Wednesday, 27 July 2016

"Others" vs "Our others"

Two littles scenes from today... I'm passing a small Vietnamese clothing store in a Warsaw underground passage. It's a hot day, and sitting on a stool outside is a man, looking slightly older than myself, with two grandchildren of around three-four years of age clambering all over him. He is laughing and speaking to them in Vietnamese. A touching sight, nothing unusual to me, brought up in London, a melting pot of cultures and nationalities.

And ever was it thus. As I mentioned before, one third of my primary school class in the mid-1960s West London were migrants or children of migrants. There was never any issue made of this - that's just the way it was. Children from the Caribbean, from India, via East Africa, from Pakistan; there were children whose parents like mine had come originally from the wrong side of what was then the Iron Curtain. And all got on fine, with a school assembly every day singing Christian hymns and praying to a Christian God under a portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Once a year there was something called Commonwealth Day - formerly Empire Day - when children would march around the playground with flags of different royal dominions. I carried the Canadian flag, as I have an aunt in Canada. One year it was red with a Union Jack in the corner, the next it was red-white-red with a red maple leaf in the middle.

I consider this to be important. With many migrants coming to Britain, all were accepted - but there was one overarching culture that all implicitly belonged to.

This came to me yesterday when I read (online) a fascinating PhD thesis The Making of Polish London through Everyday Life, 1956-1976, by Paweł Chojnacki (University College London, 2005). Extremely well researched from primary sources and interviews with many of the key personalities who helped shape the Polish communities across London, most of whom are now sadly dead, this is a must-read if you're interested in the subject. I found myself having to read it all in one go, I knew so many of the people mentioned - either in person, or their children - my generation.

The Making of Polish London stresses a point made in B.E. Andre's excellent novel With Blood and Scars - that during the week we were British, but at the weekend, we became Poles again. Dr Chojnacki mentions the 'holy trinity' of the Polish upbringing in postwar Britain - Polish Saturday school, Polish scouts/guides/cubs, and the Polish church. He writes about how during the week, my parents' generation got on with their careers, worked hard, saved, bought houses, cars and TVs - but come the weekend, they'd be ferrying their children to Saturday school, scouts and of course Mass. And they'd revert to calling each other by their pre-war titles or their military ranks, and talk about the old country.

My brother and I would talk to one another in English (once he'd started going to primary school), much like the Vietnamese children across the way talk in Polish to one another. This should be the normal in any migrants' adaptation to a new country. Easy assimilation, neither going to the extreme of abandoning one's roots, nor living in a closed-off ghetto, is the answer - a balance, a middle way.

I loved that LBC phone-in last week when a caller got the better of Nigel Farage, first getting him onside about how uncomfortable it is being in a railway compartment in your own country surrounded by foreigners who only talk foreign. “I don’t see how you can integrate if you don’t speak the language of the country,” said the caller, to which Mr Farage responded: “I couldn’t agree with you more … I think the language is absolutely fundamental.” And then the caller walloped him. "So how come, after 20 years of living in Belgium, France and Germany, you can't speak French or Flemish or German?"

I divide Brits who live and work in Poland into those who've made efforts to learn Polish and those that haven't. Two years ago, I was at the 20th anniversary celebrations of a large UK business. The first speaker was the original CEO, who's lived in Warsaw since the early 1990s. He started off by saying "Dobry wieczór. And that's all the Polish I've learned in 20 years here." I could hear a distinct low booing from the otherwise well-natured crowd. I could not imagine a Pole, who'd settled in the UK after the war and reaching a similar social position in the mid-1960s, admitting that he knew no English.

But then there's nationality, culture and race. If you're not talking, the Pole in the street will not pick you out as a Brit, an American, a Ukrainian or a Belarusian. Different if you're an Arab, a Turk, Indian or African.

Earlier today, I popped into Biedronka (anchovy fillets 3.99 złotys for 50g tin, and a stunning Primitivo wine for 14.99 złotys). As I waited at the check-out, I was aware of a group of swarthy, dark-skinned men approaching from behind. I turned - indeed - it was Pan Heniek, Pan Ziutek and young Sebek - having finished working on the railway line and the viaduct that will go over it, they were shopping for their (liquid) supper. So suntanned they were that at first I subconsciously took them for Arabs or Turks.

