I thought I was master of it. I left Ireland over 15 years ago and lived in London for almost 13 years. I thought I had done it before, this whole integrating in to a new country and environment. We Irish have always believed that we are fundamentally very different from the British, it’s a different world there, a different culture. Not only do we breathe different air, we breathe differently to them, don’t we? We couldn’t be seen to deny centuries of struggle and belief and history that separates us unequivocally.
Well, when it came down to it, the biggest integration step I had to take when I moved to London was to learn to say hello first at the coffee machine when I started a new job. The person standing there wasn’t unfriendly, just a little more reserved than your average boisterous Irish person and so I needed to take the first step. Also, the Guinness tasted a bit “different” if the barperson didn’t know to let it settle. Begrudgingly, I can’t really make a big issue of that now,can I.
Alright then, there is also the class system in the U.K. that I never quite got my head around. That remains anathema to the Irish. There is no upper class in Ireland or if there is, it’s only recognised by themselves in their own fantasies. And one more thing, British people tend to use a flourish of descriptive adjectives for emphasis when they are telling a story whereas the Irish use a flourish of swear words. So that was really it for me, the extent of my integration curve.
It was the same in the U.S. really when I lived there for a while. The biggest thing to get used to was that although the food was more or less the same, there was so much more of it.
It’s a bit like Swedish people or other Scandinavians coming here to Norway, it’s a different type of integration altogether to what other immigrants experience. You know the place, for goodness sake. You understand the rules, you laugh at the funny little differences, ridicule them even, probably carry some unhealthy stereotypes from your parents generation but when all is said and done, it is home away from home. It is like going to live with the aunty for a while, family traits and connections override the strangeness and apparent weird habits.
Everyone is talking about integration right now, Solberg, Merkel, Cameron, Kenny, Obama, they are all at it. Hollande is possibly being haunted by it. All of the people who are heading west across the globe right now need to be integrated. And of course, they need to integrate. People talk about it as a simple process, arrive, fit in to the system, learn the rules and abide by them. Learn the language. And of course, find work, you must find work.
The people who make the integration rules are generally those who never needed to integrate. They are the ones trying to hold on to the status quo and traditions of a land so that it gets enriched but not diluted by the incomers. They are the ones talking about it as a simple process. Follow these steps and you will be a functioning member of society in no time. It’s a matter of reaching a point when you want to be one of the natives and are happy to let go of enough of your own culture to be one. I think that how long this takes – and for many it may never happen – is hugely impacted by your own culture, your personality, your age, your willingness and desire to adapt and of course, the receptiveness of your new fellow citizens to let you in. I mean to really let you in, to their worlds and their homes and their families. The latter point is not one that gets enough coverage I believe.
To put some skin in the game here, I have not worked in Norway since coming here but it’s not for want of trying. The closest I probably came to it was a job referral through a London contact some 6 months after arriving here. After 4 interviews for a reasonably senior role, my final interview was with a Swedish lady, a global VP and so I assumed a big picture lady. The interviews had all been in English. I realised afterwards that I did a London style interview, focusing on doing the job and what else I could bring. I think the ‘what else’ was my downfall because she only wanted someone to do the job, nothing bigger that would potentially disrupt the team and status quo. I oversold myself by selling myself. I could clearly do the job but was too much of a risk so she took the job to Stockholm and employed someone locally. Of course, she didn’t tell me this. She didn’t tell me anything in fact. I finally dragged an answer out of a junior HR person after 3 months to say I didn’t get the job. At that stage, I had figured it out. I think that was lesson 27 in learning my new environment and how it works.
So coming back to integration, of course my not working yet impacts my integration as I do not feel like an equal. I have some great Norwegian friends because I am sociable and a chatterer. I make an effort and they do too. I am amazed at how many foreigners I have met here, particularly non-Europeans, who have lived here for years and have no Norwegian friends. And I bet that is no different for immigrants in Ireland or the U.K. or France or Germany.
And I live in Norway where people are trusted, a fair, just, equal society. Of course there are always extremes to the right and left but from a policy perspective here, all effort is made and money is spent to support integration. This is where education is free and the kids of immigrants have a fair shot, regardless of their parents income.
I was clueless about how difficult integration can be. Well, maybe it’s a note of caution and reality. I have learned more about life and people in the last 2 years than I did in the previous 10. I am at the stage of life where I apparently should have ‘found myself’, rambling the hills somewhere where I parked the identity crises and self-questioning of the thirties. Well, I don’t feel very ‘found’ at the moment but I am enjoying the ride and I am in good company. To quote my husband, all good and getting better.