A few years ago, I spent a long August weekend in Paris. Although I was warned beforehand that nothing happens in Paris in August, that all its inhabitants leave on vacation and the city fills with irritating tourists (like me), I did manage to have a good time. Paris never disappoints, no matter the month, season or reason for being there.
Paris did not disappoint but I did manage to irritate a good friend who took it upon herself to chaperone me through her beautiful city for four days. I had made what I thought to be a casual observation about French taxi drivers which led my friend to accuse me of being a racist.
Needless to say, I was taken aback. I do not consider myself to be prejudiced and go out of my way to give each individual I meet an equal amount of deference, respect and benefit of doubt regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, religion, level of education or social standing (did I miss anything?). So how did this happen.
It was a warm August evening and my friend had selected an elegant yet casual restaurant in the 6th Arrondissement. We took taxis to and fro and afterwards I had commented on the different ways the two cabbies drove. The first cabbie, a Frenchman, was smooth, handled his cab deftly, and slowed down before he reached red traffic lights for a quaint halt. He seemed to be plugged into “the Paris traffic matrix.”
The second driver exhibited signs of what I thought to be discomfort with the traffic system. He got too close to cars in front or on the side of him, was abrupt with the brakes, and veered off his lane too many times. He would constantly attempt to overtake cars ahead of him even though they were driving at reasonable speeds, and then would change his mind. The second driver was an immigrant; an Arab, most probably from North Africa.
Juxtaposing the driving of the Arab cabbie with the self assured mannerisms of the French one I wondered aloud why was it so. My friend, who is a person of the world, sensitive to issues of immigrants in her country and someone who has witnessed firsthand some of the ills that plague many developing countries, was aghast. I spent the rest of my trip trying to assuage her to no avail.
After successfully managing to offend my friend and guide to the French capital, I began think why is it that we seem to relate to the same space in different ways. Both taxi drivers were French, even though one was an immigrant, recent arrival and the other “more native.” Both were tested and licensed to drive a taxi in Paris by the same authority. Yet both related to the same space, that is the streets of Paris, in different ways.
Many factors influence the way we relate to our environments. But ultimately, it is our frame of reference that determines how we interact with that piece of human reality called space. Our frame of reference also determines the way we live and conduct ourselves, the way we relate to universal human values, our aspirations, and much more.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, each one of us has a frame of reference. A dictionary defines it as a set of criteria or stated values in relation to which judgments can be made. Put differently, one’s frame of reference is the ultimate distillation of all those inputs that we have over the years absorbed, been subjected to, and digested. These include one’s religion, culture, tradition, language, political beliefs, the social systems we inhabit and our histories and experiences, both as individuals and as groups. And it has to do with taxi drivers in Paris because for immigrants to assimilate in their new countries and realize their full potential as citizens they need to absorb and integrate the frames of reference of their new societies.
In the olden days, when immigrants left their countries for new and better lives elsewhere, they truly left. Once the journeys were made, the distances crossed could not be bridged back with ease. The only way to stay in touch with the “old place” was via slow and cumbersome mail systems. There were no phones, no airplanes, no email or internet. And travelling was long and expensive.
Nowadays, when an immigrant lands in the United States, United Kingdom or any other destination, the umbilical cord connecting him or her to the motherland is not automatically severed. Rather, it is sustained and at times augmented by the various technological tools at our disposal. The immigrant can call home, increasingly for free, read most of the print and watch a good portion of the old country’s media on the internet, and join chat rooms with compatriots back home. Having saved some extra cash, the immigrant can find cheap flights to go back and visit. So, in a way, that immigrant never left; he or she can live on a virtual island within the new host country, while staying connected to the old one.
To paraphrase the words of a leader of the Social Democrats in Denmark spoken on BBC Radio 4 a few years ago, for the systems of the state to function, be they welfare, or education, employment or what have you, a community needs to be in place with a common denominator.
Although each of us has his or her unique frame of reference, individuals living in homogenous societies, in communities, tend to share similar ones. A community is more than a group of people living together in one place. A common frame of reference, with shared values and ideals, is what makes for a community.
In the past, immigrants burned the boats that carried them ashore and they had no choice but to absorb the new frames of reference of their adopted lands. Because of technology and what it has put at our disposal, immigrants nowadays are under much less pressure to do so. They can, if they choose, assemble from their new country's frame of reference what they need to get a job and get along, and discard the rest. Immigrants can do this not because they can live without a frame of reference but because they are still plugged into the frame of reference of their old homeland. As a result, their moral compass may be influenced by a gravity centre different from the one that is physically sustaining them.
Clearly, some immigrants are more in sync than others with the frames of reference of their adopted countries. Be it cultural or religious commonalities, shared languages and histories, geographic proximity, or certain influences during an individual's formative years, these immigrants have a better chance at becoming part of the mainstream community in a receiving country. Additionally, and through social media, we are able to find common ground with individuals and communities thousands of miles away.
So who do we let in? This is a question that many states are facing these days. Countries open up their borders to immigrants for a variety of reasons. Economic arguments tend to monopolize policy discussions but there are social as well as humanitarian aspects to this conundrum. Are entrance exams and citizenry tests effective tools to gauge what frame of reference a particular immigrant has or is inclined to develop?
Technology has dealt us a wild card on immigration. If it is becoming increasingly difficult to assimilate immigrants in their new societies, how can immigration address the legitimate needs of countries and peoples? How hot would the pot have to get these days before its ingredients start melting and gelling together?
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