Monday, December 18, 2017

On immigration and mayonnaise.

Once upon a time, in a house on the border of Murcia and Almeria, a woman named Catalina Andreu showed me how to make mayonnaise. First, you make your base. Vinegar, egg, salt, maybe mustard and or garlic. Then comes the tricky part: incorporating the oil. This has to be done in a slow trickle while stirring vigorously. Add too much at once and the oil goes one way, the vinegar base the other and they are both useless. Her words. I remember her saying "un lado, otro lado." These people were smart peasant farmers who knew how to stretch our rudimentary Spanish by simplifying their language.

Now, with our modern kitchen blenders the cure for a failing mayonnaise is simple. Stop adding oil for a moment, then give the works a vigorous buzz. The oil will incorporate, everything becomes smooth and you can resume trickling more oil.

Mayonnaise seems to me the perfect metaphor for the dilemmas surrounding immigration. When too many newcomers pour into an established society at once, integration becomes more difficult. Any harmonious society has a certain degree of cohesion, a baseline of common mores and values. 

I am not saying that there should not be people at the fringes, those are usually the more interesting ones. The ones on the edge, the pockets of 'others'  keep a society from stagnating. But there has to be a centre to be a fringe of. Without a central mass we get mere chaos. Think of the endlessly warring city states of Renaissance Italy that inspired the peace loving Machiavelli to write his cynical instructions for a successful ruler. 

Ideally the receiving society should be able to slow down the flood of incomers until the previous wave of immigrants has made itself at home. Stop adding more oil. Let Time, that great blender, do its magic. In the recent (post indigenous holocaust) history of North America this has happened many times over. Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans have all been looked at askance until they became established. In the present day Vancouver, B.C. is adjusting to becoming an Asian city.

Unfortunately slowing down the flow is not always possible. In times of upheaval due to wars and natural disasters desperate people will continue to flood into safer places.

This phenomenon is as old as humanity. History lesson from Dutch elementary school, where we had to learn dates by heart. They stuck. The year 400 read: "The Great Migration. Our country inhabited by Frisians, Franks and Saxons." The word for the migration, "volksverhuizing", literally "people's move" the same as that used for a move from one apartment to the next. My childish imagination pictured an orderly procession of horse drawn U hauls. While much attention was given to Attila the Hun, the driving force behind all those tribes moving West, not much was said about the experience of the people in place when the Frisians, Franks and Saxons who became our collective forebears showed up. 

Receiving societies face horrible dilemmas no matter how they respond. Most people are decent at heart and want to rescue the fleeing stranger. But when a trickle of individual families becomes a flood that threatens to overwhelm the host society things become tricky.

I have no easy answers. Overall, I prefer being opening and welcoming to closing the gate behind me now that I am in. 

However, on this topic as on so many others we need to be able to hold frank conversations without immediately ranging ourselves in ideological camps. We need to stop cherry picking stories that confirm our chosen viewpoint and ignoring the other ones. People of any group are a mixed bag.

Can we please admit that both xenophobia AND  large sudden influxes of newcomers are a problem? Can we please listen when the people in the neighborhoods where many newcomers settle run into problems without dismissing them as racists? We have seen what happens when people feel dismissed. It is not a pretty picture.

Can we please admit that there is a danger that our cherished social safety nets might become overwhelmed? Of course the funding of social safety nets is a complex issue in its own right, but let's not get side tracked.

Racism is present and real. Racial profiling by police is disgusting. So is seeing a possible rental disappear the moment a person of colour (I hate that expression) appears for a look. Boo! Hiss! 

But think of the social and psychological problems faced by returning veterans from the host society. Now look at an influx of large numbers of traumatised young men from a culture that gives them a sense of entitlement. Thinking of Europe here. Could that just possibly cause some problems? Can we please ask that question without being labeled anything?

Repeat. I have no easy answers. But I do know that finding the best possible answers has to start with asking questions, including  tough and unpopular ones.  


troutbirder said...

How very thoughtful. I couldn't agree more.....

Cynthia said...

No easy answers, that's for sure. I like your mayonnaise metaphor very much -- maybe because I'm quite familiar with the making of Mayo myself. I hope there are better minds than mine that can solve the problems and we can live together peacefully, and in the meanwhile I do every practical thing I can to help the refugees who are already here.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Thanks to both of you for reading. I have been negligent in response.