and uncles, who learned English by watching television shows like Hogan’s Heroes and X-Men), this is the only way integration is achieved. Slow process? Most definitely; but it happens nonetheless.

So for those of you who feel as though their hometown is being turned into a “slum-city” or that the community’s principles are “being eroded,” take a deep breath and keep my words in mind: they will become part of the community eventually – you just have to wait and be patient.

And, for goodness sake, don’t demand it of them; such things will not happen through force. Just as you are intimidated and anxious about them coming in and changing things, for immigrants, their culture is about the only thing they have left to remind them of who they are and where they come from – this is their identity. Just as you hate them challenging the identity of your community, they will hate -you- for demanding that they throw their own identities away.

I will be moving to England; but I will never be completely “English.” Not because I don’t want to integrate, but because I was raised as an American – every thought and fibre of my being is American. While I will attempt to adapt my actions and behaviors to “fit in,” I will never be able to erase my identity. It isn’t just a nationality (there is no such thing as “just a nationality”), it is a state of mind. My children will be English-American; English more-so as England will be where they will grow up, but they will still be influenced by my own culture; it is unavoidable. Their children, however, will be almost completely English (understand, there will be some key “American” traits that will be passed down from generation-to-generation) with their children’s children more-so than the last.

But what is “American”? In truth, Americans come in flavors. Someone who was born and raised by a family who was in California for generations (3+ generations, I assume, but there has been no study to back this up) shares very little in common with someone who can boast the same kind of lineage from New York. Likewise, the differences between someone like myself (a Minnesotan) and someone from Texas are about as vast as the hundreds of miles between the two states.

So, perhaps, to say that I will always be American isn’t quite right; as what I see as American very likely is Minnesotan behavior, but I digress… to use a turn of phase to say it in fewer words: “you can take the an American out of America, but you can’t take the America out of the American.”

What does this mean for those receiving a transplant like myself? Only that this should always be in the back of their minds whenever the new person does something that does not “jive” with the standard social norms. I cannot speak for everyone, but for myself, I would rather be asked “is this an American thing?” than for someone to just assume that I’m being intentionally or consciously aggressive or difficult.

Likewise, I will have to rely on my fiancee to to notice and recognize that when I am frustrated by something, I am on a sub-conscious level confused and having difficulty understanding not just they how of things that are done, but the why they are done that way. But the burden is not his alone; I will have to be more aware of my emotions and, while I may not be able to pin down exactly what seems so “off” to me, I will have to make the effort to acknowledge it.

This holds as much true for micro-cultures as it does for the large culture. An example would be the micro-culture of my fiancee’s family. Where my family’s micro-culture dictates that one should not care about what they wear or how they look unless there is a special event or a specific dress-code to follow, his family’s micro-culture demands that, at all times, one must look their absolute best (for example: his mother will put on make-up before she will go to the grocery store. In comparison: The most I will absolutely do before going to the store is change out of my sweatpants/pajamas before I leave).

From my perspective, this behavior is pointless (my micro-culture tells me that there is no one at the store that I need to impress, so I shouldn’t bother) and I therefore will even occasionally go to the store in my sweatpants and ignore the fact that maybe I should have worn socks before I put on my shoes. However, for my fiancee, his micro-culture demands that he put on a fresh shirt, trousers and flip-flops are absolutely forbidden to leave the house.

It was astounding how such a small difference in expectations caused such a social faux pas. In the situation where this came up, I felt very confused as to -why- this was such a big deal (Again, “Who do I have to impress at the grocery store?” is the response from my micro-culture). Most unfortunately, by the micro-culture of my fiancee’s family, my behavior is deemed low-class (or, “estate,” as in from government-owned housing, in their nomenclature) and I have yet to convince them otherwise.

When this had transpired, I was not half as aware of just how different our sub-cultures could have been. Strangely my fiancee’s sub-culture, despite being from a place 4,000 miles away from Minnesota, is very similar to my own. I had taken for granted (and, in fact, assumed) this similarity in the same way that a person learning a new language will find and use “false cognates” (that is to say, use a word that looks or sounds similar to something in one language but means something completely different in another) in an effort to communicate.

One could say, in its own way, this misadventure caused me to initially dream up the idea of this blog. So in a way, you can thank my future mother-in-law for its inspiration. All in all, from what I learned, the experience was worth it, don’t you think?

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