This Ageing Migrant

In my youth I dreamed of being old, evil, and rich.  Around 50 I realized that rich is relative, old is inevitable, and evil is just too damn much work.

I just finished reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.  Nothing like a light topic to kick off the week after Easter.

Gawande is a second-generation American.  His parents came from India and were doctors for many years in the US. He himself became a surgeon.  Gawande reveals a great deal about the struggle he and his mother had during his father’s illness and eventual death.  He compares how these events might have played out in India versus the United States.  Because of migration his family was caught between their perceptions about the old cultural script for old age and death, and the very chaotic one in the destination country.  Why chaotic?  Because that script is still in process in the US and in many other modern industrialized nation-states.

What Gawande understands about old age and dying in India  provokes in him a nostalgia for a country he’s never lived in.  What appeals to him, I think, is the certainty that comes from following a cultural script which tells us what is the right thing to do:  old people are to be respected and venerated; they are to be cared for by family; dying is done at home surrounded by children and grandchildren.

In the US older people seem to prefer independence to respect.  Their idea of ageing gracefully is about the freedom to live as they wish, to travel, to enjoy life without the boss, their parents, or their children telling them what to do.  This poses a real dilemma when older people can no longer live by themselves.

That day will come.  I had a taste of it when I was diagnosed with cancer. One of the reasons I wanted to buy our house is that it is small and almost everything is on one floor.  I don’t have to climb a flight of stairs to go to bed.

I have not thought beyond that.  To be honest I am not sure what the cultural script is here in France for old age and dying.  I know that some older French go to retirement homes and some live with their children.  There are also visiting nurses, doctors who make house calls, assisted-living retirement communities and there is hospice.

In every migrant’s mind there are times when we look back at where we came from and wonder if there is better than here. There is an “illusion of return” – the idea that one could always go back and thus staying in the host country is a choice to be considered and reconsidered over the course of one’s life.

However, if a migrant has aged in situ there comes a point where one’s choices become limited and return is revealed for the illusion it is. (Unless, of course, we are rich enough to overcome most of those limitations.)  When we are old and becoming more dependent on others, it is, I think, reasonable to wonder if where we are is the very best place for us – a place where what we want is doable.  To be clear, if we wait too long the decision will be out of our hands. Our children and/or a spouse will decide or, if we don’t have them, the state will do so.

It’s worth conducting a thought experiment here.  Project yourself into the future, into old age (or illness) at a point where you will need assistance of some sort.  Consider the options available to you based on your resources and on the country in which you live as a migrant or naturalized citizen.

Most importantly, think about what matters most to you.  Is the host country still appealing if you can no longer use the public transportation, walk to the market, work in the garden, watch television, participate in neighborhood events, or manage your administrative affairs without help? Do you value your life in your own home and are there resources to make that possible as long as possible?  Could you accept life in a nursing home here?  If your resources are limited, what happens to the indigent elderly in this country and are you OK with that? Are you comfortable with the idea that the local government will make decisions for you if you can’t make them for yourself?

When you are dying what kind of care do you want?  Can you die at home in the host country? Do you want support from family and will they have to come to you or you to them?  Are you allowed to have a “living will” and to reject treatment that you understand might prolong your life but at the cost of destroying your quality of life?  For some the option of “assisted dying” might be important and that is dependent on local laws.

Better to think about these things now than to have to face them (as Gawande’s family did) in a state of confusion and when one is already in a state of dependence.  Gawande’s father, for example, insisted that he did not want to go to the hospital and die there. And yet, when there was a crisis, his wife and son took him there anyway because between his wishes and their doubts about what they should do and fear, fear won.

I started this post with what I used to want in my old age.  Now that I am getting closer and have seen what my life might be like as I approach the end, my priorities have changed.  Gawande was absolutely right when he wrote:

As people become aware of the finitude of their life, they do not ask for much.  They do not seek more riches.  They do not seek more power.  They ask only to be permitted, insofar as possible, to keep shaping the story of their life in the world – to make choices and sustain connections to others according to their own priorities.

