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Iden­tity and other mi­gra­tion is­sues

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LondonThe Balkans

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.