I’ve just seen that on Loose Women, a TV show in the UK, they were talking about immigrants in Britain; whether they do enough to integrate and if more should be done to help them integrate. They all agreed that people new to the country should definitely learn English, but then went on to talk about the hypocrisy of many Brits who move abroad and never expect to speak anything other than English. It was refreshing to finally hear an acknowledgement that Brits abroad do what we accuse others of doing in England, namely sticking to ‘their own’ and creating mini sub-cultures. I think it’s human nature to do this and at the moment I’m one of those migrants, not speaking the language. The Loose Women discussion raised a really good question; what do people really mean, want and expect when it comes to integration? How is it measured?
Speaking the language helps but few understand how long it takes and how much it costs to learn a language to a level where you can actually converse comfortably in everyday situations. To do that you’re looking at a year of full time study, at least. If you study part time or for a few hours per week, it takes a lot longer. If you work, how can you afford the time? If don’t work, how can you afford the fees? Did I ever enrol on a German course, like I was going to the other week? The short answer is no, because the times clash with work and other courses cost too much. The city of Vienna currently offers language learning vouchers up to 150 Euros, which is wonderful, but doesn’t even touch it. And let’s remember that for people setting up in a new country it is a costly business, especially if doing it without the assistance of a company relocation package.
Where can immigrants meet locals? If you can’t make friends because of language barriers, how can you mix? If you take language courses, who do you think you end up making friends with? That’s right, every other nationality except the one whose country you live in. You end up in a wider expat group, mixing cultures, making a third culture which is different to the one you are supposed to be integrating into.
I wonder how to define myself. I can’t speak German, apart from the basics, and I only have three Austrian friends and they speak to me in English. But as an English teacher I mix with Austrians five days a week. My boss is Austrian, so are many other staff at the language school. They all speak English. I teach English to Austrians, and Russians, Czechs, Persians, Mongolians, Hungarians and Spanish, to name a few. I’m in a position where being an English native speaker is a pre-requisite, so I’m not ‘stealing’ another Austrian’s job. So, am I a more acceptable migrant? Am I integrated? Or am I an importer of another culture, a diluter of local culture? I pay tax. I contribute to the social system and pay for health insurance like everyone else does. I recycle like my neighbours do. I eat Austrian food in restaurants. I love Austrian wine which is produced in vineyards only thirty minutes from my home. I love Stiegl, the beer brewed in Salzburg. I want to love Viennese coffee. Sometimes I go to the Irish pub and watch the English footie. I went to great pains to track down a decent curry house. I got my mum to bring out Bisto when she came to visit and a friend brought Marmite and PG Tips. I insist on drinking tea with milk. I put my Christmas tree up a lot earlier than is the Austrian tradition. I feel at home and I feel away from home. I feel English and I feel European. I feel I understand Austrians more every day. I love Vienna. I want to stay in Vienna; I never wanted to stay in England. I feel like I fit in. Is that enough? Does it help that I come from a European culture with similar customs, religious backgrounds and holidays? I think so. It makes me not so foreign a foreigner. I think the key to integration is in how we handle our differences and not our similarities.