We think we know what "integration" means, or at least governments believe they do, by spelling out integration as a set of skills and truths that someone should master while living in a host country. However, once we take a closer look, it turns out that integration sails in much murkier waters than what we may be led to think.
A strange encounter
One funny example, which is very telling is the following. While working on my PhD I used to live in a student house in Tilburg. It was dinnertime on what had been a wet August day. I had fancied something warm, such as soup, for my evening meal. Down I went to the kitchen I shared with five other students. Shortly after, a Dutch guy joined in. He had only recently moved into the house and was a student at the local university.
Our first verbal interaction unfolded as follows: ‘How you doing? Fine thanks. You? Now, you have to listen Achmed’ – so he had decided to name me on the basis of my non-Dutch looks – ‘here we are in Holland, we don’t eat at eight, we eat at six, and this stuff, we eat it in winter not summer and now it is summer, so don’t eat it, it is strange’. Amazed as I was by the fact that a convivial conversation had turned into a knowledge-about-Dutch-society-lesson, I soon after realized that I could not care less about his comments. After correcting his English a couple of times, I had politely acknowledged his point of view and went back to my room to consume the delicacy I had heated up.
As trivial as it may seem, the episode above encapsulates the daily struggle for integration that many people encounter and the vagueness of integration as a concept in its own right. Although human beings are permanently subject to integration pressures in any community they enter in their daily practices, whether that's a classroom, a store or simply our family environment, we often hear the word integration in concomitance with foreigners, whether they're asylum seekers or economic migrants, who do not know how to behave in Europe. A sense of assumed cultural supremacy can also be read into this sentence, that of indigenous citizens, the righteousness of their own civic doings and beliefs, and the primacy of these on top of others.
A tangible example of this is the Dutch member of the ministerial committee that works with the Dutch Language Union, Martin Bosma and the claims he has made. In a recent interview he asserted that the Dutch language - that he addresses as ‘our language’ - ought to be saved. Furthermore, he voices his concern that there is a whole bunch of cultural Marxist people who constantly wish to attack 'our culture' and - through that - destroy everything that it means’. He further adds that it is because of 'bi-cultural people', a categorization strongly rooted in an understanding of culture boxed away into a monolithic entity carved in stone, that Dutch culture is also being done away with. At fault here are bi-cultural people, as whoever falls into this category lacks the fundamental basis of language and cultural knowledge that then becomes a threat to indigenous 'mono-cultural people'. The questions that come along when engaged in either compulsory or willed integration still remain: integration to what and to whom? How can it be achieved? By when and more particularly, why?
While attending integration classes – as an ethnographer this time – I was intrigued by the perspective of those who follow them, what do these people think they do when following these classes and what do they do it for? Furthermore, what do teachers teaching integration classes think they do and what do they do it for? One of the students enrolled there - he had called himself Goodluck as he came from Nigeria to the UK and then to The Netherlands, which was all because of good luck being on his side - once labelled the integration test 'a badly shaped pub quiz'. People were not expected to leave out experiences or to build bridging networks with indigenous Dutch people. Rather, they were asked to know factual information and be tested in a multiple choice examination. Questions did range from the approximate distance between The Hague and Amsterdam, as well as with the behavior to follow when the next-door neighbor has had a child and you wish to pay a visit to the new born baby. It also touched on Dutch contemporary history by asking 'Why is Anne Frank famous?' The correct answer to this question is – following the test – because she had written a diary. Peculiar and tragicomic, I would say, as one could think of another 101 reasons why Anne Frank is famous.
If knowledge of Dutch society is tested in Dutch, what is really being tested there. Civic integration or language proficiency?
The term integration is widely used in both political and public discourse. It conveys the strong presumption that those who access the mainstream society of any given country, will enter into a pre-existing form of society that is homogenous, or at least, imagined to be so. In a variety of ways, this presumption runs counter to much of the evidence that we gather by living in that very society. At the opposite end, one could address ‘integration’ as a common umbrella term for a broad range of processes. These may include matters as the acquisition of the official national language; gaining access to work, housing, education and training; building social contacts and networks across someone’s own ethno-cultural group. It may also regard participation in representative politics; respecting national law and legal authorities; and the adoption of certain civil and cultural practices often referred by the political discourse and the public discourse as the norms and values of the host country. Politicians often emphasize the importance of learning the official language and developing knowledge of the host country's own cultural norms and values as a measure that is necessary for national protection. If one further notices that knowledge of Dutch society is tested in Dutch then one should ponder what is really being tested there. Is it civic integration or language proficiency the focus here?
The question of integration
Looking at myself, 15 years on, I still wonder whether I am integrated? And if the answer is no, will I ever (want to) be? Well, I do speak the language fairly fluently. Then again, I do speak with an obvious accent and a vocabulary that, at times, does not suit the academic scene. In the end I did learn it while doing the dishes with Antillian and Moroccan boys in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. I tend to avoid Dutch TV that - aside from its Nieuws - I find rather dry and uninspiring. I do know some of this country's history and the ways its institutions work. However, I cannot vote at the national elections, but I do pay my taxes. I will leave this ephemerous task of saying whether I am integrated for you to decide.