Monday, April 12, 2010

A reminder of people known abroad

An emotional and well-executed French film about the ongoing tragedy that is the Iranian Revolution, as well the difficulties that go with emigrating from the Mideast to Western Europe. Not surprisingly, it's got me thinking of my classmates in the Swedish for Immigrants courses and at Malmö City College, when I was an immigrant in Sweden.

Of course my identity as an immigrant was largely an accidental daytime role, brought about by my tan skin, black hair, and spotty Swedish during the first two years I lived there. When out on my own I was often lumped into the Middle Eastern immigrant category at first glance or with the first spoken word. That could mean anything from aloofness, poorly concealed discomfort, or sympathy mistakenly directed at a fellow westerner. And in the evenings within my then girlfriend's circle of friends or family I was very much a fellow westerner.

Having said that, being an American in Western Europe during the early 2000s brought its own set of difficulties and ugly stereotypes to the table, but those were problems of an entirely lesser magnitude than being an outsider from the Middle East or Africa in a society that holds such immigrants at arms length. Housing was often difficult for them to obtain, service in a restaurant or or coffee shop outside of the immigrants community could be problematic, and job interviews were non-existent for those with non-western names.

I wish now that I had exchanged email addresses or otherwise kept in touch with those classmates. They were fascinating individuals, who ranged from middle-class and upper-class exiles who had been forced from their homes in Iran, Iraq, or Syria because of their political views, to Palestinians who had fled the poverty and discrimination of lives as refugees in Arab-speaking nations. Some were from Eastern Europe or Russia and had come in search of work or because they had family in Sweden. Still others came from the East Asian nations or Africa.

All of them were friendly and pleasant to hangout or study with. They were by-in-large university educated in nations where higher education is a much sought after privilege--and one that apparently also entails a sense of greater responsibilities to society. Nearly all of them were broadminded and possessed a curiosity about the world outside of their homelands.

They had a great many questions about my homeland, and seemed genuinely interested in my attempts to present what was hopefully a nuanced view of the United States. That was quite a contrast to the Western Europeans, who more often than not insisted on trying to instruct me on how things "really are" in my homeland.

To the last my fellow immigrants seemed proud of the cultures they came from, and many insisted that there was no conflict between their traditions and modernity.

On that latter point I have to disagree. Not because I believe that there is anything inherently incompatible between any particular culture or religion and modernity, but rather because modernity has been a rough ride for all of us. The period from 1870s through the 1940s in the United States was a turbulent one with all of the economic upheavals, worker displacements, and challenges to tradition posed by the arrival of industrial society and modern science. With vastly increased mobility came shrunken family and communal ties, and not even Great Britain,  home to the industrial revolution, seems to have gotten off lightly.

During those years immediately after 9/11, class each day with my fellow immigrants was an odd island of tranquility, in which people for counties at war or that had been at war interacted peaceably. This included not only Iraqis and Iranians, but Korean and Japanese students. While opinions among the Iraqi students varied about whether the US invasion during the 2003 school year was good or bad, nearly all of them made a point of explaining that they bore no personal animosity towards me.

That willingness to deal with me as an individual helped to make Swedish for Immigrants a calm place for me. I think I was more myself there than at most other times in Sweden, dealing with Swedish society as an immigrant or with fellow westerners for whom "American" was a term with a lot of negative baggage.

That baggage carried over to some of the teachers at Malmö City College, who often insisted on interjecting their political views into the class. The last straw for me was a history of the Cold War that made no mention of Stalin, the millions he had killed by purge or famine; Mao and the tens of millions killed in China by famine, malnutrition, or the violence of the Cultural Revolution; North Korea and its camps and famines; or even a single word about Cambodia under Pol Pot. When I asked the professor after class why those tragedies had been left out, he told me that those were not important issues.

I suppose you could also teach a class on World War II without the Holocaust, the mass killing Soviet citizens by Nazi occupation forces, the Rape of Nanking or the occupation of China with that kind of criteria.

Whatever, its water under the bridge at this point. And like I said, I wish I had kept in touch with my classmates. As the years go by I find myself more and more curious about their lives and what they have gone on to. Did they find some way into Swedish society and the workplace, or are they still locked out on the fringes? I had the option of going home to a place where I am me, rather than a nationality or an appearance. They did not.


JensA said...

Nice reflections. I didn't know we were that judgmental. Do you miss us from the Swedish community to sometime?

Alex said...

Oh, yes! There are certainly individuals whom I miss. I enjoyed your company and always had a great time hanging out. There are also foods I miss of course, and the language. Languages are always fun as they filter the world we perceive in slightly different ways. I also liked the fact in Sweden there is a common body of songs that everyone knows for social occasions. That has disappeared in most of the US, and it is a real loss. Lund was also very exotic for someone who grew up in a desert that has only a sedentary civilization for one and a-half centuries.