Fitting in: how hard should you try?

In Heart of Mirage, the main protagonist grows up thinking she fits in to her adopted world. She is well educated, wealthy, respected. Yet she is also aware that she is different – not the kind of person you would want marrying into your family, for example. She is not looked down upon because of her skin colour and appearance so much as because of the work she does. In fact, she chooses to live on the fringe of her society because of it.

When she returns to the land of her birth, she finds herself an outsider again. Here, she looks right, but is culturally different. She tries to fit in, but finds it tough. She starts to question all the things she had once believed were admirable…

I grew up in a small farming community on the outskirts of Perth, Australia. The primary school I attended had two grades to a classroom, it was that small. And not far away, the government built a migrant camp (as they were called in those days) where immigrants lived until such time as they found work and homes. The year I started school was 1950, and my classmates had names like Ludwiga, Tosia, Gunter or Vladimir. Many had been born in DP camps at the end of the war, and had never known a proper home life. Their parents had lived through hell. I remember my mother’s Country Women’s Association made a visit to the camp to make the first batch of women feel at home – and all the women ran away and locked themselves inside the Nissen huts. Who knows what fears they had…

I remember a girl called Elisabet. She must have been about six. Every day she stole the little iced biscuits my mother used to pack in my brown paper bag for my school lunch, until I complained that my sister had biscuits, why didn’t I? I was very indignant when I found out what had been happening to them, until my mother – who was a wise woman – told me that Elisabet had never had anything sweet to eat until she came to Australia. That sounded so awful, I was prepared to give her all my biscuits thereafter.

I remember how we Australians used to giggle because in winter some of the migrant girls used to wear trousers under their dresses, or tights, which we thought was very odd. They did their hair differently too. And wore earrings in pierced ears! No dinky-di Aussie did that. They had weird food in their lunch bags. Sometimes they themselves smelled funny. (We were proudly fifties-Australian and never ate garlic….)

Were we cruel? No, not intentionally, but I doubt that we were exactly kind, either. Like most kids, we were uninterested in those who didn’t conform, and quite willing to poke fun at them. As they grew older and became more Australian, we were also willing to be best friends. We embraced them because they changed, not because we embraced the difference.

Australia did alter because of them. We all eat garlic now! And they changed because of us. I remember meeting Ludwiga when we were both in our twenties. She was Louisa then, and completely indistinguishable from any Oz-born woman of her generation. Her children would never speak Polish, or eat Polish sausage, or have Polish names. She’d learned her lesson young.

How much should an immigrant change to fit in? How much should they hang on to their cultural integrity? Does Ligea in Heart of the Mirage betray herself, her adoptive country or her birth nation? Or all three? Does she fit in anywhere?

Come to think of it, do I?


Fitting in: how hard should you try? — 8 Comments

  1. I don’t think Ligea deliberately betrays anyone. She seems to me to be always trying to be true to herself and what she sees as her destiny, and perhaps she takes that too far and hurts people sometimes. Don’t we all?

    But I do think we should try to “fit in” with an adopted society to some extent. After all, if we accept the hospitality of another culture, surely it behoves us to try to follow the customs of that society as far as we can and still “be true to ourselves”. I put that in quotes deliberately because some people can be quite bloody-minded about it. Some folk are quite unable to fit in anywhere because they have identified too closely with something – a way of dressing, religious practices, a football team even – and so don’t acculturate as well as they might have done if they could just be a bit more open to new experiences. They mistake the attachment for themselves. I hope that makes sense.

    Mind you, it’s not always easy, even when you try. When I was a child I was ostracised at one school because I was a Pom. I’m awfully glad I wasn’t a Dago or a Balt or a Chink, because that would have been worse. (You can see that I, too, am talking about the fifties.) I tried and tried to develop an Australian accent but couldn’t manage it. I was in my forties when I finally realised that an Aussie accent is largely just Cockney spoken with the mouth half closed. I put it to good use when working in Scotland, when my Englishness once more told against me:-)

  2. As Satima has pointed out, one question is how much you feel that a culture or heritage is part of who you are (which differs from one person to the next). And, kind of following on from that, whether you want to embrace your family (inherited) culture or whether you would prefer to become part of the different culture you find yourself in. Some people choose to adopt a different culture because they actually like it, not just because they feel they have to fit in.

    I think I’m a bit a-cultural (but not uncultured, I hope!). My family come from the rural southwest of England, but I spent the first ten years of my life in London and then we moved to the rock. I have friends in several different countries as well as from different social and religious backgrounds. When people ask me where I feel my ‘home’ really is (to some people that’s important) I don’t actually have an answer – I suppose I carry it with me. I guess I am ‘generic English’ by disposition, but happy to fit in with whoever I’m with, wherever I am, so they don’t feel uncomfortable. I believe in embracing diversity and enjoying it, as well as respecting and learning from it.

