Multi-culture is dead. Is it?

As I walk through the streets of a typical European town, the first impressions I have are the way people speak their native languages. Almost immediately, I can tell that the way they construct their sentences, use their words differently, and speak with a heavy dialect that they are speaking the language of the country they are living in, albeit not in the way it is spoken officially. In this case, we’ll use German as a case study. Either they come from different regions of the country, like Hesse, northern regions of Schleswig-Holstein, or the Vogtland region of Saxony, or they come from different countries, like China, the Middle East, or Scandanavia but are here to make a living. If they are not trying to speak the language, they are speaking with their own native tongue, which is easily picked up just by listening to them.  Outside a rum shop, there is a Russian family gatheirng outside to decide whether to take a boat ride or walk to the theater for a musical. At a market square bearing a Danish name, an American tour guide shows a party of 13 the flea market and what is typically being sold there. Outside a barbershop bearing an English name, a French family is making fun among themselves because of their hairstyles they just received.  Then one takes a look at their apparel and the way they behave and run their lives on a regular basis, whether it is a Muslim wearing a turban and carrying the Koran, a Jewish family celebrating Hanukkah, or the Japanese eating sushi while celebrating New Year’s, and one will find that these are not just foreigners who visit the country because of its attractiveness to tourists. They are foreigners who immigrate to the country to make a living there, just like everybody else. These are people who want to have as much of a lifestyle as we do. They want to learn the language and the culture while in turn, want to  make friends with us and share their experiences and their way of life.  The problem is that countries, like Germany, are at the crossroads regarding what to do with the huge influx of foreigners wanting to live here, and the actions that have been taken by many recently have indicated a rise of nationalism and the clash of cultures, which the late Samuel P. Huntington would enjoy watching with utter interest had he been around today; especially when he listens to the comments made against foreigners by imfamous celebrities today. Already, Juan Williams of National Public Radio in the USA was sacked for his comment on his fear of Muslims on an airplane while being interviewed on the show “The O’reilly Factor.” Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh declared the USA as a “White and English Only” state, claiming that if Hispanics want to live there, they have to speak and do business in English only. And the latest comment that has irked many like yours truly to a point where a campaign to unseat him has started was Bavarian minister’s Horst Seehofer’s strive to force integration of many migrants through learning German fluently and with no dialect through his comment that “Multi-culture is dead.” Looking at this from an expatriate’s point of view, the first two comments to use in response to such comments starts with “Oh spare me!” and is followed by “What is going on here?!!” With all the Italian ice cream parlors, Mosques, Chinese clothing shops, Danish specialty shops, and British tea stores that exist here, why are  people getting so worked up with this trend of a country being inhabited by foreigners?

There are four theories that are worth looking at:

1. The country’s attractiveness- especially with regards to the social welfare system and the job prospects. It was not long ago that countries like Germany and Canada announced measures to attract highly-skilled  foreigners to these countries because of jobs that fit their qualifications, like those in the IT branch, for example. Some of these sectors had been shied away by the countries’ own inhabitants because of the too high degree of difficulty and the preference for other subjects that are more to their liking. And with these offers to bring in foreigners come the incentives, like the possibility of receiving a permanent visa and taking advantage of the social welfare system.

2. The language of the country- While learning English is a piece of cake to many foreigners, other languages, like German where I’m living, can be a challenge if you have to figure in the logic of it, how it is spoken and written, and the many dialects that exist. From my own personal experience,  it can take 2-3 years with lots of work to master a difficult language, like German. For other Latin-based languages, like French, it might take longer than that. And for non-Latin based languages, like Chinese and Japanese, it is definitely much longer- say 5-7 years but when living in those areas only.

3. The dominance of English and the Anglo-Saxonization of other languages- English has become the lingua franca of business, commerce, travel, academia, science, and in some degree everyday life. In Germany and other European countries, it is expected that all pupils learn the language beginning in the fifth grade in order to learn the basis before building off from there on the university level. The problem with that is many words in other languages are being absorbed by English, thus creating words and phrases that are cool to the younger generation but irritating to the older generation. Two German language words come to mind when I claim this statement: Download means Herunterladen, but in the new German, it means downloaden.  Mobile or cell phones means Handy in German.

4. The compromise between keeping one’s cultural identity and adopting one of another country. There are four ways of looking at this based on a theory I learned during my Master’s studies at the University of Jena. One can keep both cultures and become more open and tolerant; however one can chuck his own culture away and adopt the culture of the other country but risk losing his knowledge of his own origin. A person can also keep his own culture and not adopt the one of the other and risk being ignorant. However, one can neither keep his own culture of origin nor adopt the culture of the other country and risk being apathetic. While there is a small portion of people like me who prefer the first option, many people elect the third option for reasons that they are only living in the country for a short period of time and it does not make any sense to embrace the language and the culture. However, the plan that many countries on both sides of the big pond (any yes both Germany and the US are toying around with this option) would be to use option two, to force the language and the culture on the foreigners living there. This has sparked outrage from both sides of the spectrum as on the one hand, it would mean adopting a way of living that does not coincide with what the foreigners were used to but on the other hand it would avoid any encroachment on the tradition and value of life of a country threatened by the foreigners.

