catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 18 :: 2011.10.14 — 2011.10.27


The integration issue

One recent evening, a group of us were sitting around when an Albanian friend of mine asked a Dutchman when he’d be considered “to be integrated” into Dutch society. Was it when he acquired a taste for buttermilk (karnemelk)? Was it when he spoke Dutch fluently?

My Dutch friend had no answer. Instead, he had two examples, neither of which fully answered the question. The first was the example of a teenager born in Amsterdam to a couple who’d moved here from Morocco. The teenager speaks Dutch with a classic Amsterdam accent and has attended Dutch schools, absorbing Dutch culture in all that he has learned outside of his house. Yet, at home, he has been schooled in the tradition and religious values of his parents. When, as a teenager, he cannot resolve the tension between these two cultures he rebels and causes tension in society, it is often seen as an example of someone who has not integrated well into Dutch culture.

The second example was that of the Chinese communities around the corner, who have been in the Netherlands almost a hundred years and have successfully set up a thriving business community of restaurants and supermarkets. They spend most of their time in their own company and marry amongst themselves; some still speak barely a word of Dutch. Nonetheless, there are no questions raised about whether these Chinese are fully integrated into society here, despite the (historical) involvement of the Chinese with heroine use.

The conclusion I came to was that there is no answer to the question of when one truly belongs.  Even the question itself of when one becomes integrated depends on one’s culture. Is it having a passport, speaking English (or French), and being able “to make it on one’s own,” which are some of the unwritten assumptions of integration in both America and Canada? Does someone only belong if she is born somewhere, as is true in Albania, where integration, like immigration, does not really happen? Or does belonging come through being a positive part of society, which means that those holding on to different values need to suppress them so that they do not burden the society, as in the tensions mentioned above? What is integration, after all, besides simply a word that became popular when discussing how certain groups in society did not seem to fit in? It is a vague cultural concept that describes society, like American’s melting pot or Canada’s multi-cultural mosaic; it is a term that is hard to translate into the practical reality of everyday life.

The comment about acquiring a taste for buttermilk was sarcastic; yet, the question of belonging was real. Despite the fact that many Dutch people will never acquire a taste for buttermilk, they will still be considered insiders.  And yet, because I grew up in Canada, my disgust for it marks me as an outsider, even though I have Dutch parents and a Dutch passport. No matter how much my parents and grandparents passed on their dutchness, I grew up in a land with different customs and I will always have an accent when I speak Dutch. Yet, the longer I stay in the Netherlands, the more my English develops a certain accent and the more I adapt to the culture here.

The less I feel like an outsider here in the Netherlands, the more I become aware of being an outsider in a world where I used to belong. This adapting and changing often causes me to feel permanently like an outsider, even though I have close family and wonderfully supportive faith communities in both places. The feeling of being an outsider makes me ask sometimes if it is worth it, and whether it would not be better to reject one culture to become more settled in another. However, I know I would feel a sense of loss in making that choice. The attempt to serve God faithfully in a new and different place among people of a (slightly) different culture, alongside the attempt to see the sinful blind spots of one’s own culture and delight in the God-given good in each culture, is worth the discomfort. It also increases my awareness of the reality that culture is hardly uniform: each community and family has a bit of a different culture with differing values and unspoken rules. Thus, simply interacting with others is an act of one outsider talking with another outsider. The question I am now learning to ask myself is not how I can become more integrated and stop being an outsider, but instead how I can learn to live with my discomfort while delighting in God’s image in the other, a truth that makes both of us “insiders.”

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