Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Imposed Culture

I know how the French feel now.

When Americans visit France, sometimes there is a cultural tension that results from the presumption of some American visitors that everyone should be able to speak English while providing any service. French people get very irritated at this because they have establsihed a wonderful French cultured whose fine lifestyle and values are closely intertwined with the French language to amount to "Frenchness". Something that is often envied and used in marketing around the world. The French are often the example to the world of a "good life" kind of society.

This is all wonderful, having a cultural identity. Things get uncomfortable for the French when immigrants don't want to assimilate to "Frenchness" and live the good life. Also, when foreign visitors presume there should be some accomodation made by the French to a foreign (to France) language or culture. The French feel "we are the source of high society and good living, you should adapt to be more like us, not the other way around".

I can see their point. We do like to use the French-mystique to our advantage when trying to portray something as exclusive or wonderful in some way. This is still true even given the disagreements between the French and Americans over Iraq policy.

Unless the world is supposed to homogenize to a bland averageness, local culture should be valued. This idea of culture will have some unfortunate ethnic and racial overtones at times. Simply having a unique culture means "We are We and Thou art Thee" and that means people will try to find characteristics they can use to sort out who's whom. Sometimes this will be language or perhaps a general "look". This is all quaint until it gets ugly.

When I visit another country, though I want some benefit of the doubt for simply not knowing everything, my cognitive position is that I am an outsider and should respect and adapt to local customs and laws. If local customs are so out of harmony with my beliefs and values that they are offensive to me, it is probably my responsibility not to visit that country or to keep my dissatisfaction to myself while I am there.

Now to my point. If I were to illegally immigrate into another country I would not presume having any rights or any privelage to ignore bothering to learn the local language. I know that when enough people who only speak Mexican Spanish arrive in my neighborhood that they will be able to run their own economy and culture never needing to learn English. Many of them will have immigrated legally, but many others will be here illegally AND make their own subculture. This might be organic, human and part of the process of change. I find it personally irritating and an affront to the law abiding, legal immigrants and citizens of the country.

It's almost like people from other countries don't "feel" that the American laws apply to them and they feel that the English speaking American culture is foreign to them and they don't see the hypocrisy I see in having migrated contrary to our laws. They are, after all, not "their laws".

Sometimes people display the flag of a foreign country on TV or in their vehicles. I saw a large Mexican flag being waved about live on camera on one of the 2006 New Years Eve specials.

This is America, it should be ok to speak freely or appreciate other cultures or display a flag from whereever you choose. I have always been an American patriot, even though I was born in Canada, because my mother is a patriotic American and taught me to love her home country. I have displayed French flags while learning French, just to appreciate the culture. I had a large Belgian flag in my room at one point. Lots of people display the Union Jack (British Flag) for fun or style cause it's a cool symbol. I am ok with similar displays of other flags, such as those from immigrant's home countries.

There is something different, though, when an ethnic group disregards our country's laws, immigrates en masse and doesn't even bother to learn the language or participate in the system of government much less the culture. Then I start to feel like the French. I feel more of an "us vs. them" mentality. I feel that this is my country and people came here to be in it, they should respect it and adopt it or go home. An illegal immigrant waving a flag is not simply showing pride in a culture, it starts to look like a cultural invasion.

I was trying to order a sandwhich at the local blimpie inside a BP gas station near my home. BP is already a foreign company, but the sandwhich counter rep. could not speak word one of English. It was as if...this is a place for spanish speakers only and that I was somehow out of place. I found this to be incredibly irritating. I have nothing against Mexican people or cultures. I think Spanish is a fine European colonial language just like English is such. However, I am an American. I speak English and I am here in America expecting those who come from other countries, like I did, to respect and adopt the American culture. I know they will add to it, but I simply do not accept that they should disrespect it and ignore our laws and culture. They don't have to come here to live if they don't want to.

My view is not oversimplistic, I am in favor of legal migraton and integration. I use a lot of new words that come from there being many Spanish speaking immigrants around. I welcome that. I eat Mexican Food with pleasure. Though I hold the line that illegal immigration is not tolerable. After that, even legally immigrating people need to understand they are becoming part of a vast and diverse American culture that is necessarily not going to be Mexican, if it is going to be a new and different life. Someone who doesn't see the importance of speaking my language in my country will not get my business.

What makes it so? All the little wars, skirmishes and social battles won in the past brought us to where we are. I want a United States type of America. There is a reason there is not a movement to become part of Mexico. We think we have something that cannot be had in the Mexican system and so do 12 million illegal immigrants from Mexico. The question is, can they flout the law and ignore the local culture and expect something better than the corrupt society they left behind?

The same goes for North Africans in France, West Africans in Spain and all the other migration around the world.


Pete Dunn said...

-chirp- Senior, your churro is getting cold.

C.L. Hanson said...

It's a little more complicated here in France. Just the other day in my neighborhood I saw a demonstration by a bunch of people promoting the Occitan language, singing in that language and waving flags of that culture. They're a bit of a minority, but they have a legitimate claim that it was a foreign culture that was imposed on them. Ditto for the local Basque population.

There is a large population of kids Arab or North African ethnic origin attending my kids' school. I sometimes hear the moms speaking to each other in Arabic as they are coming to pick up or drop off their kids, but the kids speak good French, and get along well with the other ethnicities in the school. The school also makes a special effort to do programs highlighting the origins of kids from bilingual homes, and I always participate (doing a part of the program in English) along with other parents who speak lots of other languages...

Debbie Aumen said...

Here in NC, there is a considerable Mexican immigrant population, both legal and illegal. Some attempt to learn English as a second language. Others are offended (or act that way) if you cannot speak their language to accomodate them, say in a business or whatever.

I have also lived in South Florida, particularly Miami and the Keys. In that area, Cuban immigrants have made their homes. What I found to be amazing, though, was the fact that there are some areas of Miami ("Little Havana") where there are older people who have never even bothered to learn English. Lots of billboards are in Spanish only. Most jobs require applicants to be bilingual. While I am pretty much bilingual, I still found it irritating that this was REQUIRED in the English-speaking country of the USA. Call me prejudiced if you want, but I know that if I were to go to either Mexico or Cuba to live, I would be expected to speak Spanish in order to adapt and live comfortably there. This double standard isn't fair, in my opinion. The one thing I really thought was great, though, was the fact that, from practically the beginning of their school years, my kids were taught Spanish as a second language. At least they didn't have to wait until college to try and adapt to their surrounding circumstances.

Hope you don't mind my commenting.