It does not take much these days to make me happy:  a good book, the presence of my spouse, news from the Frenchlings, the garden in the springtime. Being mortal doesn’t bother me as much as it did when I was younger.  And I don’t fear dependence nearly as much as I did here in France because I’ve been there and it can be a very serene place as long as there is room and respect for my wishes.  There was and that is a great comfort.


Political Tribalism and Integration

“The great Enlightenment principles of modernity – liberalism, secularism, rationality, equality, free markets – do not provide the kind of tribal group identity that human beings crave and have always craved.”

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua

As I was reading Amy Chua’s latest book about the power of groups/tribes I found myself thinking about the implications for migration and integration.  In a sense her argument is that there are still nations within states (as opposed to one nation = one state).  These “nations’ or “tribes” are, she argues, essential to understanding the social and political landscape of any polity.  While a strong collective national identity does exist in many countries, a “super group” papers over a roiling mass of sub-groups that are fighting it out with each other for dominance or just plain survival.  Just as there are forces that work on every generation to build and maintain a nation-state identity, there are other forces working to weaken it.

Continue reading Political Tribalism and Integration

French America

As I have written in other posts my American family has a French connection. On my mother’s side our ancestors left France in the 17th century for Québec where they lived for a couple hundred years.  Then sometime in the 19th century they went west to Wisconsin.

I’ve always wondered why they left Canada. Why did my Québécois ancestors pack up and go 1500 km away from everything they had ever known?  They were French speakers, Roman Catholics, farmers.  Crossing the border didn’t change any of that.

Every once in a while when the spirit moves me I do some research and try to understand the context in which they emigrated.  I can’t ever know their personal reasons but I can try to understand the forces in Québec and in Wisconsin that might have made the move attractive.

One possibility is that they didn’t think of it as moving into a new country and culture.  The border between Canada and the US may have been very much an “imaginary line.”

For the area that became the state of Wisconsin was French territory once upon a time.  Here is a map that shows the scope of French claims around 1750.


So they didn’t land just anywhere.  They went to a place that had historically been French territory.  Not unlike Mexicans moving to southwest America which had been Spanish territory. This video When Wisconsin was New France explains more.

The name of this US state in fact was a Native American name for the one of the rivers which the French called Ouisconsin and the Anglophones later changed that to Wisconsin. The area didn’t become an US territory until 1836 and it finally became a state in 1848.

It must have been a very culturally interesting place.  The legacy of the French trappers and other French settlers mixing with Native American tribes, settlers from the US and immigrants from all over the world.

Twenty-two years after Wisconsin became a US state the Amans arrived from Quebec, (the area around Trois-Rivières).  They were not alone. About 900,000 Québecois moved to the US between 1840 and 1930 says Damien-Claude Bélanger  (Département d’histoire,
Université de Montréal – where the younger Frenchling is studying by the way).

He says that it was rather surprising that so many Québecois left for the US.  Yes, many moved into former French territories but:

“While the economical costs of French Canadians to leave for the United States might have been relatively small, the emotional and, especially, the cultural costs were quite high. They left behind a traditional rural society with strong family ties. They entered an industrial world, alien to them by virtue of its way of life, language and religion. Given these high emotional and cultural costs, it is surprising that so many French Canadians engaged in the migration process between 1840 and 1930. In fact, it would be normal to consider that French Canadians, who only find their language and religion dominant in a part of the continent, would be the least likely to engage in the migration process.”

So what happened?  Bélanger uses a push/pull analysis to find answers.  The push was demographic and economic.  Too many farmers chasing too little “affordable, accessible and fertile land.”  Poverty and debt were serious problems for many.  And this was the era of the railroad which made it cheaper and easier to travel.

And the attraction?  Jobs and good land in the US.

And as I suspected, what could make it less costly and painful was finding or creating French-Canadian communities in a place that wasn’t so far from home.

