Friday, June 14, 2024
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As a ‘Briton’ from France, I ask: How could any migrant hate this country?


DOMINIC Raab’s Tory conference speech and the appalling events in France have prompted me to write about what it means to live between one’s native land and one’s adopted land.  

‘Why is it,’ asked the Foreign Secretary, ‘that some people find it so hard to take pride in this great country of ours?’ 

I have asked myself the same question in relation to immigration. Why do some 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?

Why are some driven to violence against the people of the country that generously nurtured them by desecrating its monuments, toppling its statues, beheading its people, all at the service of pernicious and misguided ideologies?   

In the wake of the 2016 referendum, I was dismayed by how my European acquaintances seemed to want to continue to live in this country and yet professed to dislike everything about it.

Their criticisms did not take the form of violence, but the vehemence with which they were expressed is nonetheless concerning, especially when coming from people in positions of authority who use discourse to divide rather than unite society. 

As a lecturer in languages and cross-cultural communication at a UK university, and myself a product of immigration, I would like to offer a few insights into what it means to live on the boundary, between native and foreign land, and what kinds of patterns of immigration we should encourage and discourage post-Brexit.  

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 and smilingly commanded the class in English: ‘Sit down.’   

Those very first sounds of English were like sweet music to my French ears. At the end of the lesson, I remember saying to Madame Diop: ‘I will become an English teacher.’   

Little did I know that 12 years later I would be teaching English literature in a secondary school to teenage boys completely unaware that English was not my first language.  

I found out later that others like me had experienced the same kind of ‘emigrating’ phenomenon. The French writer André Gide claimed that in order to acquire a foreign language one had to distance oneself from one’s mother tongue: ‘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.’

This temporary abandonment of my first language was, for me, a necessary condition of engaging with my second. This can, of course, be felt as a traumatic loss of one’s own identity. 

The question ‘migrants’ must ask themselves is: ‘If the relationship we entertain with another language, another culture, another religion, potentially threatens our sense of identity, then what must that relationship be like?’ 

The much-debated notion of ‘intersectionality’ in the context of race is currently receiving bad press. Yet it is a helpful notion if it is interpreted as a kind of dynamic negotiation of our self-images, always in the process of change.   

Let me give you an example. As an individual, I occupy many intersections. I am a Christian, bi-cultural French and English, and a gay man. If I am ever to produce a nuanced description of how my characteristics intersect, it becomes crucially important that I do not provide a list of them, roster-like, and, worse, that I do not produce a hierarchy, favouring one over another.   

There will always be others keen to highlight the possible dissonances in your intersections. I lose count of the number of times I have been asked: ‘How can you both be gay and a Christian?’ or ‘Do you feel French or English?’  

This is where Black Lives Matter and diversity training programmes are so misguided: it is simply wrong to posit one intersection as more important, as more ‘protected’ than another. By favouring one intersection over another, we inevitably run the risk of erasing diverse ways of being black, diverse ways of being gay, diverse ways of being a Christian.   

So the question is, what must our relationship be like with the country that gives us hospitality, if it involves losing a certain sense of our identity? In answering that, we need to look at how we come to reconcile what Professor John E Joseph of Edinburgh University calls our ‘repertoire of identities’ and how we enter into dialogue with the Other.   

The notion of a repertoire is central here, as it points to how individuals voice and reconcile their diverse allegiances: My allegiances to France, my allegiances to the UK.  

As Joseph observes, no group can be perceived as ‘culturally homogeneous’, and individuals’ repertoires of identity are combinations of various ways of being, for example, a gay black man born of a mixed marriage in the context of an Anglican Church.  

So how did I reconcile my repertoire of identities in the past 40 years of my life in this country? And how is this a demonstration to my dissatisfied acquaintances that the United Kingdom post-Brexit is amazingly inclusive of diversity and needs no lessons from the EU, or indeed any other country?  

When 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, I experienced what theorists of culture shock call ‘the honeymoon period’, when I perceived everything about England through the prism of loveliness.  

Of course, difficult times followed; the ‘frustration’ phase inevitably comes about when someone says to you: ‘No matter how hard you try, you will never be one of us.’ In my field of cross-cultural communication, there is a word for this kind of utterance. It is called ‘othering’, i.e. when someone makes you feel marginalised, not part of the ‘in-group’, not in the centre of things, definitely on the periphery.  

I would be dishonest if I said that this comment did not aggrieve me at the time. Yet now I am immensely grateful for it. One can never take living in the adopted land for granted. Hospitality – which, by the way, is etymologically related to hostility – is a very fine thing. But too many of ‘me’ in the adopted land and it becomes imbalanced.

For hospitality usually operates on the basis of reciprocity. Clearly, that person felt I was imposing, presuming too much. 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.  

Your religion, your beliefs, albeit securely grounded, will have to enter into dialogue with new ones. Thus, the shadow side of your own religion may be revealed by another set of beliefs, and you will be all the stronger for that. There is, or should be, no other way. Otherwise, you are trespassing, you are violating, you are invading. 

Gradually my academic leanings and perseverance led me to Clare College, Cambridge, where I spent some of the most exciting years of my life studying for a PhD in Linguistics. I now live in Matlaske, a village in the North Norfolk countryside. 

The village is a reflection of intersectionality. My partner and I 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 are welcomed by the Local – the village.   

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 is a harmonious resolution of the tensions between the Global and the Local. Our intersectional identities mean that newness comes into its world.   

But again, newness comes into the world slowly. It must not be rushed. This is because as newcomers we have the responsibility that lies in showing we can handle our diverse intersections, and the responsibility that lies in managing the temporary abandonment of our own language whilst dwelling with pleasure and gratitude in the language of our future, in the linguistic and cultural abundance it offers us.  

Gratitude seems in short supply in the language and actions of my critical European acquaintances, of the BLM supporters and of the Muslim murderers. Learning English and coming to live here, I have experienced what the essayist and philosopher George Steiner 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 both in this country and in the country where I was born have nurtured me along my journey on the boundary, between native and alien land, a sacred place to be. By contrast, the kind of immigration patterns we have allowed is nothing short of sacrilege.  

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Dr Alain J E Wolf
Dr Alain J E Wolf
Dr Alain J E Wolf is a lecturer in intercultural communication at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, and author of Researching across Languages and Cultures, published by Routledge.

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