In a few days, I will return home for a month long vacation. It is a terrible time of year to visit the UK, January is cold and dark, but at least I will be there for the New Years celebrations and I will meet friends and family I have not seen for over two years. It is amazing how the time has flown by.
As well as January being one of the most depressing months of the year for weather reasons, there is another reason Britons have cause for concern this January and that is the anticipated mass immigration of Romanians and Bulgarians. From the 1st of January, restrictions will be lifted on these countries which will enable them to move freely to the UK and other countries in the European Union.
Immigration is of great concern for the British public, when Poland was allowed easier access to the UK in 2004 due to the enlargement of the EU, the then Labour government predicted 10 000 Polish would come; the actual number was more like half a million. Much of the population is also concerned with the effect that growing Muslim populations are having. The graphic murder of Lee Rigby on a London street encouraged some hysteria against Muslims, but terrorism is just one of many concerns people have.
In a report by the Democracy Institute, a think tank in the UK, it is predicted that 385 000 Romanians and Bulgarians will come to the UK once the borders are open to them after January 1st.
There are a number of red herrings in the debate on immigration in the UK often peddled by those on the right and those in the increasingly popular UK Independence Party (UKIP) - although the party does make many good points on immigration also. Apparently, migrants from Eastern Europe take our jobs, put strain on the economy, claim benefits, and commit crime. This article from The Economist makes the argument against all of these and although there could be some debate about what they say, I am willing to accept it for the sake of argument as it makes no difference to mine. I am sceptical about the benefits such mass immigration has on my country and this scepticism stems from my experiences with Korean culture and my marriage with a Korean woman.
Why is this you might say? Surely I should be pro-immigration and longing for a world without borders.
Well, let's start with a rather controversial comment on my blog a while ago from someone who said they were against inter-racial marriage and breeding. I invited him to debate me over e-mail as to why he would say such a thing, as I obviously am against such a position. What I took out of the exchange was certainly not agreement with his point of view, but he did lay-out quite a bit of evidence to suggest that such unions tend to be more troublesome for the couples in question and for their children. I acknowledged such relationships are generally more difficult, I just didn't agree that necessarily translated into inter-racial and cross-cultural relationships being something we shouldn't do.
The difficulty of such relationships is fairly obvious when you think about it; the pressures of a world that still places quite a high importance on the colour of one's skin is one reason, but also many inter-racial relationships are also cross-cultural, like between my wife and I. We have unique problems that people of the same culture would not have in areas such as, personality, sense of humour, family, core values, and geography, to mention but a few. These issues can be worked through with love, an open mind, and an appreciation of the enrichment these differences can have on each other's lives. However, these can still be big problems that not everyone is capable of overcoming.
Perhaps you can see what angle I am taking here; replace one couple and their families with millions of people within a nation and people whose motivations to cope with these kinds of problems is not so strong and I think you can see why friction could be created.
I have been writing this blog for nearly two years now and it has become a bit of a library of how British and Korean culture can clash. I am never short of material in this regard and this fires-off warning signals in my brain. My wife and I have spent time in other countries, we understand where our difficulties arise based around our cultures and we can absorb and understand them. I don't think this is the case with the vast majority of my fellow countrymen in the UK and the immigrants that go there. The British people have tolerance hammered into their brains, not understanding, and the people coming into the UK lead largely separate lives in islands within the British Isles. The combination causes a culture of blame, resentment, frustration, inequality, and prejudice.
In my post, "The Hypocrisy of Western Prejudice", I now believe I was too harsh on some of my fellow Brits who found it awkward to make friends with my wife. Perhaps some of them could have been more open-minded and made the same effort as my wife was making, but the fact is that this kind of openness to others is something that tends to be learned - most often by travel or living in another culture - and doesn't come naturally. Tribalism and discomfort with people of other cultures is what comes naturally to most, even the very warm-hearted and kind. That's where the hypocrisy comes in, they are told that everyone should be treated equally and to be open-minded to people of other cultures and they say they believe it, but until they actually practice being this way, it doesn't really happen in reality. Interaction with people from other cultures often has to be practiced, it is like a skill, and like any other skill, there will be some people that pick it up easily and some that will require much more time to get into the swing of things.
All of this takes time and hard-work as a couple, let alone a population of a country. Mass immigration is a recipe for disaster because it takes away the ability of the native people to adjust slowly and comfortably to people from other countries and cultures. Some of these people are from cultures that, until relatively recently, have lived apart for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years and whose value systems are completely different, even opposite on occasions. Whether the country is benefited economically by immigration or not is largely irrelevant to most people when they see behaviour from others that abhors them because their core moral values are so different.
Immigration has always been a part of Britain, and as some people like to say, "most of us are immigrants". But figures don't lie, Britain has had an unprecedented rise in immigration from a decade or so ago. Now, in London, only about 44% are White British. Such a rapid change in the make up of the British population is a concern for many and it is causing racial and cultural tensions.
What we see in Western countries in particular is constant talk about how life-enriching and beneficial all this mingling of different cultures is for all of us. This is true, I know it from my marriage into a Korean family and wouldn't change things for the world now. But I also know that the difficulties are significant and seriously under-addressed and the problem is that when they are addressed they are often dismissed because the people who address them are regularly right-wing nut-bags, like the EDL or the BNP in the UK (UKIP are often perceived this way also, although unfairly, I think), who are genuinely racist and genuinely closed-minded. Because of this, when people speak-up from a similar position who are not prejudiced and have genuine concerns, they are shouted-down by a culture of progressive liberalism as belonging to groups of racists and neo-nazis. We end up with too many people being extremely pro-immigration and too many extremely anti-immigration with not much sensible argument in the middle. The extreme pro-immigration side has been winning for some time - at least in the political arena - but that may change soon with right-wing political parties gaining popularity all around Europe.
Another issue, which we are at pains to address, is the fact that the people from different cultures that enter the UK are not all equal. Western Europeans and North Americans, for example, are not likely to disrupt the traditional culture of the UK and create as much tension as some others, like people from mainly Islamic countries for example. This is a hard problem to acknowledge, but we must honestly address it because it is causing significant difficulties in many European countries at the moment.
The Importance of Cross-Cultural Relationships
There could be a significant amount of self-interest involved in what I am about to say, but still I think it is true. A year or so ago, the British government made it a lot more difficult for married couples - British nationals with non-EU member nationals - to come to the UK (this is the reason I am not in the UK now and planning to live in Australia instead). I believe this is a major mistake (a mistake motivated solely by saving a little money for the economy and making headlines) because if there was ever a chance for different cultures to truly interact with each other and for multiculturalism to really work, these kinds of couples hold the key. They are the ones who can comprehend the difficulties and know how to overcome them and they are the ones who can create positive interactions between different cultures and communities living in the same country. They can encourage true integration because they can share the same friends and family as their spouse. This is the kind of immigration that is genuinely beneficial and the chance of better unity and communication has been squandered in an attempt to show that the government is "getting tough" on immigration.
Living together in peace, equality and harmony is the goal, but we won't get there by forcing mass immigration on people that are not ready yet, it must occur more slowly and in a way that encourages integration. We are failing on both in the UK and there is trouble ahead because of it.