The Integration Chronicles – Part 3

On occasions, I like to wind people up. Not in the practical joke sense, more for the reaction it engenders (it is the reaction that I find so appealing). I can’t help it because I am English. I was born to take the piss and is mostly to do with social dysfunction (see Watching the English by anthropologist, Kate Fox).

As Kate explains, it is primarily why we drink and why our default setting is humour. It is not that our humour is any better than any other culture (apart from most of Europe, North and South America, Asia and large parts of Africa and Australasia) but it subsumes everything. It means every social interaction is a joke or a potential for jokery, and nothing should be taken too seriously, least of all ourselves. It is a wonder we ever got our collective shit together to have an Empire.

To integrate in England (actually anywhere in the UK) you have to be prepared to laugh at yourself. Earnestness and self-importance are forbidden and if you are unable to partake in the elusive yet integral science of the wind up, then you can never be a true Brit. In short, you will find integration impossible. Which is why whenever integration and the assimilation of foreigners raises it contentious head, nudging people to momentarily stir from their post-industrial, head in the smartphone slumber, I seize my chance to engage in a bit of divisive fun. And how else could I do this but with my extensively researched, fully approved Austrian citizenship test.

In the test we assess some of the indispensable facets of Austrian history, culture, sport and gastronomic convention. The questions entwine the partly serious and deliberately daft and as it ensues (used mostly during teaching) we discover very quickly the rich misgivings of posing such questions about suitability for citizenship.

The reason for this it is almost impossible to define knowledge which confers true assimilation and renders any test like it largely meaningless. I know this because most of my test-takers are lifelong Austrians. Ordinarily, their intergratory credentials would be beyond reproach. But if, as I have discovered, many of them cannot even answer basic questions about Austrian political and social life, or how to honk your horn at irksome cyclists, then why should we place value on such knowledge in anybody else? (Incidentally, I have used it on non-Austrians and the results were more or less the same.)

This is not a criticism of a nationality. This is purely an observation of what defines cultural legitimacy and the folly of chasing it. There is nothing truly revelatory in any of this but it is why if anyone complains about too many foreigners, I sit them down and ask, in my most genteel deportment (disguising my brimming contempt behind the wonders of British dentistry), whether they could explain to me what makes someone – go on whisper it – a foreigner? It is a wondrous moment and I revel in its intellectual pursuit. And I know it is only a matter of time before my counterpart, equipped with the usual arsenal of contrary rhetological fallacies, will eventually flounder in a Sackgasse (dead-end) of irrationality and misinformed supposition. Like it changes anything.

Yet such tests, in an institutional sense, are captivating for their proposers because they underpin and convey tradition. More so because they are a sign of commitment on the part of the taker to the intended country of settlement, temporary or otherwise. But I have a feeling they project an air of neurosis and in doing so expose the anomalies of any attempt to codify integrative success or failure. It is this schism in classification that remains troubling for me and is indicative of the inherent hypocrisies central to the debate on integration. What do I mean?

Parts of the Turkish community in Vienna will be maligned for not learning the language, ignoring Austrian social “conventions” and the multi-layered cultural elements that pass for life in the number one city in the world. However, it would be mostly unthinkable to criticise the English speaking community for doing much the same thing. Are we any better at following Austrian sports? Or relinquishing our Irish pubs? Or the culinary genius of our food? Our television and films? Our media? Or our language? We are, and can be, as exclusive as any other ethnic group or nationality, if you prefer to define it in such terms, and we often seek cerebral solace in the metaphorical bar-stool where we feel safe and reassured that our hosts are delinquent, a bit weird and certainly not as funny.

Integration is a thorny subject. Adapting to the routines and foibles of a potential partner is bad enough. But factor in new country, different social value system, strange language and obscure notions of public behaviour, then you might begin to understand the true challenges and fixation with integration of minorities. Yet the challenge of the multi-cultural society will not dissipate, especially as we need all those foreign babies to maintain the right of Viennese civil servants to retire at fifty-three on 80% of their last salaries.

It seems apposite, then, to nearly finish with mention of children, who are key. What we need is an environment (a “social micro climate”) where everybody is equal. A place where we can witness cultural remission. Where tolerance is maintained. Where we can enjoy egalitarian courtesy and where class is irrelevant. Where conversation on any topic is allowed, yet informally marshalled by others. Where the dividing conventions and social dynamics of usual life are stripped away allowing peaceful co-existence alongside respectful distance. Where social bonding can take place and unequal social hierarchies have no bearing.

Hang on, I seem to be describing the pub. And the last thing we want in there are children. So instead we turn to pre-school. In my son’s kindergarten class perhaps 30% are kids with non-Austrian parents (and therefore bilingual). You only have to observe them for a few seconds and you will witness how they effortlessly communicate in German. Four and five our year old German I admit, but still with a level of German language ability that would poo-poo on the linguistic dexterity of many English speaking expats.

But the issue of language or integration amongst our future pension payers is immaterial, and it is doubtful at this age whether they are even aware they are speaking two different languages. They are blind to cultural and social delineation and they are open to everything. They speak German collectively because it is the fastest way to get what they want. And they are masters at conveying, sharing and reinforcing patterns and norms of behaviour.

The kindergarten seems a great place to start integration, then, and it is why I will always maintain that kindergarten teachers are more important than any policy maker or politician. And it if doesn’t work? Well, you know who to blame: the parents.

© RJ Barratt 2013

The term “social micro climate” is attributable to Kate Fox in her book The Racing Tribe.

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