“Essentially, it could be argued, these emigrants did not really leave Quebec not only because they often thought of their emigration as temporary, as will be discussed below, or because they established themselves in “petits Canadas” that resembled very closely the geographical and social patterns of Quebec, but, as well, because, in a sense, all they were doing was to slightly enlarge the borders of French Canada.”

From all that I know from my research and from family stories the Amans ended up in (in fact probably sought out) a rural “Little Canada”  where there were French-speaking doctors, priests and shopkeepers; bi-lingual schools; and a community of people like them.  People who were  francophone, Roman Catholic with large families who were still farming in the New World.

Did they have any intention of integrating when they arrived in the US?  I don’t think so.  They didn’t seem to have made any effort to join anglophone Protestant America and I strongly suspect they didn’t want to.  It was only when my great-grandmother married and moved to Eastern Washington that English became the dominant language in her life.

I so wish she were still alive or that I had thought to ask her questions like these before she died:  When her family moved to Wisconsin was it considered a temporary or permanent move?  Did they think about returning to Quebec?  (About half of the French-Canadian migrants to the US did return.) Did her parents think of themselves as Americans or Québecois?  Was she brought up to think of herself as an American? When she married and moved to Naches, Washington did she suffer from culture shock? Why did she raise her daughter in English and not French?  And so on.

And I wonder what she would think of my own migration story.  Would she be happy that her great-granddaughter speaks French and lives in France?  And what would she make of her great-great-granddaughter living in Québec?  It’s an odd story of circular migration over hundreds of years and many generations.

Today I can’t open a newspaper without reading something about those awful immigrants coming into our country, taking our jobs, and refusing to integrate. I get this message in stereo from both French and US media.  How lovely.

So take a moment, please, and apply that characterization to your immigrant ancestors. I did and as I reread what I wrote above, I’d say the shoe fits the Amans family.   They committed all those sins and yet today it’s a non-issue.  Someday the same thing will undoubtedly happen to all the more recent products of immigration in France and the US.  Everyone will forget how strange and unloved they were when they arrived.  One day all that will remain are family stories and perhaps a nostalgic clinging to an Old Country connection.

That day will come if we are patient and know enough about migrant history to get some perspective on how past migrations were not all that different from what we see today.

Alas, these are two qualities that are in short supply these days on both sides of the Atlantic.

Too Many Immigrants? (BBC)

I just finished watching this very good BBC documentary on immigration in the UK. In it anti-immigrant native-born British were paired with immigrants from countries as diverse as Somalia, Poland, India and France.  There were some very frank discussions between them and some hard questions on both sides.  It’s worth watching for several reasons.

The first is that you can see how the arguments and emotions about immigration are pretty much the same everywhere.  The British aren’t saying anything that I haven’t heard  or read in the US, Japan, France, Belgium, and Canada.   Immigrants are “taking our jobs,” and they lower wages.  They don’t learn the local language and they speak their own language at home with their children.  They don’t integrate.  They take over communities and make natives feel like they are in an “alien world.”  They are only here for our social service network. Above all they have come to take from our country and not to give back.

Sound familiar?  Just last week I spoke with someone here in my community in France who had many of the above views.   There are too many immigrants in France, he/she said and described a situation where a friend went to the doctor and “was the only white person there” and made this friend very uncomfortable by speaking languages other than French.  I was rather startled that the person was so frank with me – an immigrant.  So I did what I always do when this happens (and it does often) I quietly explained that I was a migrant myself with a residency permit.  And I asked him/her if there was any data to support his/her views.

Turned out this person assumed I was French because I am married to a French.  He/she was absolutely floored to learn that foreign spouses of French citizens no longer received French citizenship automatically.  As for my asking about his/her sources of information, well, he/she said that wasn’t necessary because he/she had eyes and could see and experience what was going on around him/her and that was good enough. No need to check it out.

