Integration is high on the agenda everywhere in the world today. Although it is obvious that immigrants must accept the laws of their new country, to what extent should they also adapt to the unwritten ways of that country? In December last year the Iraqi writer Rodaan Al Galidi, who has lived in the Netherlands since 1998, offered a few interesting (and amusing) insights into the phenomenon of integration in a book programme on Dutch TV in which he was interviewed about his latest book of short stories. After having done some historical research into integration, he had come to realise that in his relatively short period in the Netherlands he had changed much more than the Dutch had ever done when they migrated to countries like Canada and Australia. He discovered that they had simply continued their old ways in their new habitat. More generally speaking, it is true of course that right from the beginning of Western imperialism it never crossed the minds of European colonists to adapt to the culture of the inhabitants of the countries they settled in. So how can Western countries today rightfully demand that immigrants adapt to their ways?
Land transforming people
Valery Andrews offered some interesting insights into the phenomenon of integration in her wonderful book A Passion for This Earth. Right at the start she refers to ‘an intriguing story’ she found in one of Laurence Durrell’s books, ‘about a group of Chinese immigrants who came to San Francisco in the 1940s. Within the space of two generations, this group had ceased to look like “homegrown” Chinese. He is quick to point out that the people did not intermarry. Instead, they were transformed by the land, which exerts its own magnetic pull upon the body and the spirit. This story reminds us that there is a profound relationship between the human and the earth and that we are transformed by a continual exchange of energies.’ (p. 5) A little further on in the book she says: ‘The land is truly the larger body that contains us; it is our second skin.’ (p. 18) Unfortunately the settling European colonists did not have that kind of wisdom: ‘Part of the problem is that America became a nation before it had the chance to know itself as a land. When the French, the English and the Dutch came to this continent, they brought their customs and cultural traditions, ignoring the Native Americans who had a deeper understanding of this earth.’ (p. 20).
This process of largely ignoring the cultural roots of the native population, or even consciously trying to eradicate them, actually has a long history. It was already the mentality of the invading Indo-Europeans tribes who entered ‘Old Europe’ and settled there from about 4000-2000 BC. Later it was continued by the Romans when they spread their Empire across Europe and further, and much later still by the Christian rulers who tried to destroy the age-old pagan, earthbound traditions. Finally, the colonists sailing off to the ‘New World’ took this mentality of one-sided dominance with them. But despite its persistent nature the native cultural roots often managed to survive anyway.
Mixing cultural elements
In this respect Robert Pirsig suggested in his novel Lila. An Inquiry into Morals that American culture has adopted more elements from the culture of the American Indians (as he still called them) than we usually have assumed: they were the originators of American English, of the typical American personality characteristics, and – perhaps most importantly – of the idea that ‘all men are created equal’, which became the foundation of the US Declaration of Independence (p. 39-48). So Pirsig believed that the native population and the settling colonists have mutually influenced one another: together they gave shape to the newly arising culture. It is an interesting idea that the powerful presence of the land itself – which Valerie Andrews so meaningfully called our second skin – might have contributed independently to the survival of the native tradition. By the way, the American example shows that mutual integration is often a very slow process. Even after many centuries, the US has not yet reached the cultural balance of ‘all men are created equal’ within its own borders…
No more fear of ‘foreign’ cultures!
This doesn’t alter the fact that integration has always been – and will always be – a mutual process: both traditions will be transformed into a new one. The legal authorities need only create laws to facilitate this natural process. And native people today – anywhere in the world – need not worry too much that their culture will get wiped away by waves of incoming migrants. When a native culture is deeply rooted in the land, it will simply be stronger than the uprooted culture of the migrants. But of course new settling people will introduce changes anyway, in the sense that life cannot be anything but a process of perpetual change. They might bring new technologies, new food products, new customs, new rituals, new music, and so on. They might even help to make the native inhabitants aware again of the beauty of the country they had come to take for granted!
When new cultural elements and native ones are allowed to fuse naturally, the result is a living culture – a culture which continues to be receptive of changes and is characterised by including diversity. The results of these kinds of fusions are shown in many diverse fields. Without the wild tomato from the Andes and the noodles that Marco Polo is supposed to have brought from China there would be no Italian Spaghetti Bolognese. Nearly all the instruments used in traditional Irish music today at some stage were imported into Ireland. There is no Christmas without the age-old pagan celebration of the winter-solstice. And so on.
However slow the process of mutual integration might be, we can be sure that we are always moving towards it. There is no other way – if we want our culture to remain open and alive.