Cities - in particular capital cities and larger metropolitan centres - tend to attract migrants much faster than small towns. A coloured face does not raise as much curiosity - or indeed animosity - on the streets of Warsaw as it would on the streets of Warka. The less used you are to the phenomenon of migration, the more scared you are of it. As last week's Economist pointed out, the parts of England that voted most heavily for Brexit were not those areas with the highest numbers of migrants (such as London or Leicester) but those areas with the highest rate of influx. A change over 12 years from 0% migrants in your town to 5% is more shocking than a change from 35% to 40%.

Change and fear of the unknown brings about fearful, aggressive and irrational behaviour among voters. Today's obscene murder of a priest in France brings the number of people killed by Islamic terrorists over the past 12 months in that country to 234, in two major and three smaller attacks.

Compare that figure to the 3,268 people that over the course of 2015 were killed on French roads. That's fourteen times more. Yet road safety is not a political issue. Numbers of fatalities have been falling since 2005 (5,318), while numbers of people killed in Islamic terrorist attacks have been rising.

The murderers have been alienated young men with mental problems indoctrinated by extremists, fueled by hatred. To know that in France, home to more than 6 million Muslims, a terrorist attack could happen tomorrow or the day after, creates an atmosphere of fear.

Yet in Poland, where the number of Muslims is not the 10% of the population that it is in France, but less than 0.01%. Around 32,000 in total. Of whom a significant number are Tatars, who have been thoroughly integrated into Polish society since the 14th Century and live in north-east Poland.

Coming back to the Vietnamese family I saw today, I get the impression that in they have become an accepted part of the fabric of Warsaw society, just as the Syrians who run kebab or falafel bars are becoming, Islamophobia notwithstanding. In the city, casual racism is increasingly frowned on. "Oni są inni, ale są nasi inni." Capital city effect. London has a Muslim mayor; not an issue any longer.

This time last year:
Reducing inequality in Polish society

This time three years ago:
Llanbedrog beach

This time five years ago:
The Accursed Soldiers - a short story

This time six ago:
Driving impressions of the Toyota Yaris
[The car continues to be totally, 100% faultless six years on.]

This time eight years ago:
Poland's dry summer

This time nine years ago:
The UK's wettest summer ever


Gordon Hawley said...

You've passed over one fact either deliberately or by mistake.

English is the worlds most dominant language.

I'm not saying you shouldn't at least try to learn the language of the country you settle in, but in how many other countries would Polish (as one example) be useful.

English on the other hand is essential nowadays. One of my Polish cousins had to learn English for his job because all of the business meetings he attends are conducted like that and he travels all over Europe to many different countries.

dr Marcin said...

Today's obscene murder of a priest in France brings the number of people killed by Islamic terrorists over the past 12 months in that country to 234, in two major and three smaller attacks. Compare that figure to the 3,268 people that over the course of 2015 were killed on French roads. That's fourteen times more. Yet road safety is not a political issue.

Mike, let me begin from the end. If a road safety is not a political issue? I doubt that.

And secondly, there always makes me powerless such a comparison with road casualties. Are those figure of 3,268 people being killed intentionally, with predetermination, purposely...? Halo, so what about thousands of people killed in Europe annually being aborted or by an euthanasia?

Michael Dembinski said...

@ dr Marcin

Let me ask you a question: Which are you most afraid of, in the context of your life, your family's lives, here in Warsaw.

Islamic terror, or road traffic accidents?

@ Gordon Hawley

Yes, English has become the dominant language globally. It's true that while you can find French or German managers in business here in Poland that speak no Polish, they will indeed speak good English. This is no big deal. Wandering expats who travel the globe from senior management position to senior management position are not expected to learn the language. But when these guys choose to 'go native' and remain in one country long-term, they must make the effort to learn the host country's language. It's rude not to.

dr Marcin said...

Let me answer. Obviously, I'm afraid of the both with slight ascendancy of road traffic accidents. Why? Me gonna make you surprised, as you know me and how I look like. Can you imagine, that I'm a victim of car accidents, being hit by cars twice? Firstly, when I was seven I was hit by Fiat 125 ( And secondly, approx. 2,5 yrs later, when I was almost ten I was hit by Żuk ( That's why I might be more sensitive on car accidents, because I know the best how it pains.