Integration is a word that was on my periphery when I lived in my home country. People would often mention how certain groups of immigrants all lived in one area of a city, and maybe “kept to themselves”, or “didn’t learn English”. As the issue didn’t apply to me, I ignored it, as was my privilege as being part of the majority.
When I moved to Spain to teach English and learn Spanish, I didn’t know ANY Spanish (or similar languages), which made me a target for xenophobia at the school where I worked. I absorbed the abuse like a sponge; it was my fault they hated me, if I spoke better Spanish they would treat me better, etc. I got it in to my head that “intensive” courses would help me, so I signed up to all of the Spanish classes that I could, and I struggled and struggled and struggled. I allowed my Spanish coworkers to make me feel guilty for not knowing their language, as if not having had the opportunity to study Spanish made me a “bad” person. They were insecure about their English so they took it out on me, trying to get me to pronounce words in Spanish and laughing at my attempts. The idea of being one of those “güiris” who just hung around with other English speakers and didn’t “make any effort” repulsed me, so I spent all of my time outside of work with Spanish people, at different types of events; parties, drawing clubs, dance classes, picnics, gigs, volunteering.
I spent two years miserable, and mostly alone. At best, Spanish people patronised me, gloating about how “¡internacional!” they were to have a token foreigner at their party. At worst, people screamed in my face for being different, pushing in front of me in waiting lines, full of resentment that I was “Erasmus”* (which I wasn’t. I had a degree, I had a job, I was working, I was paying my own rent), while they were unable to get a job within their own country, as if I had control over the political and economic situation.
(*Erasmus is a scholarship in Europe for people to spend a semester or full year studying at a university abroad. As with many scholarships, students use it to party their stresses away with the free wine money the government has given them. For Spanish students, who don’t leave home to study abroad, this might be the first time they have rented their own apartment, hence the nickname “orgasmus”)
And always, always, the bilingual coordinator at school spoke of “integration”. We had a meeting about it once a month, where we were chastised for “speaking English” in the dining room (when our Spanish English-speaking coworkers wanted to practice with us), but this was an atmosphere where I sat down and people (grown adults) would abruptly get up to sit somewhere else because they didn’t want to sit next to me, or people wouldn’t say “Hello” to you in the corridor (which is customary here). From these experiences, it became clear that “integration” was something that we did, while other people were allowed to use us as psychological punch bags. We had to eat fruit with knives and forks, as it was “the Spanish way”. We were told to “stop eating all the food”, as whenever the breakfast buffet ran out of something, it was our fault. When we were sick, we didn’t have a cold, we were hungover, because that was our stereotype and stereotypes are always correct. We were told to “integrate”, but we weren’t given a “way in”. Our Spanish coworkers formed a tight, sealed circle, with only one or two breaking ranks to show interest in their new, temporary colleagues, mostly motivated by practicing English with us, which made their coworkers despise us even more.
I still hear my friends in Britain, all monolingual, saying mildly xenophobic things, like commenting that someone “had lived in the UK 30 years and still didn’t speak English”, pronounced in that tone of disgust, as if “speaking English”, or any language for that matter, were an easy thing, accessible to all. If an immigrant doesn’t have a job in the native language, they don’t have an opportunity to speak it on a daily basis, because making friends is hard, especially factoring in different cultural norms.
Last week, someone chastised me for having English speaking friends. I explained to the person that without a job in Spanish, making friends here is hard, seeing as this region has a “cuadrilla” system, meaning that you make friends in primary school, and you keep that group of friends for life. My boyfriend’s cuadrilla have made it clear that they are not interested in being friends with me. They don’t bother to remember my name, they ask me no questions or show no interest in me whatsoever, they talk about me within earshot as if I can’t understand them, they criticise my Spanish, my pale skin, my choice of music, they assume that I don’t know how to play poker and suggest that I should share cards with my partner,. In short, they don’t treat me with kindness or respect, and I don’t feel comfortable with them or like spending time with them, which is a huge source of disappointment for me. I had hoped that my boyfriend’s friends could be my friends too, but I am coming to terms with the fact that that is not possible. Even after explaining all that, the person continued to imply that I “wasn’t trying hard enough”. I wanted to say: “I’ve lived in Spain almost 5 years. I’ve made one friend who is Spanish/Basque. How much harder do I need to try? I’m done with trying”.
My boyfriend is French, and is happy living here. I am now learning French, and I can see that about 40% of their language is the same as Spanish. Nouns, verbs, expressions, grammatical concepts like masculine and feminine as well as the subjunctive. They even use bread to eat dinner in the same way, tearing it off in a chunk, and using it to push food onto their fork. Integrating is easier the closer your native language and customs are to the target culture.
I’m not integrated here, because if integrating means being Spanish, or Basque, or something else, then that’s not me, and it never will be. I can’t eat my dinner with a fork in one hand and a piece of bread in the other, and I don’t want to. I drink PG Tips in the morning. I dunk biscuits in it. When I eat soup, I dunk a sandwich in it. These are things that I like to do, tiny things that go back to my earliest childhood.
I’m me. I’m from where I’m from. That’s not better, that’s not worse, it’s just different. If people here or anywhere else don’t want to accept me for that, then that is their problem, not mine.