The Integration Chronicles – Part 2

In the recent general election, the neo-right of Austrian politics took more than 20% of the vote. Much of this was a protest at the ruling coalition of red-black and a desire for reform to a system which almost exclusively maintains a reductionist division of power in the guise of a grand coalition of democratic socialism and liberal conservatism. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that you contend. But it is why if the two big parties do not seek more inclusivity in this coming parliamentary term, assuming they form the government again, then in five years Strache and his cohorts, propelled to power by a increasingly disaffected electorate goaded by lack of reform, could be the next but one chancellor of Austria.

I mention this because a key message from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the election campaign of 2013 was one of integration. I am not sure this was always the case. What I mean by this is that in the past the FPÖ would have preferred that all foreigners just went home (if you have ever run a pub you will sympathize with this sentiment). But in recent times the message has been modified somewhat, almost as if there is a tacit acceptance that immigration is inevitable (it always was but history is a fickle mistress). And given this inevitability, the rhetoric and stance has shifted accordingly and instead we hear more and more about the importance of integration, its associated failures, and the implications this might have on Viennese social, cultural and economic life (a dilution of these elements you might say).

But before we get carried away and assume the neo-right have gone soft, a word of elucidation. The message is not so much about highlighting the deficiencies of state and city policies of integration; it is rather an attempt to apportion blame at the feet of the immigrants themselves. In other words, criticism of Vienna’s integration policy is not necessarily a failure of the political will of Vienna (it is and it isn’t in the sense it is the duty of the FPÖ to criticise from the sidelines), but a reluctance amongst some immigrant communities themselves to take responsibility, and if they feel marginalised then they only have themselves to blame.

But is it really so simple? I resolved from day one to immerse myself in Viennese life. I frequented their pubs, I ate their food, watched their television, read their newspapers, consolidated my smoking addiction, and made slow inroads into learning the language (my first phrase was “Eine Flasche Bier bitte“). In a sense I was an instigator, an integrator, a beer drinker. Of course, this might have been made easier as I am foreigner class two and had a Viennese girlfriend (why else would I be here?). Although with a slight tinge of ginger when I had more hair, and British parents (divorced) of Caucasian origin, I know what it feels like to be an outsider. Yet, in spite of living here, I can understand how one might seek alternatives to the Viennese way of life and exist outside some conventional mainstream. I like most what Vienna and Austria has to offer but I am buggered if I am going to suddenly develop a liking for Volksmusik.

But such political rhetoric is embedded in the individual and personal accountability. Rather than looking at the “supply” side of integration (what instruments the state will employ to aid and secure multi-cultural integration – language courses, social housing, education) it explores the “demand” side (what mechanisms does the individual take to integrate – social customs, acquiring language actively, getting pissed in the Heurige and shagging locals).

The same arguments could be used in education (everyone’s favourite social controversy). One will often read that standards in schooling are dependent on investment, class size, teacher expertise and training, testing regimes, streaming of pupils, the food the school provides and any other number of “killer apps”, to quote a popular phrase, which may impact on a child’s performance. But imagine for a moment if we argued that the issue of educational standards and performance was not about any of these factors (the supply side) but about the kids themselves and ultimately their parents (demand). In short, it is not the system that is at fault, it is YOU.

My social conscience and political leanings generally forbid me to entertain such arguments, a viewpoint which is in essence: adapt but not too nosily or bugger off! But a couple of years ago I had an epiphanic episode which radically altered my perception of the challenges of integration. It came about during a summer when I did a morning’s work with a group of teenage kids, mostly the children of immigrants, attending summer school as part of an integrations educational project in the 15th district. Essentially, they needed extra language tuition to pass their end-of-year exams which they had to re-sit in September to advance to the next year. In effect, English was their third language and therefore it was not surprising that they needed a bit of a boost (I learned French at school for five years and to this day can only ask the way to the station and say “pah!”)

Most were also there for German language assistance (the afternoon session) which at first seemed logical to me. You come here as a child and it is not inconceivable that there is some linguistic catching up to achieve in your adopted country. But through the course of the English session, where I invariably looked for something to do that wasn’t real teaching (have a natter), it soon became apparent that about a third of the kids were born and bred in Vienna, all from Turkish families. So what? Half the English football team, born in England, can’t communicate in English and they do all right (even sometimes at football). But this wasn’t just about weakness in reading and writing, seemingly it was transcended competence in speaking as well.

Given everything I know about language acquisition, this fascinated, shocked and bothered me. These were second or third generation children of immigrants who had lived all their lives in Austria and been through the school system. They should have integrated, it was inevitable was my unyielding belief and, as a consequence, it was irrational to me that some of them still struggled to communicate adequately in the language of their birth nation. In a sense they should have been native speakers and they were not. And so I probed further trying to engage them in conversation:

  •  What is the best thing about Vienna? I asked.
  • Nothing is good about Vienna, came the reply.
  • Sensing a challenge, I persevered. There must be something, I asked. Okay, what do you want to do when you leave school?
  • Go and work in Ankara, I was told.
  • Why?
  • It is the best place in the world.
  • Really, why is it better than Vienna?
  • Everything in Ankara is better than Vienna.
  • Have you ever been there?
  • No.

And so it went on. For brevity, I paraphrase; but the gist is there. Nothing good to say about Vienna, nothing good to say about Austria (and this from people born here). I eventually got them to concede that perhaps the shopping on Mariahilferstrasse was okay. But not as good as Ankara.

In the break I chatted to the German teacher (a Serb) and asked her what she thought about this. A veteran of the integration project she explained that some parts of the Turkish community are indeed insular and self-contained. Even children that are born here receive little exposure to German before primary school and exist in a world where access to Austrian social and cultural capital life is restricted, perhaps intentionally. Once they reach state education at seven, for many it is too late. Their first language is Turkish, their cultural reference points are Turkish and their appreciation of Vienna and Austria is severely curtailed. Was it a problem of Vienna not providing enough opportunities for immigrants and making them feel unwelcome, I asked, or did these families simply show no desire to integrate? My colleague simply shrugged her shoulders which I took to mean a bit of both.

We conclude in part 3, cleverly entitled part 3.

© RJ Barratt 2013

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