In Your Country

As my health improves so does my sense of humor.  This is a good thing in so many ways but it served me particularly well recently when I went to fill a prescription at my local pharmacy.

The ladies at the local apothecary and I are in a long term relationship.  They have seen me through cancer, heart problems, and now an autoimmune disorder. Unlike some other healthcare providers here, they have never made mention of my being a foreigner.

Until last week.

Here’s what happened and it’s a howler.

I left my house in mid-morning, walked down to the commercial heart of the neighborhood, walked in to the pharmacy, and walked up to the counter.  One of the lovely ladies was right there – the usual efficient and friendly service.  After the Bonjours the pharmacist took the script and went to the back to fill it.

When she came back with my medicine she told me that I should consider getting a month’s worth next time.  There seems to be a production problem, she said, and the medicine is not always available right now in the quantities I need.

And then for some reason she said three little words that caused my body to stiffen up and my mind to prepare for the psychological slam:  In your country

Apparently in your country, Madame, drugs are always available, and there are never shortages at the local pharmacies. This is a result of the pharmaceutical companies in your country charging ridiculous amounts of money for basic medicine…  And so on and so forth.  She was on a roll and nothing short of rudeness on my part was going to stop her.

It was quite an education for me.  All of the things she said about the US might be true, but I wouldn’t know.  Any deep personal experience of healthcare in my country is decades out of date.  Something that she and the other pharmacists are aware of because I have been filling prescriptions in their shop for over 10 years now.

In fact, the last time I dealt with the American healthcare system was a few years back when I was visiting family in Seattle and had to go to the emergency room. I was basically a medical tourist. The hospital filled the prescriptions.

As I said it is a testament to the fine care I’m getting that my sense of humor is returning along with my health.  Because this was just too damn funny for words.  For some inexplicable reason my French pharmacist decided that day to inform me about the price and availability of pharmaceuticals in my country of origin.  Worthy of a chuckle or two, but not worth resenting and risking our relationship.

There is one more element to add here and I do so because the irony is delicious.  The pharmacist is herself a product of immigration.  Her accent says first generation and her appearance says that her roots are in East Asia.  In other words, she has her own country of origin that is not France.

So I have to wonder what would have happened if I had simply asked her the question, “So tell me, Madame, how does it work in your country?”


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

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

A Person Should Wear What S/he Wants To And Not Just What Other Folks Say

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.”

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Back when I was a foot soldier for international capitalism I was well aware of this two-front war.  As a woman in an industry dominated by men it was a daily struggle to be heard even though I was hired because of my experience and expertise.  In the corporate struggles for power what I looked like, what I wore, my marital status and motherhood were considered fair game.  “Buy some new clothes,” said one of my bosses. (I did.) “You should be grateful we gave you this job and pay you as much as we do given that your husband has a very good job and you have children,” said another.  (I quit.)  “You can’t be an American; you’re not fat.” (A backhanded “compliment.”)

None of these things had anything to do with my ability to do my job, nor did they have anything to do with my worth as a human being.  With hindsight I can see it for what it was: an abuse of power and a deflection.  A deflection because by shifting the focus to what I looked like or what I wore or my marital status they could shut me down when I had opinions, raised uncomfortable questions like why I was being paid less than a man, and exercised the power of my position.  So my strategy was to put on my “armor” and show up for work every day in makeup, suit, and high heels looking as little like a mother (or an American) as possible. In short I submitted to a dress code imposed on me by the men I worked for.   Dress which had nothing to do with my personal preferences:  the heels shortened my tendons and made it painful to walk barefoot or in flat shoes.

So I must admit that I have had visceral reactions to a topic that has been in the headlines in recent weeks.   There is a lively debate in Quebec over Bill 62 which would require that faces be uncovered when public services are being used.  This has been interpreted as an attempt to ban the burqua, a style of dress worn by Moslem women in some countries that covers the entire body including the face.

Bill 62.  I have listened carefully to those who are in favor of the ban.  It is a matter of security, some say, not religion and it certainly is not aimed primarily at women.  The clarifications on the law provided by the Justice Ministry have indeed made it out to be a matter of identification: an individual can read a book in a public library with the face covered, but he/she must uncover it when dealing with library staff.  The purpose then, as I understand it, is to be able to match a face with an item of identification like a bus or library pass.

Is this law actually addressing an issue that needs to be rectified?  Is there a significant number of Quebecois residents who are covering their faces so that they can fraudulently use public libraries and transportation?  Have public servants complained that they are unable to do their jobs as guardians of public services because they cannot identify users or have there been serious security issues in public spaces related to people who have hidden their faces in order to wreak havoc anonymously?  In all the articles I have read I have heard a great deal about potential security issues but nothing about actual ones that would justify such a law.  Unless someone can point to some empirical data about this I must conclude that this law is either a frivolous “solution in search of a problem” for political gain or a nefarious attempt to discourage men and women (mostly women) from dressing in ways that some find offensive or threatening.