    The counterweight to that, which I must point out, is that I have always been a bit of an odd individual anyway – a changeling, an outsider. So even from early childhood I was having to struggle to fit in with those around me, in what seemed to me an alien and (frequently, at school) hostile environment. On the upside, being an outsider looking in was all good experience for a writer. :o)

    My recipe for (reasonable) success at fitting in, btw, is willingness to do basic household chores. It’s the great universal. If you can help someone dig the garden or tidy the house, or go grocery shopping, or prepare a meal and clean up in the kitchen, chances are that you can get along well enough. Or if they’re such lofty creatures that they never do a stroke of menial work, then you just get them to talk about themselves and what interests them. ;oP

  3. How much should a person change to fit in? I too grew up near a migrant camp, but by then it was the 70s. My class mates were often the children of those original migrant children, and as far as I, and as far as I’m aware, they, were concerned – they were aussie! No better, or no worse, than anyone else.

    When I started working, however, I discovered some of the saddest people. Those who had no chance of ever going back home, but refused to so much as learn the language spoken around them, making them unable to communicate with even lowly check-out chicks, and had become more “rigid” in their hold to their home countries traditions than people who still lived there could ever be. I am talking of people who had been in the country some 20 – 30 years by this time, and it seemed to me they chose to be miserable just because they were here.

  4. I can relate to what both of you have said, Hrugaar and Sharyn. Children are pretty adapatable. You and I, Hrugaar, both got by despite having parents with itchy feet (mind you, I envy people who still have friends they met in primary school because they never moved!) and I guess we’ve all seen sad old migrants who have never assimilated.

    In my experience, it’s usually the women who don’t acculturate. When I was at school there were many old mums and grandmas, mainly from Greece or Italy, who had to have a relative with them to go shopping because they hadn’t even learnt, after decades in the country, how to ask for basic household requisites. I suspect that many women immigrants only came to Oz because they husbands wanted to come and their quiet means of protesting was to refuse to have anything to do with local culture.

    My mother was lucky. She hadn’t wanted to come here, either, but being from England she didn’t find it impossible to operate within the community and she even made friends – although most of them, like her, were lonely English ex-pats*g*.

  5. I suspect you are right, Satima, when you say it was their quiet form of protest. I think it was fairly good that I didn’t come into contact with people like that until I began working. It’s not that we only associated with certain types, we didn’t. My hometown was a small town then, and you pretty much knew most people at least to smile and wave to. That I only met a few, hopefully meant there were only a few who didn’t want to be here.

    One of the Koori girls I went to school with put it best “Everyone in this country came from somewhere else in the world … except maybe Mungo Man, and he aint saying where he came from.”

  6. Heh heh – doesn’t it make you laugh when people grumble about refugees and say, “Why don’t they go back where they came from?” If we go back a few generations in our ancestry, just about everyone in the world could be classed as non-indigenous. As a Brit, I proudly carry the genes of Norman, Dane, Saxon and Celtic as well as Ancient Briton and probably the odd randy Roman soldier. Where do I go back to, pray? *g* And where do my part-English, part-Irish, part-Jamaican sons go? The mind boggles!

  7. Heh. We have a saying here on the rock, ‘There’s a boat in the morning.’ (meaning if they grumble about living here, they can go live elsewhere). But we say that to anyone, whether they’re immigrant or come from families that have lived here for centuries.

  8. Satima, I agree – I think Ligea does really try to stay true to herself, but she does definitely betray her Exaltarch and her boss!

    Wow, have you put your finger on a great point, Hrugaar – do the dishes and everyone loves you. Of course, if you are male in a male-dominated culture, the men will think you’re weird, but the women will love you anyway.

    Sharyn, I remember once waiting behind a Chinese-Malaysian lady at the immigration office here in Malaysia. The man behind the counter did not speak Chinese, so he asked her in Malay, then in English, a few simple questions: what is your name, how old are you, where do you live? She could not understand any of them. He got someone to translate to Chinese. She answered the questions. I was then staggered when in answer to another question, How long have you lived in Malaysia, she answered in Chinese, “40 years.”

    Ye gods. She’d been in the country forty years and couldn’t even answer the simplest of questions in the language of the land. Talk about not making an effort.

    When I first came here, I struggled very hard to fit in – wear the clothes, eat and learn to cook the food, speak the language, take part the festivals etc.

    There was a point though when I gave up, because I realised that no matter how hard I tried, I would always be the outsider and treated as such. I think I will blog more about this on a separate entry tomorrow.

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