The other day, while I was sitting on the bus on the way home, I happen to overhear a conversation between a mother and her daughter. The mother was Albanian and her daughter a Norwegian of Albanian immigrant parents, and the topic of the rather heated conversation was, to my delight, the always hotly debated topic of the (failure of) integration into the Norwegian society. The mother was visibly upset with her “stubborn” but otherwise exceptionally cool and nonchalant teenage daughter.
Now, you might have already been led to believe that the mother was upset because she was concerned about the direction that the dull and uninspiring debates on limiting immigration and deepening integration in Norway are taking. Not at all! I doubt that she is even aware of or that she cares much about these debates. I wouldn’t care much myself. And this detachment, this sovereign indifference to what this or that politician says made this “private” conversation all the more interesting and fascinating.
I interpreted what I heard and saw right there in front of me in that rainy January day in a bus in Oslo as an instance of generational conflict. A mother and a daughter arguing with such clarity of vision, and pulling each other in opposite directions, about their own experience of living in Norway. The mother, who is cautious, reserved, and wants the best for her child tells her daughter: ’we have our own tradition and in our tradition we abstain from doing certain things which are considered normal in Norway’. She was saying this while her voice, unconsciously, was being raised, though still tender, not to reprimand her but to convey to her, her fear of what might happen were her daughter to become fully Norwegian. She was visibly distressed and worried. But you will be completely wrong were you to conclude that her distress might have come about as a result of her dislike for things Norwegian, or because of her ignorance of Norwegian culture; quite the contrary. She wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps because only thusly would she be able to protect and have some kind of control over her. Just to avoid a misunderstanding, I should not like to be understood as arguing that her mother’s fears translated into a tyrannous attempt to deprive her daughter from the freedom she enjoys in Norway. Even in the “bloody and backward” Balkans things have changed, for better. What she wanted was the comfort of knowing that her daughter would be safe and the only safety she knew was the safety provided by her tradition. She knew it inside and out and she knew that she could teach her daughter how to empower herself in that tradition. She also knew that she could not instruct her daughter in any other tradition, but her own. She had no interest at all in mocking the Norwegian culture, but a genuine fear for her daughter.
Now this conflict, I presume, occurs in all societies. People are afraid of the new and the unknown, so they express their fear either in the form of overprotection of their children or an almost fanatical reassertion of the, always invented, tradition. Generational conflict, however, afflicts not only foreigners: all are afflicted by it. But it probably afflicts foreigners more than others. For while a Norwegian parent’s beliefs and ideals might conflict with her child’s, the intensity of that conflict, one may safely presume, is generally less noticeable than it is with immigrants. Tradition changes but the continuity is still there, still visible, particularly in the language-continuity. An immigrant is someone who is completely uprooted from this kind of continuity. Continuity represents safety and provides the individual with a sense of belongingness and identity. Leaving aside the reasons why would one want to immigrate to another country in the first place, it is clearly obvious that uprootedness gives the immigrant a certain freedom, which the other doesn’t have, but also the anxiety of an uncertain future. Being uprooted means entering a world full of uncertainties. The fact that there is a break, a clear discontinuity puts the immigrant in a position where she has to refashion herself from scratch, unlearn what she knows and learn a new culture. She has to start from the beginning of everything. No wonder many of us lag behind. This may be an opportunity but also a curse, and judging from my own observations it seems it is more a curse than a blessing. For if she cannot master the new language proficiently she will become more timid than she otherwise is. She will be more easily intimidated, feel less competent, and finally will withdraw into the comfort zone of an imaginary tradition. Imaginary because the tradition the immigrant has is an ad hoc invention, an amalgam of her own tradition and the new tradition, a concession to and a compromise with her child’s and the host’s tradition. It is a renegotiated tradition resting on flimsy foundations. As many an immigrant has often been heard saying that when they return “home” they find they don’t have a home. They feel estranged, both culturally and psychologically. They do not belong because they have become homeless, in exile. Not because they’ve chosen so but because there is very little else they can do. The condition of exile and of seeking the comfort in their imaginary tradition makes them want to impart some of that tradition to their children. It is a sign, probably the only sign, that represents some kind of continuity in their lives, but also an indication that they are on a road of no return.
But the child is no longer the child who would just swallow her parent’s tradition. She resists, she rebels and even has the courage to give a word or two of advice to her old-fashioned parent: “you are living in Norway, so adapt”. It is a little bomb-word. One can raise objections, but with or without demur the mother is on the losing side. She was telling her mother that she would not submit to her dictates, that her mother is the one who has to move forward. She clearly perceived her mother as someone who was trying to drag her to a world she didn’t recognize as her own and therefore didn’t want to belong to it. She understood her mother’s plea, and even her pain, and she didn’t judge her for being different or wanting to drag her there, she just calmly, but firmly, told her to move on. She understood her pain, her loss, and her anxiety but despite all that she insisted that the burden of change must fall upon her mother’s shoulders and that she must find the courage to adapt to this new reality. She knew, moreover, that the tradition her mother knew best and felt safest in was irretrievably gone. She was a Norwegian and she would not be anything else.
The point I want to convey is simple: integration will not happen from above. Politicians can facilitate it but they cannot impose it, no matter what draconian measures they will want to put in use to make that happen. Integration will happen because of the children who are born here and go to Norwegian schools, have Norwegian friends, celebrate Norwegian holidays, speak Norwegian language, love Norwegian nature and folklore and feel Norwegian (by Norwegian I mean the totality of the distinct customs, traditions, etc., that people who live in Norway find themselves reflected in and generally feel low degree of alienation from what passes as tradition: the common way of doing things that comes almost spontaneously). They are Norwegian and they together with other children will decide what being Norwegian means to them. A very crucial insight of this story is that just like integration cannot be imposed from above neither can the meaning and experience of being Norwegian be imposed from above. The authors of the New Norwegian identity will be both those who have immigrant parents and those who don’t. And no governmental decree can change this fact.