Sunday, 13 May 2012

I, stranger

I am reading a book written by Julia Kristeva, a French philosopher of Bulgarian descent. The book is called Strangers to Ourselves (Étrangers à nous-mêmes), and discusses the topic of ‘strangers’ – or ‘foreigners’ – in European history. Kristeva looks at the history of institutionalised xenophobia as well as cosmopolitanism, from the Hellenistic polis to the medieval feudal system to the modern nation state, and raises a number of important questions regarding citizenship, political rights, and belonging. Drawing on Freud's ideas of the individual subconsciousness, she argues that, ultimately, every single one of us is a stranger to her- or himself. According to Kristeva, a realisation of this existential alienation of the self may provide a basis for an inclusive ethics (and law) that no longer perceives the presence of foreigners as a potential threat, but rather as a reminder of the fact that, in the end, all of us are in the same boat. She writes:
Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself. A symptom that precisely turns ‘we’ into a problem, perhaps makes it impossible, the foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities.

The problem of classical multiculturalism, as represented by the works of Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor, is not that it is idealistic – there is nothing wrong with idealism in politics and political philosophy, as long as it does not turn into utopianism – nor that it challenges the narrow-mindedness of popular nationalism – which, arguably, is not challenged enough in contemporary political discourse. The problem is that it is too communitarian. That is, it reifies communities and minorities; it reduces individual actors to the ‘ethnic group’ or ‘subculture’ to which they supposedly belong; and by doing so, it denies ‘members of minority groups’ their individuality. However, as Kristeva makes clear, if we recognise the foreigner in ourselves, we realise that strangeness is fundamentally an individual, existential condition. The stranger has no real home, no real community. Minority communities do exist, but they are largely artificial constructions, made for political purposes such as legal recognition and economical support.

The Dutch language makes an interesting distinction between two types of ‘homeless’ people: those who do not have a place to live (daklozen, ‘roofless’) and those who do not have a place where they are at home (thuislozen). While a foreigner may have a place to live (i.e., he is not ‘roofless’), he will find it difficult to find a place where he can be at home. He may be one of those who say optimistically, ‘I can feel at home anywhere’, ‘I don’t care where I live, home is where the heart is’, but that comes down to the same thing: he has no physical place, no locale where he is at home. The former homeland, provided there has been any, has long ceased to be ‘home’; the new land, however, will always remain a mystery somehow, and will always make him feel that he does not fully belong because he is ‘different’, either in subtle or in not-so-subtle ways. The foreigner is uprooted, inevitably and irreversibly. And while some are capable of re-appropriating this uprootedness, and turn their individual hybridity into something empowering, many lack the power and resources to do so.

If a tree is uprooted, he will find it difficult to remain well-nourished. There is a reason why immigrants so often get health problems. Physical and mental belonging, personal identity, the power to express oneself verbally – things that most people do not usually reflect upon – are problematised continuously by daily-life encounters. Access to subsidies, tax deductions, immigration agencies, proper health care, education, phone help-desks and the thousand-and-one bureaucratic institutions one has to negotiate in order to survive modern society provide the immigrant constantly with new challenges and stress, and limit his opportunities. Of course, ‘the autochtonous population’ has to deal with and complains about some of these things as well, but they are socialised in the system and have learned how to negotiate it. People who have never lived abroad have little understanding of the fact that bureaucratic, medical and legal systems function completely differently in different countries (even within Europe). Moreover, people who have never had to deal with residence permits, long-term visas, citizenship tests, naturalisation procedures and so on have no idea how totally nontransparent, frustrating and humiliating the rules are. No matter how liberal the rhetoric, in any modern country the system guarantees that immigrants remain strangers, frustrated in their attempts to ‘feel at home’ by institutions that refuse to grant them that simple privilege. And I am only talking about so-called ‘legal’ migrants here – the situation of the millions of people around the world who live and work as ‘illegal’ migrants is much worse, as they do not have access to medical care, legal protection or education whatsoever, thus constituting an easy prey for those exploiting them.

The other day, I read my brother’s MA thesis. He had studied elderly Dutch ‘immigrants’ (question: why do we still use the word ‘immigrant’ when we talk about people who have lived in a single place for nearly sixty years?) in New Zealand, and looked at ways in which they shape and negotiate their hybrid identities through everyday practices, such as home-making and recreational activities. The thesis was well-written, and I particularly liked the ways in which he applied his theoretical framework to an analysis of the ethnographic data. Reading the thesis made me realise two things. First, while discriminatory structures, personal identity struggles, nostalgia for a home country that no longer exists, and a lack of understanding of the written and unwritten rules of a society can lead to frustration and powerlessness, those who learn to juggle their different identities and negotiate the societal structures in the new country often live a life that is more colourful, diverse and, perhaps, exciting than those who only know one place and one culture. In other words, for those who learn how to play with their existential ‘being different’, hybridity can become empowering. As Stuart Hall wrote:
[They] have succeeded in remaking themselves and fashioning new kinds of cultural identity by, consciously or unconsciously, drawing on more than one cultural repertoire. (…) They are people who belong to more than one world, speak more than one language (literally and metaphorically), inhabit more than one identity, have more than one home; who have learned to negotiate and translate between cultures, and who, because they are irrevocably the product of several interlocking histories and cultures, have learned to live with, and indeed to speak from, difference. They speak from the ‘in-between of different cultures, always unsettling the assumptions of one culture from the perspective of another, and thus finding ways of being both the same as and at the same time different from the others amongst whom they live.