That is also something you find the world over.  You can ask for or cite statistics and serious studies. You can try to correct false information.  Hell, you can explain that you have a graduate degree in the subject and have the direct experience of being a migrant in their country with a good grasp of what the rules are. And yet, native citizens are stubbornly resistant to any information that might contradict their feelings about immigration. And I’ve found that to be just as true in France as in the US.

And you can see this in the documentary.  Just because they are getting more information and meeting migrants doesn’t mean that they will change their views. And  it was rather ironic that one of the first migration experts the hosts talked to was an American migrant living in London.  I wonder how many people in the UK watched that and thought, “Well, what does he know? He’s just another bloody foreigner.”

Another thing that I found interesting was that the migrants themselves had some prejudices toward the native-born.  They are racist.  They have no sense of family.  They drink.  And above all they are lazy and don’t try hard enough to find work. They think they are too good, too over-qualified, to take the jobs that are available that pay decently but are in sectors that they don’t like such as caring for the elderly.

A young Frenchwoman was paired with a young UK man who was unemployed and was receiving benefits.  In France she was in sales but the only job she could find in London was in the restaurant industry as a waitress.  She took the job as a waitress and her frustration with this young man is obvious.  Why isn’t he trying harder?  Why isn’t he in shared housing (as she is) if he thinks rents are too high?  And why can’t he be more flexible?   She ended up helping him with his job hunt – advising him on how to look and bringing him to an employment agency where he was given the “tough love” treatment. He heard a lot of things he didn’t like but to his credit, he listened.

If you are French it’s worth watching this woman to learn something about what French emigrants do when they go abroad to work.  This is not a woman who went off to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in a start-up.  This is an immigrant (remember that all immigrants are also emigrants) who has the same problems as many other migrants:  struggling to learn the language, looking for work and not finding what she wants but accepting what she can get, and living in a flat with 19 other migrants.

Those are a few of my observations.  I’ll leave it at that for now and let you watch the documentary for yourselves.  I would be very interested in your ideas and impressions.


States and Nations

“I propose the following definition of the nation:  it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

In my last post I talked about two biases we have when we look at migration and one of them was our tendency to view it through the lens of the “nation-state.”  There were some great comments and so I thought I would continue the discussion today in view of some reading I’ve done recently.

Continue reading States and Nations

Recognizing Our Biases When We Think About Migration

I just finished a book called Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility by Alex Sager.  It didn’t inspire me but it was useful for one thing:  it reminded me that we (and that includes academics) have two biases when we think about migration.

The first is that we assume that staying put (sedentariness) is normal.  Most people, we say, don’t leave their places of origin.  And those that do intend to stay permanently wherever they land.

The second is that we use nation-states as the “buckets” into which people are said to moving in and out of and we view them as immutable.  The nation-state is however a relatively recent phenomenon – a few hundred years old (the exact dates are disputed).  Even in our time nation-states rise and fall, new states are created or absorbed into others, and borders change.

The two biases work together and reinforce each other and so migrants are the odd ones, the exceptions, and when they move they do so in order to leave one  nation-state and come and live in  for the rest of their lives in another.

There are reasons why these two biases make intuitive sense.  Only about 3% of the population of the world migrates from one nation-state to another.  So for the 97% that doesn’t cross borders,  their lives are “normal” and they don’t quite get what’s going on with that small minority.  And if they don’t care for the immigrants among them, they often don’t like the emigrants either.  Why did you come here? and Why did you leave? are questions that reflect the confusion at this strange behavior.

As for the nation-state we are, I believe,  taught from day one that our nation-state is something exceptional and permanent.  The taxi driver that told me that “France has always been France” for ever and all time may not have had a full grasp of the history of the region but that may be less important than the fact that he was taught to love and be loyal to (and view as eternal) the only nation-state he has ever known.  I suspect that most of us would find the idea of our nation-state disappearing to be extremely destabilizing. And I wonder how much mental effort is required by all of us to not think about a world without our home or host nation-states.

