Thursday, June 14, 2007

"Why do those damn foreigners try to be just like us instead of enriching our culture and making it more vibrant?"

In the comments to my previous multiculturalism entry Lotta said that she has sought the answers to the questions "Peaceful coexistence takes two. What do you do if the other culture does not wish to coexist peacefully?" and "What do you do if the other culture's values are absolutely incompatible with your own?", and the answers have usually been "Cultures change and influence each other" and "People are more than products of their culture and can switch between several cultural identities."

This is undoubtedly true. Problem is, it's kind of hard to be sure in which directions they change, which culture will influence which culture in which way, and which identities particular people will want to switch into under which circumstances.

(Actually it's not all that hard to make educated guesses, but if you decided in advance that everything will be ok in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this tends to affect the education and the guesses. Not that the educated guess are always right, either.)

As an aside on cultural influences: Europe has admitted millions of immigrants from a culture that does not believe in peaceful coexistence (don't mean that none of them believe in it, only that their level of belief in peaceful coexistence is much lower than that of the native populations). Noticed any decline in the belief in peaceful coexistence among the native populations lately?

But I digress. What I really wanted to talk about is that in my admittedly limited experience multiculturalists do not really believe in these things (cultural change and switching between cultural identities) themselves, or rather believe in them less than the general population.

In a way this is understandable. If you believe that all the cultures are equal, it is quite reasonable of you to be suspicious of people who want to change their cultural identity. You might suspect that they, unlike you, have decided that the new culture is better than the old one and therefore do not believe in the equality of the cultures.

I usually criticize multiculturalism from the point of view of a westerner, and try to be reasonably civilized about it. When I start criticizing it from the point of view of the immigrant it is a lot harder to keep the critique civilized.

Luckily I did not see the worst of it, or rather only saw it happen to other people. When we came to the US as refugees in the eighties the immigration system was not overrun by multiculturalists yet (it still isn't, for that matter; the school system is, at least in the Boston area). When I came to Finland in the nineties I was a foreign student and therefore not subjected to any ministrations of the social services. So I got to live in peace without anyone trying to strengthen my cultural identity, at least on the official level.

I really don't know from under what log all these identity strengtheners crawl out nowadays. In spite of a considerable number of refugees who like to visit the old countries and claim that everything was better back there, a refugee is, by definition, in a rather bad relationship with his or her former country. Anyone who has two brain cells to rub together should sort of figure out that at least a sizable percentage of refugees really do not want to have their cultural identity or their ties to their homeland strengthened. In a way a refugee leaving the old country is like an abused spouse being escorted from his or her home by police and filing for divorce: it's really not the right situation to tell people how wonderful their marriage was and how they should strengthen their ties to it.

The first person of that kind was my history teacher in high school. There were five Soviet refugees in our history class, and he kept telling us all how wonderful Russia was and how we should maintain our ties to it, and how we are just stupid kids and therefore do not understand yet what a wonderful country we came from. We usually answered along the lines of "if you like it so much, asshole, why don't you move there yourself". He clearly preferred to like it from a safe distance, though.

There were more people like that, both in the US and in Finland, all of them multiculturalists (usually they said it, mostly in the form of claiming that all cultures are equally good; sometimes I asked). In the beginning I was quite amazed at the number of people who wanted to tell me that my (Russian) culture was as good as theirs; I tried to explain to them that this was most obviously not the case, as evidenced by hundreds of thousands of people moving from Russia to the US and very few moving the other way, and suggested that if they don't want to take my word for it they can try it for themselves.

One thing they all had in common is that they clearly did not believe in cultural change, or at least in my right to change myself and my cultural identity in ways not approved by them. They had a grand vision of the country where different cultures live together in peace while retaining their separate identities and changing just enough (and just in the right direction) to live together in peace and harmony. And that vision did not have a place for me. Or for my parents or grandparents. Or for any of their friends. Or for anyone else who has rejected their old country and culture.

(I haven't rejected the Russian culture completely, BTW. I occasionally shop in Russian food stores, own Russian books, CDs and DVDs. What I have rejected is Russian identity and any connection to the country. I rejected quite a lot of the actual everyday culture, too. I occasionally read Russian web forums, and most attitudes expressed there are quite familiar to me, but alien. They are not mine. Some of them used to be mine, but the thought feels strange. I have no desire to reconnect.

Part of it is how I was raised, of course. When you keep telling a kid "you are not a real Russian" and "you can never be one of us", chances are the kid will figure she doesn't want to be one of you anyway. The first time this was explained to me was in daycare at the age of 5 - by the staff, no less - and by the age of 8 it was quite clear to me that I was not interested in being one of them and that the only thing I wanted from them was to get away from them, the sooner the better.

No need to tell me that not all the Russian people are like that. I know this. I have met a lot of wonderful Russian people, both in Russia and outside of it. I just can't find in myself anything but hostility for the Russian nation as such.)

Anyway, that is the country, the culture and the past that some multiculturalists wanted me to embrace, with the result that I told them to do their own damn embracing if that's what they feel like. I don't think they ever did, though.

The idea that the culture is somehow immutably in the blood and that switching completely or for the most part to another culture is either impossible or undesirable is not limited to the multiculturalists, of course. It is embraced, even more so, by those nationalists who are into ethnic romanticism, and to a much lesser extent by normal people. The difference is, the kind of nationalists who are into ethnic romanticism are usually considered somewhat insane in civilized countries, for the most part with good reason, whereas multiculturalists often get to make policy nowadays.

When I was in high school (and the multiculturalists did not make policy) they tested all incoming foreign kids' English skills, and either put them into normal English classes, or the English For Foreigners classes, or, if their English was really bad, into a class where things were explained to them in their own languages (usually Russian or Chinese - the third common language in that school was Hebrew but they all knew English well). It worked, the kids learned English, moved on to normal English classes, integrated quickly, etc.

Nowadays the same school district decided that they want to have bilingual education in Russian - the kind of program where they teach subjects in both English and Russian. I seriously doubt the usefulness of those as far as integration is concerned, but OK, let those who want it have it...

But no, it was not just for those who wanted it. A friend of ours has a daughter, and the school somehow figured that she was bilingual and tried to force her into that program without asking her or her parents' permission. The girl came to the US when she was 2 and spoke English like any native-born American. She also spoke pretty good Russian and read Russian books, but she had no interest in being educated in Russian. The school insisted, however, and the girl and her parents had to make a big scandal in order to keep her in an English-speaking program.

Something has gone seriously wrong when an American girl has to make a big scandal in her school district in order to receive her public education in English. All because she happened to have been born in Russia. Racism, anyone?

(For that matter - does anyone know whether or not the native language classes for immigrants in Finnish schools are obligatory?)

I understand that multiculturalists mostly mean well, in a way in which the staff of my Russian daycare did not. Road to hell, good intentions, etc. However, to me all the attempts to make immigrants "practice their own culture" or "strengthen their identity" have exactly the same ring and taste to them as the antisemitic slurs of my childhood: "you are not one of us and you will never be one of us". As ethnic prejudice goes, this is way worse than, say, drunk guys in night buses who scream that fucking foreigners never work for a living and always come here to live on welfare: in my experience the rednecks who like to stereotype you are usually willing to consider evidence to the contrary; the people who have a Vision of a Better World, unfortunately, are not. Not until you threaten to sue them for discrimination, anyway.

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