27/09/2015

Of Diaspora and Me

Québec City seen from Île d'Orléans

I'm sitting in a bus with someone I vaguely know, having a chit-chatty conversation in English. After a moment of silence this person starts speaking again, this time in French:

"You know Melissa, you really have to start speaking French. You're in Québec now, in here we speak French. It's not any harder than Spanish, Italian, German or any of those languages. You just have to start talking."
"All diasporas are unhappy, but every diaspora is unhappy in its own way", as my favourite literary theorist Vijay Mishra puts it by mimicking the famous opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Anyone who has been even vaguely around me during the past spring semester is aware that my Bachelor's Thesis was about this very topic - not due to any selfhelp-therapy-reasons, but out of pure academic interest. However, now that I find myself more or less dislocated, it feels natural to return to the topic from a more personal point of view (by ruthlessly quoting myself from aforementioned thesis).


Diaspora - a sense of existent or imaginary cultural dislocation - is a phenomenon which applies to masses and individuals on the moment of migration: cultural clashes create readjusted and redefined cultural identities as solid habits, traditions and values are getting inevitably questioned. To live in diaspora is to live displaced. The people of diaspora are more or less migrants, drifters, travellers and people with a problematic understanding of ”homeland” and ”belonging”. Whether the dislocation is an existent state or an imaginary displacement, ”a sense of self-imposed exile” (thnx Mishra), it affects an individual's positioning within their own culture as well as their perspective of the postmodern, globalized world.

Diaspora is to leave your homecountry to escape the terrors of war to an unknown land, as much as it is to sit next to a local and get lectured about my imagined reluctance to integrate into their culture. It's the clash that happens when the culture you're living in is no longer your own, it's the hunch of discomfort and fear in your stomach as you're willingly or unwillingly stepping out of your comfort zone. It's the opposite of filtered Instagram-pictures and #wanderlust hashtag - it's what they don't tell you about migration.

Canada is my Terra Incognita, the Land Unknown - for a Syrian refugee it's something else. Every diasporic experience is different, but the very fundamental feature of all these experiences is the sudden lack of contextual knowledge and understanding of cultural resonances needed to fully adapt to the new environment. Here, have an example:


This is a picture of me lying in a pile of corn leaves. Corn tastes good. However, I must've made an amazing impression on my mother-in-law when she handed me a corn and I proceeded to ask "So uhh.... How does this work?"

Never before had I thought about it, but now that I encountered such a situation, I found out I have no idea how to handle corn.

I ask a lot of questions. Questions that make my quebecois partner look at me with a weird face and go "...huh?". So far I can remember asking the following huh?-questions:

1. "But how does the state know you've moved if you don't send an announcement about your new address to the postal office of Canada?"
2. "Can't you just go and vote anywhere in the city during the pre-election dates?"
3. "But how on earth are you supposed to wash your windows if you can't OPEN THEM?"
4. "How can you ever receive mail that's in an A4-sized envelope if your mailbox can only fit postal card-sized mail?"
5. "... You don't lock your front door for the night?!"
6. "How come you can only make a new rental agreement once a year in July??"
7. "You don't get money from returning old glass bottles?"
8. "......... You don't use a knife?"

I have no idea how this society works. In Finland I return my old wine bottles and get 20 cents in return, keep my front door locked at all times and happily open my double-glazed windows so I can wipe them. I stand silently in an elevator and seek for the last empty seat in a bus to avoid sitting next to a stranger. I forget to say "please" and ask "Ça va?". I use a knife. I eat a salty breakfast. I fucking love my salty breakfast.

Diaspora is not about going for an exchange semester in Leicester to rave in The Revolution on New Walk every Friday. It's about the helplessness you feel when you face the everyday reality of a society that isn't yours, and suddenly you feel like a second-class citizen. You're excluded. Diaspora is about getting dislocated, literally and figuratively. A semester in England with all its International Offices, tutors and mandatory orientation soirees could never have prepared me for the solitary life of an immigrant, who tries to ramble on with her life even when she's standing in front of her bank's office with an actual 90's-style cheque from her employer in her hand. Seriously Canada, cheques?

There is nothing to hang on to. The cities look different, the culture is different, you're afraid to open your mouth in the fear of saying something inappropriate (to this day I'm still not sure if I should in any circumstances refer to Quebeckers as Canadians). No matter how much you enjoy adventuring, exploring and get positively surprised when people start chatting with you in an elevator or when suddenly no one owns Marimekko, at times you get this little feeling of helplessness.

A very English cityscape from Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK.
Good news: it won't last forever. One's cultural identity is an ever changing pallet of evolving, transformation and crises. We indeed have a shared history, a past, with a certain community and this history can hide in the core of our very (Finnish) cultural identity, but the relationship we have with this history can be redifined, questioned and even denied. The approach we have to our own communal culture can be readjusted by the way we position ourselves in relation to this history. I develop my identity by questioning, redefining and rejecting the images I have of my own individual or collective cultural identity as a part of the Finnish society. I see, I compare, I realise the differences and assimilate new habits in relation to my new cultural environment.

A migrant's cultural identity becomes a hybridized mosaic of fragments, a mosaic where I might forget to say please, but still frequently exclaim "cheers" as a remnant from my times in Leicester - and who knows, maybe after a year in Québec I've gotten hooked to my overly sugared breakfast cereals and caramel paste. This is hybridity: it's what happens when we start to assimilate features from the culture we have migrated into, blending these features with the ones we already hold.

One day I might hold a different citizenship. On that day I might look at myself from the mirror and see all the rambling, the diaspora and the past dislocation, but I will no longer forget to say my "please".
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3 comments:

  1. Hello Melissa, I can identify with a lot of the things you are saying. My mother is Dutch, and although I was born and have always lived in the UK, I know I am still half-Dutch in reality. I was raised on an estate with mostly Polish people and had to assimilate many other cultural and behavioural ways they exhibited, even though I am technically English!

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  2. Hello Melissa, I can identify with a lot of the things you are saying. My mother is Dutch, and although I was born and have always lived in the UK, I know I am still half-Dutch in reality. I was raised on an estate with mostly Polish people and had to assimilate many other cultural and behavioural ways they exhibited, even though I am technically English!

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  3. Hi! I'm happy to hear you were able to relate to my experiences. I can imagine that having a parent from a different cultural background can easily make you question the singularity of your own cultural identity, especially if your mother has pursued to keep her Dutch background present at home.

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