Sunday, August 03, 2014

Conversations 9: A Migrant At Large

Immigration is one of those issues where everyone has a view: I have mine. And, indeed, everyone has a view which is determined by their own experience, plus Daily Mail: Being a migrant myself, I have the first part but not the second. 

I am also an unusual migrant: I migrated not to settle, but to experience and learn. As I always maintained, my roads finally lead back to where I started. But I did not think my education would be complete unless I travelled, and so I did. This is why I seek out experiences which take me to interactions with different cultures and set me challenges to do different things in different countries: For me, all of these are accumulating knowledge and experience for an eventual return.

This makes me a permanent outsider. I am an outsider to what I should call my native land, but also to the one I live in. Whatever practical difficulties this may entail, there are some significant advantages of being in this position: You get to escape Daily Mail, or its other country equivalents, for one. This whole debate about some stereotyped aliens taking over benefits and jobs (though both can't be correct at the same time) becomes redundant, and rather, migration becomes a personal conversation. Living through the suspicions, stereotypes and usual migrant experiences, one forms an idea not just of the society but of oneself. 

For example, I developed a view about immigration watching the rhetoric over the last ten years I have been an immigrant. My own migration was easy: The country wanted Highly Skilled Migrants of a certain age, education and income, and I ticked the right boxes. This is indeed before the rhetoric changed: The highly skilled became highly endowed, and the balance shifted from income or experience to wealth. About seven years after I arrived in Britain, rules changed so that I couldn't have made it - at least if I remained exactly in the same position where I was when I came - because I needed a lot more money. The idea was that Britain did not want more people to come and work here, but rather people who would create jobs. People with money, that is.

This has also been the general drift of the policy elsewhere. Fortune ran this memorable cover, which tells the story in America. Whatever is written on Statue of Liberty, the discussion about immigration is not about high-minded idealism. The British approach of straight-faced opportunism has infected everyone. 

But, then, indeed, it is easy to see the problem in this approach. The British government perpetually lives in the last century, being led by public school boys who never actually had to do a hard day's work or run a small business. Their love for the wealthy should be fairly easy to understand. However, it is difficult to see why Americans will also fall in that trap, after building a successful economy based on the script written on the Statue of Liberty: The original one. All those immigrants who will go on to set up great American businesses arrived in America poor, huddled and often unskilled: They looked a lot more like today's Mexican workers than the French banker running away from a tax regime. 

These are things one sees as a migrant but others don't. In fact, for a migrant, there is not one desirable way of living other than the changing landscapes of a journey. Others, those who never left (outside of holidays), preservation of ways of life come as a top priority - indeed, that is what is called happiness. However, what is less understood perhaps is that the migrants want happiness too, either by clinging to little pieces of home inside their own houses or by trying to embrace a fixed way of living as in the host culture,  but usually fail, as his or her existence itself is treated as an aberration, a departure from things that used to be. One may try to prove the point that clinging to old ways of life may not be an option for many of these migrants, because life at home irreversibly changed as globalisation, often to maximise the returns on the funds of the same pensioner uneasy about the people next door, has been unleashed upon them: One does not have a choice but to board a boat to Europe once the fishing village one lived in die, just because the Atlantic Cod has made its way to European dinner plates. I escape the migrant's desire to be accepted or understood in wanting to be a permanent migrant, but can see the vivid irony when the talk of British ways of life erupt in earnestness.

I also get to meet a lot of international students, who are looking to settle in Britain, the proverbial migrant, who would somehow live through a miserable existence in the hope of making it one day. There is nothing for them in the country they left, they tell me: The stories one gets told about elite jobs waiting for people returning with a fancy education does not apply to them. They set their ambition in just achieving a middle class life, a home whose debt they would pay off with life, a life for their children where they wouldn't be discriminated or persecuted, where they would be able to access Doctors who wouldn't cheat or lie to squeeze extra money out of them - and for this, they are ready to toil, ready to pay many times more for a house than it is worth, ready to accept a permanently inferior place in the society and bear the burden of permanent suspicion, and to accept a role far below their capacity and a cut-price pay. There is a definition of good life all of them have bought into: This good life hinges on being able to buy fancy trinkets rather than having a boring meal cooked at the family home, on having a healthy ban balance rather than having an extended family, on being treated indifferently by neighbours rather than the unwanted and intrusive advices of a village elder. One may call this a migration trap: A self-fulfilling, all destroying cycle, which sucks away those who can, just as it takes away the best mangoes and fishes, from those left-behind societies; and then once they arrive, they are left to live in permanent stigma, rationalising exclusion not just for them but for their children too, unless they give it all just to be allowed a silent existence. 

My travels take me to Middle East, where an extreme version of this plays out. There the exclusion is institutional and the work patterns matches those slaves who built the pyramid. Yet people come, buying into a slightly cruder version of the same Good Life, to get trapped in the elaborate tangles. Again, my being outside rather than inside allow me to see the similarities, even if just as a metaphor, between the communal housing in East Ham and bunk beds in Sonapur. 

Indeed, in all of this, there is a question that one of my students asked me: Is the nation important? Why would I care about the land I came from, and revel in that identity, plotting endlessly my way back? Why is a house in the country I live now not equal the house my grandfather left for me? Isn't this missing to celebrate my present and indulging in an interminable love affair with my past? Should I not move on, because, migrants' life, if anything, is about moving on?

There are no easy answers, particularly as most people leave as they are driven out. The countries who send out migrants are countries where a narrow elite has taken power and keep it among themselves: Migrants are sentenced to marginal existence not just after they leave, but also before - as they are outside the circle of the elite and can not have any voice in the affairs. However, it is still the allure of good life, sold actively by this elite: Look at the celebration in Dhaka or Manila as the migrant's remittances keep the domestic currencies strong so that they can buy their Land Rovers. People is their main export, and the most profitable one, as it keeps paying, one Bangladeshi 'exporter' told me. And, surely, those Land Rover sales help keep British factories and British jobs going, maintaining a full circle. Except that some people would have to live life as a canon fodder.

I think this is the central point: That being a migrant in this new world means giving up your chance to make a difference. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs may disagree, but they are an odd bunch, and increasingly, Americans want more Russian oligarchs than Indian or Chinese students. Making a difference by being a migrant is going out of fashion. In fact, returning is a better way of making a difference, look at the transformation in China and India and Africa, not just of the shopping malls and restaurants, but of businesses, of conversations and of values. That is the promise of good life upturned: That is about rejecting the life in search of good life and creating good life oneself. This means struggle, but no less than that of a migrant, just with a better chance of making a difference in the end. 


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