Everyone is going on about it, even my nice hairdresser. “It’s alright letting people in but many don’t even bother to try to integrate”, she said. She meant, learn the language, learn our ways. I was glad we were having this conversation på norsk, a lovely girl but I have a personal rule that I run away from any animated divisive discussion where the other party is waving sharp implements close to my head. And besides, my hair was only half cut.
“Immigration is one thing but it’s not right if they don’t integrate”, she said. The immigrants, they need to work at it, find out the rules and live by them too. The rules being the legal, social, political, cultural ones, how to queue or not to, how not to ask too many questions, how not to say thanks too often, how to read subtle facial expressions (fine art, that one), how to enjoy ‘aloneness’, how to let others enjoy ‘aloneness’ , how to turn up at parent meetings. On time.
She’s right, of course. The funny thing about integration is that those who have never done it think it’s easy as pie, “You’re here aren’t you? We let you in, didn’t we? Now get on with it and be like us, INTEGRATE!”
Those who have done it before very often think, “Well, I did it, didn’t I? And it was much tougher for ME then”. This is more of an attitude than an expressed statement but it still means, just get on with it.
Meanwhile, the recent ‘trying to integrate’ immigrant is mastering the survival art of silent transactions when buying food or a pair of socks. And it’s amazing how silent you can be when doing these things. Not a word from me for the first 6 months here. If I was asked something in Norwegian, I nodded and hoped for the best. Unless it required a signature. Then I shook my head and hoped for the best. It worked a charm. As long as I walked away with the socks and hadn’t paid more than the month’s rent for them, I was happy enough.
You see, I pride myself on thinking that I ‘get’ things. Sure, I understand that you move country and you have to learn the rules and play by them, that is not rocket science by any manner or means. It’s a liberal dose of common sense and respect for your host nation.
But then I got it spectacularly wrong in my first week at work here. I got a 7 month short-term contract in a large reputable Scandinavian financial services company. My colleagues were all Norwegian and Swedish. The official language was English but in practice Norwegian was the only language spoken daily. This was a welcome chance for me to make a leap into a) Norwegian work culture and b) business Norwegian language.
And then I got myself into a whole world of trouble because I left early on a Friday evening (did I mention that it was my first Friday) due to a child pick-up emergency without telling the boss who wasn’t there. The Norwegian thing to do here would be to call the boss, get permission to leave and then leave. But I did some quick mental analysis of my own and decided that based on the fact that a) there was no work for me to do in the office anyway b) the boss had already left earlier and started his weekend and there was no need to bother him c) they should know that they could trust me to work up the hour again, they had given me the job and seemed keen to have me on the team d) Norwegians like kids, I could just race out the door to pick up the kids.
Well, my assessment was a pile of pants. And in fairness, I didn’t do myself any favours by momentarily forgetting the following Monday morning that I had left early. My hours were set. I was to work until 5, I didn’t and therefore I set myself back significantly in the “trustworthy employee” stakes. Trust is everything here. If you can’t be trusted to follow rules and do the right thing, you have as much to offer as a chocolate teapot. Not my finest moment and I was peeved with myself that I did something so stupid.
But then my husband rightly pointed out that I used logic in a way that my friends and family in Ireland would probably recognise and endorse. There was a rule, but in this instance it didn’t make a lot of sense as there was no work to do, so I subconsciously decided that I could tweak it slightly to suit me and I legged it out the door to get the kids. I’d work the time again when there WAS work to do, no question about that. But to my Norwegian boss and colleagues, this was very odd behaviour, it was purely and simply a broken rule which made me seem dishonest and let’s face it, a bit limited in the communications department.
As a foreigner beginning again in any country, the bottom line is that you are an unknown entity with unknown morals and ethics. You don’t know everyone from your own country but you DO know them, you broadly know the type of upbringing they had, the exams they sat at school, their special form of wit and humour, the pubs they did or didn’t drink in, all of which makes you trust them a little from the onset. So if they do something weird, you and they are probably seeing it in the same terms of reference. A foreigner behaves ‘weirdly’, you automatically judge them by your rulebook because it’s the only one you have. But their rulebook is different and who on earth knows what the differences are. That, to me, is the challenge of integration.
And this stage comes well after being able to say a few words about the socks you are buying.
So if I was to have any chance of not getting fired, I needed to light a campfire under my own virtual ‘right and wrong’ rulebook that had been written during my lifetime thus far. All it was doing now was making me a a loose cannon in the eyes of the locals. It was a depressing thought seeing as I thought I was the bees knees, talking away to the hairdresser in Norwegian about how the rest of them were getting it ALL wrong.
The first time I brought my husband home to meet my parents in Ireland, years ago, there was a lively conversation about the state of the Irish roads, my father was giving out yards about the potholes, the accidents and of course the useless politicians. Having driven a lot in Ireland, my then boyfriend joined in on the lambasting of the roads, dealing in facts of course. My father went a bit silent. I gave the boyfriend an unmerciful kick under the table as a signal to shut up, the poor guy looked totally bewildered.
You see, they were our roads and so we could say what we liked about them. But the German arriving from London who had lived in Ireland for a mere 3 years, and then left it, wasn’t really entitled to run them down like that. Even if he was there with the youngest daughter. He could have continued, of course, but my parents wouldn’t have liked him for it. So I gave him a bruised shin instead.
Now what integration class do you teach that in, I wonder?
So conversations about Irish roads have been banned ever since. It’s a pity because they have improved an awful lot over the years but the husband is still not taking a chance on giving an opinion on them because there might be some other complex sentimental attachment to the long gone potholes that will bruise the other shin.
I think that integration takes a lifetime, it takes great patience, tolerance and awareness on the part of the hosts and the immigrants. It takes language, awareness of rules, adapting to rules and if you are really going for it, a replacement of rulebooks which is hard to do when you are over the age of 15 and a half. The job went well and I didn’t get fired. I have the bones of a new rulebook. The journey continues.