Nation-states are also the entities that manage the statistics that we use to make sense of migration.  So many in and so many out and what’s the net migration rate?  Believe me, state statistics make it so much easier to write a paper or a thesis.

Why then should we put these biases aside?  Because sometimes they don’t make much sense.

Take the sedentary bias.  Is it really true that people don’t move much?  Tell that to Japan, France or any other country (and there are many) where people are moving out of villages and small towns to cities or larger towns.  Most of the French people I meet in Paris came from somewhere else.  They were no more native Parisiens than the international migrants.

Have a look at this graph which tracks the percentage of French in rural versus urban areas in France.  In 1960 the urban population was at around 60%.  In 2015 it had risen to 80%.

As for Japan, here are the statistics for roughly the same period. In 1960 the urban population was also at about 60% but by 2017 it was over 94%.

These people are also migrants but we say internal migrants as opposed to international migrants.  But is there a connection between the two?  I think so.  People move to the city (or a bigger town) because there are jobs – they are the quintessential ‘economic migrants’ – and once they acquire some capital they or their children can realistically consider moving across nation-states.

But are they moving to another nation-state or to another region or city within that nation-state?  Do international migrants move to the US or do they move to New York City?  Do they move to France or do they move to Paris or to Provence? Do they move to Japan or do they move to Tokyo or Kyoto?  I think for migrants it’s often the latter.   They have a specific destination in mind that is not so much the nation-state as some small part of it where they know there are jobs or where they are sure they will have friends and family to support them.

What I’m arguing here is that sometimes it’s very useful to throw the nation-state out the window and look large or look small.  Looking large might be thinking of a region (North America) and tracking the different flows as people circulate around the continent whether they cross borders or not.  Looking small might be looking at international migrants moving between  international cities or moving first from a rural area to a larger city and then to an international city.   Or even looking for internal or international migration from cities toward rural areas.

I think we really are in an Age of Migration but it’s a tough topic to get your mind around because all the targets are, yes, moving.  There are so many different ways of looking at it and framing it for analysis. But what I do believe is that there is a lot more moving going on than we realize.  And it is possible that internal migration changes a society as much or even more than international migration?  The France that was 40% rural surely is not the same France that is 20% rural.  Something to think about.

One of the books on my to-read list is Moving Europeans by Leslie Page Moch.  I will undoubtedly revisit this topic once I’ve read it.

Bad Architecture

As work on our foundations progresses and the pile of old bricks becomes a mountain on the patio, we are contemplating other house projects.  Yes, it is Lent and clearly we have not suffered enough.

A few months ago I joined a hiking group and have been going on long (20 km) walks though the forests and small towns in the Yvelines.  I find myself examining other people’s houses and gardens for inspiration.  Some very nice work and some travesties. What were they thinking when they painted that house electric pink? Or threw up that hideous modern extension onto that lovely old stone house?

I take pictures but I keep my opinions to myself.  I’m not that interested in architecture, I’m not an expert in the field, and I don’t think it’s worth foisting my uninformed opinion on anyone.  But a few years ago I watched a TED talk by someone who does have an informed opinion.  And so I found it this morning and watched it again.

James Kunstler has a few things to say about American architecture which frankly could be said about many places.  I found his talk to be very funny and very right about how truly terrible architecture affects us all.

Spaces that don’t work for us are spaces we don’t want to be in.  Buildings that are uninviting are ones we don’t want to enter. A very bad house design makes us depressed every time we walk by.  Good design does the opposite as the Avenue de Paris near my house ably demonstrates.  Walkable paths, tall trees that frame the space and shade the path, and in the spring a field of daffodils appears down the center lawn.  Very simple and yet so inviting.  All day long people are walking, biking, running along it even in winter.

Here is Kunstler’s talk.  Enjoy.  And now I am off to clean up the wood hod that the cats decided to pee in last night after I went to bed.  Between that and all the dust from the masonry work, I think I might just take a long walk later along a quiet street with lots of examples of great architecture.  Thank you Versailles City Planning Office!