Identity and other migration issues
I find it difficult to explain, but I never felt an exceptional attachment to my native land. I am one of those people who do not feel the need to legitimize themselves through the act of belonging to a group or a physical space. Linguistic space, on the other hand, that is a whole different issue. I remember clearly the first time I realised there might be something different about myself. I had just come back to Romania after a long period spent abroad and my friend laughed wholeheartedly at one of my jokes. By that time I was already used to being the only person to find my own jokes funny. That was probably the moment I discovered something very solid within myself, something difficult to contextualize in the fluid terms of migrant identity. Something untranslatable.
But this otherness did not bother me in the least. In one of his novels, Milan Kundera compares the manner in which two characters envisage their group affiliation. One of these characters, while part of a march, walks in the midst of the crowd, full of enthusiasm, chanting slogans. The other one remains on a side, suffocated by the feeling that sharing his ideals with so many people projects these very ideals into mundanity, completely invalidating them. I suppose I belong to this second category. The marginal position of the migrant fits me like a glove. I don’t deny the importance of national identity, but I believe this to be a moment I have long overcome. After spending almost a decade in the UK, I wouldn’t say I’m a Romanian-born English citizen, nor a Romanian citizen living in England, but rather a person who happened to live for a while in both cultures.
In these circumstances, the fluid, heterogeneous identity formation so much in fashion nowadays appears to be fully functional in my case. But things tend to be a bit more complicated.
On 1st January 2014 Romanians and Bulgarians will be granted free access to work in the UK. The impact a new wave of migrants could have on British society was repeatedly discussed in the media throughout 2013. Despite the efforts to maintain the image of an open and tolerant environment, migration, perceived in Great Britain as excessive, generates xenophobic outbursts. It is a vicious circle. And it is not necessarily about Romanians and Bulgarians; they are the latest pretext. These attitudes are also not manifest only on the margins, within BNP or UKIP, whose leader, Nigel Farage, equates the arrival of economic migrants to a “Romanian crime epidemic”. These attitudes are somewhat generalized. One very visible and commented instance of this tendency was manifest in Theresa May’s infamous “go home or face arrest” vans for illegal immigrants. David Cameron stated in a BBC interview broadcast on 27th November 2013, with regards to his intentions to limit migrants’ access to welfare: ”I’ve seen other European countries that take a tougher approach than us, that have pushed the legal boundaries more than we’ve done and I’ve insisted as Prime Minister that we do that here in Britain too”. European Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor described Mr Cameron's proposals as "an unfortunate over-reaction" produced “under hysteria”.
This state of over-excitement reached an interesting level in recent weeks, if we are only to look at the BBC coverage for this subject. There have been a few pieces of news and analyses throughout 2013 – especially in February and April – but between 26th November and 3rd December 2013 at least a dozen new materials (news, stories from Romania, interviews, political debates) were broadcast. The majority of these proliferate, in a more or less conspicuous manner, a feeling of anxiety towards the new wave of poor relatives heading towards Britain, ready to invade our living room with their muddy boots, ready to camp in Marble Arch and urinate on the walls of Westminster. Few of the opinions presented in the media reflect the views of former Romanian foreign minister Dr Andrei Marga, who declared for the BBC on 10th February 2013 – “we are a family now, in a larger sense of the word”.
We mustn’t turn this conversation into a political debate though. This is a conversation about legitimation, about the liminal identity of those who leave their group of origin.
Another event simultaneously exploiting the same conceptual thread is the Romanian Film Festival in London, hosted by Curzon Soho between 28th November – 2nd December. Many of the films presented this year touch on the issue of migration, discussing the confrontation with radical otherness produced by introducing the foreigner, husband or wife of the migrant, in the enclosed, very specific environment of the Romanian village or in the old-fashioned community of the block of flats. The Japanese Dog, directed by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu, features Victor Rebengiuc, the best known Romanian actor of his generation, in the role of a dignified father renegotiating the relationship with his son, who returns from Japan for a brief period, together with his Japanese wife and son. I am an old communist hag, by Stere Gulea places the daughter’s partner, a foreigner, in the suffocating environment of the block of flats.
Other films problematize the dual position of the migrant. In When evening falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, Corneliu Porumboiu introduces a piece of dialogue between the two main characters – the actress and the director - which looks at the spaces accessible to the migrant in an adoptive society. She says her dream was to play in France. He asks why she did not leave the country. She answers that she would have been accepted to play only a limited number of types of women due to the fact that she does not belong to that culture. Otherness, exoticism would have been too visible in her manner. He insists: that other, that character blocked in the exotic and the marginal would not have been herself. Distancing oneself from one’s origins is distancing from one’s own true self; a process of doubling which turns identity into a fake, a copy. But the actress, having a more sophisticated understanding of how dissimulation, performance and becoming share a common ground, eludes the rupture. She insists that the space where one lives surreptitiously places roots inside oneself. She puts it in simple terms: sooner or later you let yourself go with the flow; swimming against the current is chaotic and meaningless. Communication, seizing one’s own image in others provides a sense of legitimacy. Ultimately this identity construed with and through the others generates a sense of coherence, of belonging to a certain environment.
Returning to the marginal lucidity of the migrant, we ask: what destabilizes the coherence of this heterogeneous identity? It might be the moment when positive, affirmative identity politics (I am both Romanian and English) replace a negative formula (I am neither Romanian nor English). And what else is this but a moment of over-investment in this concept of belonging? In other words, of love. Therefore, we shall all repeat out loud: I am Nigel Farage; I am the Romanian who washed his socks in the fountains of Marble Arch.