So looking at the situation from a politician’s point of view, the next question is what to do with the situation when there is a big influx of foreigners, a high rate of unemployment, scarce job possibilities, and a language that is eroding through the dominance of other language.  There are no real answers to the problem except seeing the fact that each country has been a melting pot, where foreigners come in to fill in the shoes in industries and sectors left behind by the older generation because their sons and daughters are interested in other sectors, and therefore provide the country with economic support. Basically, they come in to work for the country while in return they expect recognition of their existence and want to befriend others. And it is understandable if many of them have problems getting adapted into the culture and they find other people who speak the same language as they do, instead of learning the language of the country they’re living in. I can testify to that with the German language as it was easier to pick up people who spoke English than those who spoke the native tongue. But this was at the beginning when I was an exchange student for three semesters before starting my career as an English teacher and had to use the German language to help the students with their English.

Attempts at trying to enforce integration while at the same time put a cap on immigration, as it is being practiced right now is futile, as it has been experimented in the past but have failed miserably. For instance, deporting immigrants to their home countries without looking at the situation over there was practiced as far back as 200 years ago, when the US tried sending Africans to Liberia to have them settle there, only to find that the experiment failed because many of them wanted to return to be with their families who were either enslaved or free.  The attempt at forcing culture and language onto a culture was practiced in the Austro-Hungarian empire, where the minorities were forced to adopt the Magyar language and culture in the areas occupied by the Habsburg dynasty. This was met with resistance and eventually failure although it was later practiced with the Native Americans by the white settlers through the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania. The problem of putting caps on immigrant numbers is that it will never solve the problem of filling in the missing gaps left behind in the industries and sectors, as many inhabitants of a country emigrate to other countries to make a better living. Canadians emigrate to the US and parts of Europe. Chinese and Japanese emigrate to Anglo-Saxon countries. Germans fancy New Zealand, the UK, and Australia, in addition to their liking to the USA.  The problem we have with foreigners is our unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that we have a deficiency in terms of foreign language as well as cultural awareness of others that exist. It does not mean that we are ignorant, but it does mean that we are too passive and too influenced by the outside who want to gather our attention just to garner popularity, even though what is said is nothing but rubbish. What we need to do is acknowledge the fact that multi-culture is NOT  dead but is blossoming not only externally but also internally. Externally means that we will always have people immigrating to our countries to make a living for themselves and help our economies. They will present us with their cultures where we will embrace them and share them with others who are interested. That means we’ll always have Hispanics and Asians living in the US and the Eastern Europeans and Chinese in Germany and other regions.  Internally means that each region in the country will remain strong and proud of their heritage and will share them with others who are interested. We’ll always have Native Americans in the Americas. We’ll always have the local traditions in places like Thuringia, Saxony, and Bavaria. Cities like Görlitz, Saarbrücken, and Flensburg will have small pockets of minorities who have resided there for many generations. Migration is part of the whole Globalization process that is ongoing and will continue to be that way.

While dealing with illegal immigration is a whole different story, we need to acknowledge that Multi-culture is give and take. Therefore, I have some suggestions which might make the process a bit easier for everyone that is involved. We can:

1. Encourage the foreigners to have a sufficient knowledge of the language of the country they are residing in- in my case, German- so that we can have a conversation with them. Regional dialects and minority languages are a plus if they want to stay for a longer period of time. In the German case, this includes but it is not limited to Danish in the northern part of the country, French and Dutch in the west, and the eastern European langages in the east.

2. Encourage them to learn another foreign language that is important in the way we do business- like English, Spanish, or other langauges so that we can communicate with them in the neutral language should it be necessary

3. Help them get accomodated and used to the way of living in the country they wish to reside in, which includes the cultural aspects, but at the same time, not force them to give up their own culture.

What we can take from them is:

1. Their language and culture. I believe we can be proactive and know more about the way of life of the foreigners living in the country and let alone their language. While it is easier to pick up Spanish and Asian languages in the US, it is a big but doable challenge to grapple with various languages the foreigners in Germany bring with them, and especially if it is the English language, since most of the foreigners coming to Germany can speak that language.

2. Their friendship. We should be more open to them and learn about them so that we can understand them and where they come from.

This can all be done through education, whether it is in the classroom of a high school or university, or through a social gathering where there are many foreigners present. It can be done on the street when people help them regarding directions, but it can also be done at places where they purchase products, like train tickets at a railway station. In either case education makes us more open regardless of age and background. It is more the question of whether we are willing to do that, or if we are inclined to accept Seehofer’s comment that “Multi-culture is dead” and be stuck in our passive ways. In today’s society, we cannot afford to be ignorant, let alone blind to the events that are going on that affect us all. Education is cheap but reaps rewards in the end, including our willingness to be open.

Keeping that in mind, let’s finish the files by asking ourselves about Multi-culture. Is it blossoming like it should? Is it really dead, like Seehofer mentioned? Or is it really at the crossroads? Until next time folks.

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