According to this view, it would be possible to overcome the existential homelessness that comes with being a stranger; to re-appropriate the strangeness, and re-establish multiple homes. This is a rather optimistic, if not idealistic, view of the migration experience; yet, it is valuable as it challenges popular views of identity and belonging as singular and static, and shows us the potential virtues of having multiple identities.

Second, the thesis’ focus on the objects and practices of everyday life (drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau) made me look at my personal strangeness and cultural hybridity from a new perspective. (For those of you who believe in synchronicity: it is perhaps no coincidence that I came across Kristeva’s book in a second-hand bookshop while I was about to read my brother’s thesis, at a time when questions regarding my personal ‘home’ and cultural identity were resurfacing.) Rather than approaching migration from a communitarian perspective, as the multiculturalists do – an  approach I have never been able to subscribe to, as it does not correspond to my personal migration experiences, which are characterised by a lack of any sense of ‘community’ – my brother looked at the practices and stories through which individuals, often subconsciously, construct (ils bricolent) their identity through home-making and other activities. I liked the particularism inherent in this approach, as it does justice to the simple fact that all migrants deal differently with their different situations, narratives and backgrounds. Even people living in the same country and sharing the same country of origin may have a very different background, and different ways of negotiating their identities.

When I look around, I see that our house is a patchwork, full of objects from all over the world. The hybridity is well-illustrated by our gods’ corner – our altar, where we usually pray – which has a variety of religious objects from Vietnam, Laos, the Netherlands, Japan, India, Slovakia and Egypt, representing a variety of buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as Hindu deities, the Holy Virgin, and two wooden crosses (Franciscan and Coptic). The same applies to our eating habits: for breakfast, this morning, I had knekkebrød with pindakaas and cà phê sữa đá. Last night, for dinner, we had a nice mix of leftovers: rice with salad, bánh bèo, gyōza and ovenschotel with potatoes. While I am quite happy with cereals for breakfast, for lunch I usually have curry, fried rice or phở. I would not want it to be any different.

Yet, the question ‘what/where is my home’ occasionally pops up. For some reason, recently, it has been on my mind a lot. I like to be free, I like to be able to move from one country to another, and I am glad I am able to live fairly happily in different countries. But as I am spending a third of my salary on a tiny basement apartment, the desire to have a single place (that is, a physical location) that I consider mine is growing. House, home and place are intimately connected; as are home, society, culture and country. I am glad and grateful I have lived in five different countries, in many different cities – but the older I get, the more I look forward to finding (choosing?) the one place where I belong. Perhaps the wish is a natural consequence of growing older. Perhaps it is an illusion, and I will never be able to fully overcome that feeling of uprootedness and spatial alienation. But I believe it exists, somewhere out there; all we have to do is find it.

I grew up in the Netherlands, in a small village not too far away from the city of Groningen. Surrounded by countryside, it is a city that desperately tries to be urban, in which it succeeds remarkably well. Full of theaters, restaurants, art, nightlife and academic activities, Groningen is as interesting as the surrounding areas are boring. Nevertheless, when I was eighteen, I wanted to move somewhere more exciting; hence, I went to study in Leiden, while living in Amsterdam, the only more-or-less cosmopolitan-oriented city in the Netherlands. I enjoyed the years I spent in Amsterdam and Leiden, but I did not want to stay there. Having studied Japanese language and culture for several years, I spent a year as an undergraduate student in Tokyo; later, I went to London for my MA. After my studies, I travelled in Southeast Asia for a while, after which I lived in Vietnam for about a year and a half. In 2010, my wife and I moved to Oslo, where I was going to do my PhD – doing research on (and, partly, in) Japan. Right now, I feel that I belong to at least four countries – the Netherlands, where I grew up; Vietnam, where my wife is from; Norway, where we live; and Japan, which I study. Yet I also feel that I do not completely belong to any of these countries. When the glass is half full, I have four places I can call ‘home’; when it is half empty, I have none.

In the Netherlands, I know how most things work. I know where to buy cheap household appliances or smart yet affordable clothes. I know how to buy train and tram tickets (or at least I did; they changed the system, a few years ago, and now I feel much less self-confident when it comes to finding the right ticket). I speak the language. I do not feel shy when I order drinks in a bar. I support the national football team (and tend to convert to tribalism during important international tournaments). However, I detest the popular xenophobia, spread by mass media and opportunistic politicians, that has characterised Dutch political discourse in the last decade, and the strict immigration rules that have been implemented.  I cannot stand the arrogance and unfriendliness displayed by some people in the public sphere (mainly in the western part of the country, it must be said). Whenever I visit the country, I feel an odd mixture of nostalgia and alienation telling me that, the longer I am away, the stranger I become.

