Cultural Tolerance – Part 1: Setting the stage

This is a bit off topic for me – I never planned to write about this.  But, with all the broo-ha-ha stirred up when the Archbishop of Cantebury, Dr. Williams, called for establishing a parallel legal system in Britain, based on Sharia law, my blood started to boil.  I am an immigrant, having come to North America from a non-democratic, non-English speaking country, I have integrated quite successfully.  I volunteer teaching English as a second language.  In the past, I have created ‘stay-at-home’ jobs for immigrant women from more oppressive backgrounds, empowering them and helping them connect with their new society. 

As such, I have had the opportunity to observe this ‘cultural tolerance’ from both sides – as the immigrant and as a member of the cultural mainstream.  And I am absolutely amazed at how basic concepts can become so muddled…to the detriment of both sides. Please, indulge me in this rant on WHAT we should – and perhaps more importantly, what we should NOT – tolerate with respect to immigrants coming to a society from a foreign culture.  This is for the benefit of us, immigrants, as well as us, the host society (I have made the integration successfully, and so feel part of both groups…). 

First and foremost, immigrants come to a new country in order to improve their life and to provide a better future for their children.  Perhaps this is not a universal statement, but I am willing to bet that it comes pretty close.  So, right off the bat, there is something ‘good’ about the new society that we have come to seek. 

When immigrants first arrive, things can be overwhelming:  new language, new surroundings, unknown expectations…because even if you read a lot about your new land, (I memorized the 84 page brochure I got at the Canadian embassy during my interview), things are never quite the same as in the ads.  Some are better, some are worse, some are just different. 

And even for a person who did try to learn English before, being immersed in the language for the first few weeks created incredible fatigue and triggered a unique type of headaches.  I was surprised at how my jaw, cheeks and tongue hurt after hours of flexing my speech muscles into positions they were not used to. 

In situations like this, in the first few weeks, it is very helpful if other immigrants, who had arrived years or decades earlier, from the same culture, speaking the same mother tongue, can help one orient themselves.  It is a relief to ‘tune out’ English for half-an-hour and chat with someone without fishing for every phrase, worrying if a mispronounced word would give offense.  (I’m not joking:  I know a guy who just about got beaten up because when his neighbour invited him for dinner, he tried to compliment his wife on the desert….and mispronounced the word ‘cake’.  Until I explained, he had no idea that cake is not pronounced ‘cock’.) 

It is understandable that the immigrants should form loose communities, offering each other support.  It is also very much appreciated when people in the host community show a great deal of leeway to newly arrived immigrants who are trying to learn the language and culture both.   

The key here is:  ‘newly arrived’ and ‘trying to learn’. 

The problem arises when government agencies, seeing the help new immigrants receive from their fellow ex-patriots, think that they are somehow making things easier on the newcomers if they contract these immigrant communities to help the newcomers settle in.  This gives the immigrant association incredible control over the newly arrived people:  and what’s worse, now money is involved. The money attracts precisely the wrong kind of person:  busybodies who did not integrate into the new society well enough to have a busy career, and controlling the newcomers’ integration gives them the status they could never earn on their own merits.  If you don’t see this for the recipe for disaster that it is, I’m not sure what I could write to make it clear. 

These people boost their self by controlling as much as possible in the lives of newcomers.  And since these do not know any better (after all, the government entrusted this person with their care, so even if they did, it would not help them much), they accept the control – and the often distorted picture of the host culture painted to them so the busybody could retain control.  This officially sanctioned isolation leads to nothing less than ghettoization and actually prevents successful integration of newcomers into society. 

To a smaller degree, this can occur in all places, even without government financing it.  Seeking support at the beginning can trap newcomers in a cycle of obligations that are hard to escape, while preventing them from forming ties outside the immigrant community. I have seen it, felt its pull, and struggled against it.  Till today, I have friends among immigrants from my ethnic background, there is nothing wrong in that.  But I am careful to balance my friends and acquaintances among many backgrounds, keeping myself firmly within mainstream culture.  And while I do volunteer to help newcomers learn English, I never reveal my first language and usually request that they not tell me theirs, either. 

After all, we have left our past behind….   

Coming next: 

Part 2 – WHAT we should and should not tolerate                       

Part 3 – HOW we should and should not tolerate