I just finished a very good book which I recommend to you. It’s called Meditations on Violence by Sgt. Rory Miller, an American law enforcement officer. A popular book with high on-line ratings, you can read the many positive comments about it from French and American readers on Amazon. The bonus is that you can read it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited.
Miller’s purpose in writing this book is to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy when it comes to violence and self-defense. If you practice a martial art, you’ll find his comments on their usefulness for self-defense very interesting. If, like me, you are interested in human behavior such as migration, you will find his remarks illuminating. Some of what he says, it seems to me, is useful in better understanding the migrant/expat experience.
Hierarchy and dominance challenges are two words we do not usually associate in our minds with our lives abroad. And yet, in moving from one country to another we are taking ourselves out of one social hierarchy and trying to insert ourselves into another with the goal of being accepted. In other words, we’ve changed packs.
Human are animals with very real animal needs plugged in to a living, primal animal world,” Miller says. If we forget this and treat our migration experience as just another self-driven intellectual exercise, we miss not only an opportunity to understand our experience but we ignore our intuition, the signals our animal self is sending us. Signals that can tell us that we are in a safe place or, more importantly, that we are in danger and need to take measures to protect ourselves.
The very act of identifying these feelings can make us very uncomfortable. We think of ourselves as open, tolerant, cosmopolitan people. Surely a “good migrant” has nothing to fear and if we just spur ourselves to ever more heroic efforts at integration, we will be rewarded, or, in other words, we will be safe. More and more I’ve come to view it is as our trying desperately to feel safe in a strange, new world and not so much about our being virtuous people who want to make the natives feel better about our kind of migrant.
For let us make no mistake about it, our new world has an existing hierarchy and unless we are very special and famous, we as migrants are not high in the ranks. Let me give you the most obvious example. Citizens whose families have been in the territory for generations are at the top, second or third-generation citizens are one level down, and new citizens are yet another level down. That’s three ranks above you when you arrive and the only level you can ever aspire to as a migrant is the third one – the one where citizenship is the most tenuous because it is the one that can be most easily taken away.
Citizens are the aristocrats of the nation-state. Not only do they have more rights than non-citizens, the social hierarchy places some citizens above others based on things no one can do anything about like where you or your parents were born.
Now I am not arguing that we should all be paranoid about this but I would suggest that we accept that this inequality exists for all migrants and can punch us in the face when we least expect it. A good example of this is a story I was very recently by a French friend who has an American friend who just married a French. This person has not received a residency card yet because the authorities are investigating whether or not this is a mariage blanc (fake marriage). Somehow it did not surprise me to learn that the French citizen this American married is himself a naturalized French citizen and is not of European origin.
Welcome to the real world consequences of inequality.
Hierarchy is the structure within which human beings as animals+++ seek status and fight each other for a better place in the ranks. One way of looking at migrant integration is to think of it as a series of dominance challenges on the part of the natives in defense of territory/identity (Miller thinks that the two are essentially the same), a reinforcement of their own place as being above yours, and a pressure on the migrant to acknowledge the hierarchy and submit.
When I look at integration though this lens, I see a lot of things I’ve missed. These challenges happen all the time. It can be something as silly as ridiculing someone’s accent or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the foreign-born as a fellow citizen. It’s any situation where the native uses his position in the hierarchy and his self-appointed role as representative of the local culture to put you in your place. And it works. Time and time again, it works. It is really something to see a mature, independent adult lower his or her eyes and mumble an apology for a foreign accent. Confrontation, in my experience, is extremely rare. Evasion and submission are the norm.
Because while dominance challenges in the human or animal world are, Miller says, usually “non-lethal” that doesn’t mean they don’t do harm or can’t escalate into something dangerous. People make mistakes. They can be unpredictable. Within a culture people misunderstand each other all the time with tragic consequences. When cultures collide, it’s even worse.
Someone who is heavily invested (often unconsciously) in his or her social rank based on “I was born here” and “I’m a citizen,” and who truly believes that these things make him a superior human being, and who expects deference from those he perceives as lower-ranking because of their foreignness is someone any migrant should be very wary of. Even if that person is a friend, because the day you decide not to submit or let something go might be the day that friendship ends.
None of the above should be taken as an argument not to integrate. There is some measure of safety that you can achieve though learning the language and knowing the culture. There is joy, too, in these things and a feeling of accomplishment.
What I am suggesting is that we as migrants cultivate our “situational awareness.” Be a little more conscious of the hierarchy in your adopted country and your place in it as a migrant/expat. Beware, this is almost always a blow to the ego. But I wouldn’t dwell on it too much. The human world is rife with inequality and neither you nor I is named “Gates” or “Macron.”
That’s the easy part. The harder one is how to deal with dominance challenges. As a general principle I don’t think it’s right to treat anyone as “less than.” But it happens all the time. Being foreign just means that you’re set up for the easy shot, and on the native side anyone in the top three citizenship ranks can make that move and get a quick “hierarchy fix.”
And then what do you do? Be a good girl and submit? Push back and escalate the conflict? If possible, I would go for “evade” but I’m not sure what that would look like.
So if anyone has any ideas for how to gracefully extract oneself from a native versus foreigner dominance challenge without submitting or confronting, I would love to hear it. Miller’s first rule for avoiding conflict in any form is “not to be there in the first place” and I just don’t see how that would work in this context.