Vietnam is the country of my wife. It is the place where she grew up, where her family lives, where we got married. I love the Vietnamese climate, the food, the cafe culture. I love riding my motorbike through the rice paddies. I enjoy watching the dynamics of social and economical (alas, not political) change; I admire the ambitious students I have had the privilege of teaching, as they work so hard to fulfill their dreams. Yet, having experienced corruption, institutional discrimination and xenophobic violence, as well as pollution and noise, I do not think I would want to live in Vietnam permanently. Moreover, an academic career in my field is simply not possible there; not only because of economical concerns, but also because there is no such thing as freedom of expression. Many Vietnamese scholars have had works confiscated and banned.

I love being in Japan. I love Japanese food, I love visiting sacred places, I love the natural landscapes. Unlike Vietnamese, my Japanese language skills are sufficient for negotiating daily life. That is, I can book a business hotel online, manage a phone call or open a bank account – I am not sure about dealing with tax or immigration issues. However, while one should never say never, I do not think we will go live in Japan for a longer period of time. Japanese society is discriminatory – not so much towards white immigrants, and not so much towards men, but an Asian woman who does not speak the language will find it difficult to deal with practical matters, let alone find a good job.

But we do not live in the Netherlands, Vietnam, or Japan. We live in Norway. Life in Norway is good: I get paid to write my PhD dissertation; Oslo is a pleasant city to live in; people hardly ever get rude or aggressive, even when they are drunk; bus drivers usually wait for you when they see you running to catch the bus; and the city is surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes. But while I love spring and summer (short yet beautiful), the long and dark winters continue to be a challenge. And after almost two years of living here, I still get shocked when I see the prices of a mediocre restaurant, and cannot get used to the fact that I cannot buy a simple bottle of wine at the supermarket. I also fail to comprehend why I pay a significant percentage of my salary to be included in the national health insurance scheme, yet have to pay whenever I visit my GP or get medicines – more importantly, I do not understand why half of the medical sector has been privatised, and clinics not covered by national health insurance can charge huge amounts of money. And while I am grateful we can live here, and my wife can study without having to pay tuition fees, I am troubled by the fact that she is denied some of the basic rights that other immigrants do have, because she came here as the spouse of a non-Norwegian-yet-EU citizen. Institutionalised discrimination, that few people here are aware of.

Finally, what I miss most of my time in, basically, any other country I have lived previously, are spontaneous visits to bars with friends or colleagues. Or anything spontaneous, for that matter. Alas, the stereotype that says Norwegians are only able to act spontaneously when they get drunk (on a planned-in-advance party, on Saturday night, of course) corresponds quite well to my experiences. I have many nice Norwegian acquaintances, know many kind people – but for some reason, it seems to take an eternity for an acquaintance to become a friend. People are generally friendly, yet shy and distant, unless drunk. I find myself copying this behaviour, and have become less outgoing than I used to be.

We do not have to choose yet. We will stay in Norway for another two years, at least – with the possible exception of a few months spent in Vietnam or Japan. So there is no need to decide now. In the end, our choice will of course depend on career opportunities, as much as other material and immaterial factors. I just hope that, in about five years’ time, I will be able to invite guests to our house, wherever it is, and say: ‘Welcome. This is our home’ – after which I serve them a fusion kitchen dinner in the garden. To be able to, somehow, domesticise that existential strangeness Kristeva wrote about. To celebrate our hybrid life, at a place called home.


  1. Hey,

    Very very interesting post.

    The more so because I have been struggling to blog about my own views on personal belonging - with no success so far.

    Partly because I also don't want to limit belonging to ONE place, partly because I believe (at the moment) that where you feel at home is also defined by your priorities in the stage of life you are in at any one time and it does not need to be a physical place (at least from a non-institutional POV).

    Researching the reality of life in international development, I came across so-called 'global nomads'. It is a similar concept and there does not appear to be much literature on it yet. So if you ever find yourself bored in your PhD... ;)

  2. Hi Heidi,

    Thank you very much for your comment!

    I used to think the same - that 'home' is some sort of metaphysical abstraction, and that 'feeling at home' is a state of mind, not necessarily related to any physical location.

    I have changed my mind. Of course, the feeling of being at home is subjective, and can be experienced at different places. Yet, I think in the end we all need a place to live, shelter, a place where we feel safe and where we belong. That is physical and material as much as it is symbolic.

    Perhaps this shift in thinking corresponds to the shift in my research, as I have become increasingly interested in notions of space, landscape, embodiment, and dwelling - as I now realise that stories and symbols always take shape, and need a place, in order to acquire meaning.

    As for those 'global nomads', I think there are two kinds: those who move to another country every two or three years (diplomats, Shell expats, 'development' managers), and those who travel around the world for their work, yet have one single place where they live, and always can come home to (businesspeople, scholars, airline staff). I think I would rather belong to the latter category than the former.

    I only have three years for my PhD... No time to feel bored!