Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stake in Society

Q: Where are you from? 

A: I am from Cornwall, Connecticut in the USA.

Q: What are your family's origins?

A: My mother is from a primarily Irish and German background. My dad was adopted at birth, but he came from a Jewish family.

Q: Do you identify more with America than with your Irish or German heritage?

A: Absolutely. I am above all else American.

Those are my answers to a simple series of questions that I have been asking my students. I teach English in a French high school in an area that an American might call "the projects". The vast majority of my students are first, second, or third generation immigrants. The bulk are"Maghrebain", meaning their families hail from Morocco, Tunisia, or Algeria. Another large percentage come from African countries like Senegal or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are also a fair amount of Asians, mainly from former French colonies like Cambodia and Vietnam. Few and far between, there are some pure blood (hahaha) Europeans.

All of my students are French by nationality. But when I asked Kacia, a Senior whose family comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, if she felt more Congolese or French, she responded without hesitation that she was Congolese. I followed up by saying, "So you would say Congolese is first place and French in second." She said, "No, just Congolese. No French. I stay black." 

Most of my Maghrebain students did not go so far as to completely denounce their Frenchness. A girl of Moroccan origin, but born in France, told me that she felt "50/50". Her classmate, another female, this time of Algerian origin, was also "50/50". The French/Moroccan girl noted that she could never live in Morroco because of how females are treated there. Her French/Algerian classmate once again agreed with her. After this remark, they both retracted 50/50 in favor of 60/40 French/Maghrebine. I was watching an identity struggle in real time.

Two of their male classmates had objections to the two Maghrebine girls bad-mouthing Algeria and Morocco on women's rights. One of them is of fully Algerian descent. The other was half Algerian and half Tunisian. While they both claimed to feel "50/50", they pleaded with their female classmates not to taint my image of "le bled" with tales of culturally ingrained oppression of women. The values conflict was palpable. The easiest way to deal with French western ideals conflicting with oriental cultural traditions was to simply shoot the dialogue dead.

The French/Moroccan girl went on to say how great it is in Morocco aside from her women's rights qualms. She cited the culture specifically and added that, for her, France has no culture. Interesting, considering France is widely regarded as a cultural powerhouse. 

I take a small group of students once a week composed of three devoutely Muslim Maghrebine girls. While they normally wear headcoverings, they are not permitted to do so in school by French law. They feel as is France is at war with their traditions and values. They each expressed a burning desire to relocate to their families' countries of origin. One of them changed her mind and said she would like to live in Dubai if she had the choice. She called it "a paradise". Her classmates quickly jumped on the UAE boat. When I erroneously stated that the UAE have no women's suffrage (the country didn't have any suffrage until quite recently, this didn't phase them. I realized that I was dealing with a massive values gap, a gap that I didn't know how to begin to discuss. It was the same intellectual silence that France has no idea how to tackle. So I did the easy thing; I, too, shot a dialogue dead.

The whole thing got me thinking about my homeland. I realized that a romanticized America lives in my head. It is an America where the immigrant arrives and declares "I am an American now. This is just as much my country as it is Barack Obama's or George W. Bush's. and I am proud to be a part of this society." I wonder how often immigrants feel like that. How do legal Mexican immigrants feel about their stake in American society? How do second generation Mexican immigrants feel about their stake in American society? How can society help increase their perceived stake?

Towars the end of my little Q and A session with my French high school seniors from the hood I threw a mind-boggler out there. "Isn't the immigrant experience part of the French experience? Doesn't a French Arab Muslim population estimated at well over five million people define a part of what it means to be French?" The ones who understood me looked perplexed for a second and sort of nodded. Their regard said, "I guess it does. Funny I never thought of that."


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  3. Well said, Zach.

    Have you ever encountered the films of Ousmane Sembene or those who followed him in the early African cinema? Their works are mainly concerned with themes surrounding the colonial project and the intricacies of the changing power relationships of the time.

    Despite the limited equipment and training available to them they made amazing and sophisticated works that I think stand the test of time not only artistically, but historically. I wonder whether you or your students would find this and the other seminal African films relevant today.

    Your piece is calling to mind, specifically, Sembene's 1966 film, "La Noir De..." (in English, it is titled "Black Girl") about the experience of a young Senegalese woman who comes to France as a maid for a French couple.

    I'm also reminded of the film "Entre les murs" ("The Class") which came out last year and I missed, but the trailers seem very relevant to your situation.

  4. I read the bulk of the book "Entre les Murs" and it reminded me a lot of my job. He had middle school students. French middle schools are known to be considerably more difficult than the high schools. In my school most of the kids get weeded out by the system before graduation.

    I'll need to check the other films out. They sound very pertinent. Thanks for the suggestions.