The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla.
In part 1, I wrote about my empathy with The Good Immigrant. I get that is hard, being different, not being understood and assumed to be from afar.
Now my frustrations with what the authors have to say.
I need to adopt the ideas of host and guest cultures (Musa Okwonga uses the term “guest” to express a way he feels about living in the UK). The terms host and guest are inadequate for all sorts of reasons, but are useful.
The idea of guest/host is inadequate because, although people talk about their home country, no one owns the land. A nation is not a possession but the concept of nationhood creates host and guest identities.
My current home is in West Bromwich but, as lots of people, though not all nationalities do this, I talk about going “home” to Scotland to see my family. Am I a guest in West Bromwich or a host? I still feel like a guest after 11 years, but less than I did after 1 year.
Each year makes me feel more at home. Singing spirituals at gravesides, followed by Rice ‘n’ Peas, with mutton curry and fried chicken at the wake (salt fish is not my favourite), only scratches the surface. When you love the grieving family because you’ve shared 11 years together, layers of living together and understanding unfold.
Or the times we stand in the street at the beginning of a wedding party, excitement and joy rising with heart pumping dhol rhyths, we dip a toe in the culture. When you laugh with the married couple, share their struggles and joys, week after week, through the seasons of life, those shared highs and lows create intimacy and friendship which endures.
Guest/host is also inadequate because hosts normally choose to invite a guest into their home. But the local settled British host communities in to which guest communities continue to arrive don’t have an invitational voice. Governments negotiate trade and migration deals and the UN defines asylum and how host nations are to treat seekers.
Host communities are, however, expected to be able to accommodate guests without ever being asked. People are expected to move over, make space, be polite yet without any lessons on how to be hospitable across language and culture barriers. Where is the guide to manners and etiquette for visitors, staring with shoes off at the door?
Guests are also expected to behave themselves without knowing the host language or rules, like how to queue properly. Where is the published copy of “Queuing, a guide for beginners.”?
Next, the guest/host dynamic becomes complex after the first generation of guest. At what point does a guest become host? Are the authors of “The Good Immigrant” guests or hosts?
There is a struggle within each essay (most beautifully expressed by Vinay Patel) about not belonging in either the culture of their parents nor the dominant host culture. How can you be a host if you are not sure about still being a guest? How many new guest cultures need to move in before the first guests feel like hosts? At what point does a sense of ownership of the house take place? These are tough, personal questions which guests and hosts need to be aware of.
It is also very clear that some communities are better hosts than others.
West Bromwich is one of several Black Country towns. This relatively small area is a patchwork quilt of hospitable and resistant local communities. Different parts of this patch, linked by an industrial past, where 19th century migration from agricultural areas formed common bonds through toil, have different reputations among guest communities. There are some homogeneous communities and some multi-ethnic areas within West Bromwich itself, which is a universally deprived town. The patchwork is not related to wealth, but is attitudinal.
Like all host/guest relationships, there are also some communities which are better guests than others.
Homogeneous communities in the UK are not all old English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. Ghettoisation is real. Once a guest community establishes enough local food and clothes shops, travel agents, barber shops, places of worship, local FM radio and imported TV, it is possible to live almost exclusively within the ghetto, speaking only the language of the guest culture. This does not enrich the land, but creates an exclusivity, which can’t be blamed solely on the host.
The experiences of the various guest cultures represented in the book are different but the same.
The host culture doesn’t know or understand the guest cultures, especially as there are now so many to learn about. The pace of migration since the 90s as been both enriching and confusing for hosts.
There are socially awkward hosts, resistant hosts, hospitable hosts, good guests and bad guests. It’s a glorious and sometimes undignified mess.
Some hosts and guests are negligent.
Some hosts and guests are ignorant, in either or both the uneducated sense or by being plain rude.
Other hosts and guests are deliberately cruel, taunting, murderous even.
I can understand the struggle of second and third generation “guests” who experience a different relationship with the host culture than the first generation but this does not excuse venting frustration at the hosts.
