LETTERS FROM THE OUTLANDS
The Manila Times Opinion page column for Sept 16, 2010
Plurality or assimilation
BY LAKAMBINI A. SITOY
THERE was a lady, Rukhsana Khan, who came to speak at the world congress of the International Board of Books for Young People in Copenhagen the other year. Her family migrated from Pakistan to Canada when she was three. Now in her 40s she is a well-known author of young adult literature: writing in a relaxed, idiomatic English she writes books that have, in her words, Muslim and international themes. “When we first arrived in Canada,” Khan said, “it was 1965 and it was automatically assumed that immigrants would assimilate. There was no choice in the matter. The message was, 'Shut up and be grateful for being allowed into this western country club and the way you show that gratitude is by adopting our values . . . If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.'”
It was a pre-US Civil Rights movement response to the question of plurality within a nation’s borders: the effort to extinguish differences between groups in favour of an amalgamated culture. This is the melting pot model of integration, and in the face of increasing immigration and globalization it seems the most obvious, most immediate line of action. It falls to the newcomers to make adjustments. They must learn to blend in.
Immigrants experience the pressures of living at the far end of a hierarchical yardstick, with the goal being to advance by becoming as much like the dominant group as possible, in terms of “values,” and mores of speech, dress and behaviour. Explicitly or tacitly is the idea, stemming from 19th century Darwinian theory, that all societies in the world are at various stages of evolution, with European society being the most advanced, and the “others” being half-formed, uncultivated, in need of improvement.
The problem is that the dominant culture imposes different standards of assimilation upon the newly arrived. Lucky the immigrant to Denmark who comes from Western Europe, North America, Britain or Australia, for he or she comes with unquestionable credentials and the presumption that any cultural differences there may be are negligible. Or at any rate charming. Ways worth imitating perhaps.
The new arrival from Asia, Latin American or Africa lacks the benefit of this respect. We are, on the whole, I think, judged not so much lacking in native intelligence as in education and exposure, in sophistication. We come to Denmark to fulfil ourselves. Denmark completes us, whether in terms of philosophies or musical tastes or learning to work the microwave oven. We come from countries, of course, that, in this era of globalization, offer Western education and churn out the world’s garments, mobile phones and microwave ovens. But so the myth goes.
There is the additional impediment of race: that difference in physical appearance that is hard to ignore. I attended Danish language classes a total of two years. At the start, every foreigner grappled with the embarrassment of new vowel sounds and missing consonants, but by the fourth level it seemed to me the students from Eastern Europe were more fluent and confident than those from China, Turkey or Peru who had spent the same amount of time in the country. Yet they did not have the benefit of having a Germanic language (like English or Dutch) as their native tongue. I conjectured at the time that people from Eastern Europe enjoy a tacit acceptance, because in the country of the blond they are non-exotic.
By contrast, I felt, a darker complexioned immigrant is never really allowed to forget her strangeness. In social situations she is called upon to relate (or embellish) what is unusual about her country. She is teased or made the butt of jokes to ease the strain of difference. Or, conversely, she is judged irrelevant and then ignored.
Race “is” a factor, not necessarily in how well one takes to a (Scandinavian) language, but because it seems the most obvious and plausible explanation for one’s difficulties. But the matter is really not that simple, and I hope to discuss it further in the future.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have some set cultural points to rally round, as has been the case with Khan, whose career direction, habits of dress (headscarf and long dresses) and the milieu in which she raised her daughters (all three eventually and independently made the decision to wear the burqa), reflect an early and long-running resistance to assimilation into the mainstream. Today she enjoys the benefits of living in a Canada that leans towards a different approach to plurality, that recognizes the individuality of groups and accords them legal rights based on their conditions.
“Following the American Civil Rights movement,” she said, “Canada would be multicultural. We would celebrate everyone’s culture. Nobody had to assimilate . . . as long as they followed the laws and paid their taxes they were free to live as they pleased.”
But in this new land I find it difficult to locate what is specifically Filipino myself, much less hook up with other people who agree on those cultural points and would be loath to abandon them. How should a Filipino dress, talk, worship? Should I, a Protestant, get in with the Catholics because they are the majority? Are we traitors because none of us wear the national costume, the long dress with butterfly sleeves so associated with Imelda Marcos? And must we gripe because our choices landed us in reticent Denmark, instead of the sprawling, freewheeling nation on the other side of the Atlantic?