Born and raised in Japan, where the sense of homogeneity prevails, I didn’t understood what it was like to be a foreigner or what it was like to live next to someone from a different culture, until I left my country at the age of 16. Since then, I have been changing the country in which I live almost every year or two. To live in a foreign country as a foreigner is not always very easy. Your appearance makes you stand out, you do not speak the local language as good as the locals, you do not know how the system works, and you might be looked down upon because of everything above. Regardless of how much you enjoy being there and love that particular country and people, most of the time, local people around you would see you first as a foreigner, not as a friend or a neighbour.
I was therefore profoundly struck when I first came to London. I did not feel that I was a foreigner. I was simply part of this huge mixture of people from everywhere. Maybe some locals still regard me as a foreigner, but the feeling that I can be the way I am is such a relief. I feel so comfortable in London. That pleasant discovery in London after having lived in different parts of the world made me think a lot about being an immigrant, which is a completely different experience from being a local. You have not changed anything at all. Your understanding of who you are is still the same. However, once you leave your own country and become an immigrant, the way others perceive you changes drastically. Sometimes this perception from others becomes more powerful than my own understanding of myself, which makes me feel extremely uncomfortable.
In today’s Britain, migration and integration are heavily discussed topics. Yet political argument on integration of migrants seems to have failed to recognise the individual migrant’s feelings towards their belonging and their identity. Or rather, integration policy seems to be created by policy makers without taking it into account that integration is the reality that migrants live in and experience. It is only you who knows whether you feel at home or whether you have been integrated into your new environment. Integration is not only something to be defined and imposed by others, but it is the deep feeling of belonging from each migrant and whether he or she is ready to let their own past go and to start a new life in this country. No matter how well an integration policy works, if migrants cannot feel at home in their new countries, how can we call that policy successful?
Instead of the conventional integration definition set by politics’ and locals’ view points, this series of profiles intends to show what it means by integration from individual migrants’ point of view. As integration is a two-way process, it is important to focus on the other side of the integration story, which is sometimes not talked about or often ignored. Without recognising another side of integration, any integration policy would remain as one-way approach.
In this series of profiles, migrants in London were asked their integration experiences- with an intention to find out their own tipping points- the incidents or moment when migrants finally felt belonging here. Their stories are summarised here as testimony-style profiles to show examples of how diverse the integration experience is for individual migrants.
Eight sample migrants from different parts of the world with a variety of migration experiences were interviewed. They were asked their arrival stories by focusing on what kind of challenges they encountered, then their tipping points of integration, and finally, whether they feel the belong now.
As you can probably imagine, every interviewee’s story was different and so were their tipping points and their level of integration. Below are several categories of tipping points that we discovered.
- Language: The improvement of the command of English gave a confidence to some interviewees. Equally interesting finding was that one of the interviewees mentioned the importance of having the environment to be able to express his/her own feeling in a mother tongue, as it is often difficult for migrants to express their own feeling in English as precise and as deep as they can in their own languages.
- Family: Being far away from home and loved ones can be very challenging, especially when people first arrive to a new country. The importance of family was well recognised in some interviewees’ experiences. The existence of family (or gaining of family) in this country seems to have contributed greatly to the feeling of belongingness.
- Safety: While some interviewees have come to the UK voluntarily, some have not. Some of those who had no choice but to flee their own countries did feel safe to be in the UK. Their acceptance that the UK was now their new home made them feel comfortable in British society, regardless of how much they miss their own countries.
The result of this research has indicated that integration cannot be defined by just one definition and it is truly a personal experience, which cannot be generalised.
Currently, integration is measured based on seven policy areas (labour market mobility, family reunion, education, political participation, long-term residence, access to nationality and anti-discrimination – MIPEX). Those are very useful measurements to increase the integration of immigrants into host societies. Yet, the end goal of integration is not be to satisfy those criteria. In the lives of migrants, integration means to feel at home in their new countries. If rigid policy areas took into account the feelings of migrants, integration policy would work much better and would become a truly two-way process.