The first generation need to remember that their children had no choice. In a sense, kids are forced to grow up between two homes. My own children know this feeling of never really fitting in. Is their home in Scotland, London, SE Asia or West Bromwich? They know that they are ethically mixed, Scot and English. My daughter has the race of her parents on her birth certificate. I had to argue for Scot and English, rather than Caucasian, with the south Indian registrar. She only understood my point when I asked how she would feel being called south Asian along with Pakistani and Bengali people.
After several years here, after London and Wolverhampton, my kids spoke about coming to West Bromwich being like moving country.
My major frustration is with The Good Immigrant is the lack of empathy shown by most of the authors toward hosts (Salena Godden’s essay is an exceptional piece, packed with empathy, realism and longing). The essays are mostly packed with bags of empathy for guests.
Most people in the UK only know the culture they grew up in. Two weeks in Spain or Greece with thousands of other British people does not develop an understanding of other cultures.
Good guests don’t criticise their hosts or call them names. They eat together. Wash up together. Talk. Laugh. Argue. Work things out. Bust up. Make up. Love each other.
Living together is difficult. Empathy for hosts should be a large part of the mix of emotions.
The bruising experience of sharing the same living space we all all “home” means we need to drop our guards, be willing to admit failure, move toward one another, be allowed to make cultural faux pas, including unintentional racial slurs, forgive and love across boundaries, get to know each other as neighbours, share our lives and stories.
Writing a book, blog or newspaper article about our experience doesn’t create that sort of community. It might just erect more boundaries than it knocks down. By writing about frustrations as guests, the authors risk creating more division and suspicion, or at least some extra awkwardness. We need to get on and live together in the same space.
I’ve been a guest in SE-Asia. I choose to live to there. I always felt like an outsider despite choosing NOT to isolate in expat Western cliques. My wife and I joined a local church in each country we lived in. We where in an ethnic minority of just the two of us.
There, we loved and were loved by groups of people who were great hosts. It wasn’t always easy. We were sometimes clumsy guests, who broke the best family crockery and forgot to wash up after dinner. We caused cultural clashes when we introduced some of our cultural practices, especially Scottish dancing. We were forgiven because we shared a rich biblical language, love and understanding of God. We saw the world and each other, from different cultural angles, through the same lens of faith. Each human being made by the same creator God, in the image, and so value and dignity, of God. Each one inherently self-centred, culturally conditioned and flawed. But loved, redeemed and united by the death and resurrection of Christ for us.
We’re now trying to break down barriers here in West Bromwich in the ways set out by God, in Christ, who, by his love in us, breaks down all kinds of walls of hostility. It’s not easy to love across boundaries, but I can see no other way this is working, anywhere in the world.
The Good Immigrant raises many issues of race, points out current and historic problems, but offers no realistic solution. Some of the essays create division, sometimes othering the hosts.
Our little church gathering last Sunday, with restrictions under lock down, involved a section of our church family. Even there, we gathered as old West Bromwich families, with Punjabi, Jamaican, Iranian, Irish, Scottish and English migrants to West Bromwich. As we met, we mixed, loved and worked together. Before the days that meeting in places of worship was banned because of Covid19, we would eat together, clear up and relax, sing, play games, with food lovingly prepared from all our home kitchens. This is still only scratching the surface but it sets us up for years of shared experiences.
This is heterogeneous church. I’ve written lots about the heterogeneous church community on this blog. Do click the tag below for a link to other pieces.
The local church should be a home for all the members of the local space we call home.
Who are the guests and the hosts? When Jesus (Yeshua, Yesu, Isa) stepped onto the scene, he shifted the host/guest dynamic.
Jesus owns the house. He designed and built it. He is the perfect host. We are all his imperfect guests. We all have treated him with contempt in different ways.
And yet, he invites us all to come to him as our host, to learn to live in his house, to seek his forgiveness when we break his rules and so to join together with him in the mess, knowing one day his true guests will be perfect and his home will be at peace.