Sunday, April 10, 2011

The cheater and the illiterate expatriates in the train

Yesterday I was traveling by train across two European countries, and I remember something I wanted to write about but never did in my last post. The question is why I started profiling countries while I was traveling by train. So I suddenly remember that everything began from my own experience of being categorized/reduced to my cultural origin. It was not about being me anymore; it was where I was from. That was what made me different from others, so the difference itself was taken to define, understand my motives. Sad, but we all do that. We miss the individual, we go to the clichés. The ones I was talking about in the last post, the ones that came to my mind as a reaction of what I was suffering. Anyway, unfair in both directions, and I wanted to make others think something like: “hey, c'mon, we are not like that!” Obviously you are not like that, but that is what happens when one just gets a few impressions and extends them in such a naive way so as to define individuals based on those preconceptions or prejudices. Of course, you are not like that, neither are we.

That day, I got on the train at that tiny station where no one could sell me a ticket; there was just a machine that would not accept my Visa card and only would accept coins (and I had not that many coins; just notes). So I got on the train thinking that I would explain the situation to the conductor and that I would not get a fine, just the ticket I could not get from the machine. But after my explanations, he made me the only question I would fear or hate: “Where are you from?” So after hesitating a little bit, I told him where I was from and his face and vocal expression showed his suspicion about my story, so I got that huge fine (luckily I had that money: a 50-euro note, plus I was from the EU; I can imagine that others would have suffered worst consequences). So for some seconds/minutes I hate being from where I was and I hated that he thought that I just was “an individual coming from where I came”. I hated my compatriots because I could understand where the conductor got that conclusion: so many others coming from my country had tried to cheat in the past; so generally we are seen as cheaters, and we deserve that collective reputation. But… No matter how I hate that behavior myself, and how much I hate that shared value of “almost being a hero for being a cheater and not been caught”.  I was not me anymore; I was just one of the supposedly cheaters.

Another example comes from the experience of a friend of mine. She is this brilliant, successful, and the kind of professional anyone would like to hire. But I guess in other people’s eyes, she may just be an African lady with a visa to work temporary in a European country. So probably with the suspicion of having the hidden intention of trying to marry a European man to get permanent residence in the old continent. So when she was sitting in that car of first class because she mistakenly went to the wrong side of the train, the reaction of the conductor was funny (to name it somehow). He addressed to her in this paternalistic attitude explaining how things worked in that country/continent; he indicated that there were two classes, and suggested that, if she could not read/recognize the numbers (he never asked whether she could read or not!), she could pay attention to the color of the seats to distinguish the two classes. So she was African (therefore, supposedly stupid and illiterate) and bright colors would be at least more informative for that woman. No matter how many degrees she had got, and how many awards and grants she has got due to her intellectual contributions. She was African and stupid, as I was a cheater from a less “cool”/nice part of Europe. As simple as that, although the reality is always very complex, and so many variables intertwine to explain the outcomes of human behavior.

Tajfel’s identity social theory has shown us how we form groups based on any possible characteristic that divides individuals belonging to one group or another one, and this is the underpinning of prejudice. Several experimental studies have shown how we tend to favor people from the ingroup (those sharing with us a certain characteristic) and discriminate those of the outgroup (those who do not belong to the same perceived group). From here, we also acquire a cultural (ethnic, national or supranational) identity that is reinforced by the continuous interaction with members of ingroup but maybe especially by interacting with members of outgroup. In intercultural situations this is particularly salient. A man in his fifties, working as a freelance journalist, may not see himself as belonging to the same perceived group as a non-educated woman of about 20 looking for a job as a cleaner. But then, if we take them together outside their country (for instance, Romania), and put them in the same other country, they may start being part of the same ingroup. People in the host country would treat them equally, assuming that Romanians are this and that Romanians are that. These two people may encounter similar difficulties (partly based on the command of the language of the host country), and they may find common points that make them alike. Basically, they are Romanians treated as “Romanians”. Whenever they go, they are introduced to people “like them”: meaning “Romanians”. No matter what their interests, their religion, or their expectations in life are; all of them are Romanians, so they end up extending their social network based on this new category the outgroup members have gave them, and therefore,  group identity gets reinforced. Individuals of this new grouping see their common features in opposition to the outside group of mainstreamers. And here is when the gap may become bigger. And here is when some of them (those who are not fluently enough to relate to inhabitants of the host country) may join those ghettos, where cultural common values are to be kept and two parallel cultures develop without much confluence. I do not want to blame completely mainstreamers for not having immigrants integrated because there is this another reality in which quite a number of newcomers do not want to change any of their cultural values, customs and behavior to the new society and dream of living in the same way as in the origin culture. So OK: the separation would come from both directions: let us assume shared responsibility. The point I wanted to make here is that if we reinforce the difference, we do not help in creating this actual multicultural society in which a true intercultural dialogue happens.

Yesterday I was watching My name is Khan again, and I thought that this film was a nice example to show how prejudice works. I also thought how sometimes a simple story might tell us more about multiculturalism than any forum in Azerbaijan would.


  1. I am happy to learn that more and more people are ready to object to "generalisms". I have lived 90% of my life outside of the country of my birth and the country of which I am a legal citizen. In other words, the eternal expatriate. I do not fully belong in either of these countries and in my "adopted" country, I am just a "foreigner".
    What is a foreigner? Foreign in what? Colour, creed, physical or intellectual characteristics?
    I do not relate necessarily with fellow citizens but more with other "expats" who share the same sense of being or not being, belonging or not.

  2. Thanks for your comment, not sla 17. Indeed, the (non-)being/belonging feeling is a common theme in expatriates. I have heard some scientists are using nowadays the concept of the "third culture" to name the phenomenon of some children brought around the world as expatriate parents move. These children do not identify themselves with the origin culture nor with the host culture, but rather they see themselves as being from a separate group and connecting more with others being in-between-lands. In the school they learn what makes common to others in their same situation is not whether they come from the same land, but being from a country to which they do not relate that much and not identifying/bein fully accepted/integrated in the host new country. Does this ring the bell to you?