Some of the law’s supporters are indeed very forthcoming about the latter being their goal.  They say that the ban is indeed a matter of religion and more specifically about how a minority of  women of a certain minority culture and religion dress.  Reading those arguments I am hearing a great deal about how these women are suffering from “false consciousness” and how we are under no obligation to help these women “self-oppress.”  Banning the burqua is thus a step forward in the liberation of these women.

I read these arguments and I want to weep.  Or rage.  Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century and somehow what women wear is a matter for public debate.   A debate that is, mind you, impossible for women to win.  In one era we are chastised for wearing our skirts too short, in another because we wear them too long.  We have been forced to wear veils and we have been forced to take them off.    We are sluts if we reveal too much, but we are prudes if we cover too much.

The underlying topic here is not security, it is: Do women have the right to dress as they please without harassment or violating the law?   In some countries the answer to that is a resounding “No!” and I am no fan of such places.   But I also note that for much of my life spent in a European liberal democracy  I too have not felt I had the right to dress in a way that was most pleasing to me (and most beneficial for my health.)  And I’d say that’s true of most women just about everywhere in the world. Even when we are unveiled, I would argue, we have to fight to be seen or heard.

But the law is the law, as some people point out ever so self-righteously.  So let us channel our inner anarchist and “work to rule.”  Let every functionnaire in Quebec diligently check the photo IDs of every single person using the public services in the province and let not one person escape the identification requirement: if the photo shows no beard but the person has one, send him home for a clean shave before he can use the public transportation.   Furthermore,  there should be a hotline to report any public servant who fails to enforce those all-important security measures.

As for the private sector perhaps we could have a little fun here.  One response to “Buy some new clothes” might be “We should go together because that suit of yours has certainly seen better days.”  Or how about “You should be grateful the company gave you this job and pay you as much as we do given that your wife has a very good job and you have children.”  And lastly, “Your belly is hanging out over your belt; you can’t possibly be French.”

I dream. 🙂

Neo-Nationalism and Identity in Japan

Over the past year I have been paying attention to a national scandal here in Japan that is centered around a kindergarten here in Osaka.  (The school is not far from where I was biking a few weeks ago along the Yodo River.)  The larger context of the scandal is the emergence of nationalist movements which are provoking debates over Japanese identity.

The Tsukamoto Kindergarten (école maternelle is a private school with some very public supporters including the wife of the current prime minister.  Elements of the curriculum are definitely on the very conservative side of the political spectrum and are meant to instill pride and patriotism in Japanese children.  Children stand before the Japanese flag, bow to a portrait of the Emperor, recite the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890) and learn what are called “pre-war” (World War II) values.  Here is a short video filmed at the school that shows a few of these activities.  (Note that uniforms are not something particular to this school, but are common in public and private schools.)

The scandal was not so much about the curriculum (though criticism of it abounds) as it was about anti-foreigner comments by school officials and corruption. The corruption is said to have occurred when the Japan government sold a piece of land to the school’s owners at a very good (some say ridiculously low) price so they could construct an elementary school .   The bigotry was discovered in letters and pamphlets issued by the school with statements like, “The problem is that people who have inherited the spirit (of Koreans) exist in our country with the looks of Japanese people” and reports that  the school administrators were espousing belief in the “uniformity of the Japanese race.”  
And for the cherry on the top, the school’s principal is a member of a Far Right organization called Nippon Kaigi (The Japan Conference).  Lest you think that this is a marginal organization with few members, think again.  Nippon Kaigi is reported to have around 38,000 members but more importantly it enjoys strong support from the prime minister, members of his cabinet, and parliament. 
Here is a short video from France 24 in English about the organization which I think is fairly balanced reporting.  Looking beyond the title of the piece, The Return of Japan’s Imperialists, Nippon Kaigi members are interviewed and give their side of the story.
This is a classic modern battle over national identity, one that is very similar to such debates going on elsewhere.  The tactics are also very familiar:  revising the curriculum, arguing for a different interpretation of historical events, creating a top-down movement led by political and social elites, and using religious, philosophical or ethical systems to support a return to an older (and ostensibly better) framework of national values. (And here I deftly avoid the question of whether or not Emperor worship is a religion.)  It reveals a belief that it is possible to construct a different national reality through institutions, the education of children, and persuasive efforts led by political elites.  And it makes me wonder to what extent these tactics, even in a democratic society, are a way of circumventing the wishes of the citizenry.   I do not see great enthusiasm for the prime minister’s commitment to a more militarized society and yet, he seems to be moving forward anyway.
Ultimately, the big questions for me are:  How successful is this movement likely to be?  In other words, is Japanese national identity going to change significantly in the near future as a result of neo-nationalism?  (Perhaps it has already changed in some ways.)  And, if so, how might it change citizenship laws and immigration policies?  Or to put it another way do migrants and naturalized citizens have good reasons to be very concerned about where this might go?  
A suivre….