On Integration: Kale, Yoga and San Francisco

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In my professional life, I spend a lot of time thinking about “integration”, partly because discussions about integration are an inevitable partner of debates about immigration. And on the one hand, these conversations are easier part of the equation: after all, regardless what you think about immigration, everyone agrees on the desirability of integration.

But on the other hand, very few of us seem really sure what this “integration” we’re so desirous of means. Is it belonging? Co-existence? The capacity to translate between cultures? To successfully negotiate public spaces and use public services without assistance? Is it about neighbourhoods, or nationalism? Integration is very clearly something more than segregation. It is also very clearly less than assimilation. Integration, it would seem, is not about losing yourself as much as it is about understanding others. And – as the best academic framework for understanding integration I know of stresses – successful integration is always a two-way process, an exchange between natives and newcomers.

However, in the past year, integration has gone from being just a professional curiosity. It’s now also personal experience. Nearly a year after moving to San Francisco, I’ll catch my vocabulary changing and intonation shifting, the subtle signs of my own “integration” into a place 5000 miles away from “home”.

So what has integrating into San Francisco taught me so far? First, if integration in San Francisco can teach me anything, it’s that we should never measure integration gaps in miles. Culture is not geography. I’ve enjoyed the obvious advantages of a (mostly) shared language. But there are subtler ties too: power and wealth and education. San Francisco’s Mission is, in the end, not so far from Shoreditch. If you’re seeking a liberal middle-class lifestyle, in many ways Islington is far closer to Duboce Triangle than it is to Leytonstone. Sometimes I wonder how far I’ve really travelled

This is underlined in San Francisco both because it is a city of full of immigrants like me – young, educated, well-off – and because it is a city full of immigrants utterly unlike me, whose worlds are almost entirely separate from mine: elderly Chinese women, Mexican day labourers. Just like our immigrations, our integrations are distinct: and the measure by which they are judged “successful” has a lot to do with power and privilege.

Yet for all of us, this process of integration is a local one. It has very little to do with “America”, which in any case is more of an idea than a geographical place. San Francisco is, notoriously, an enigma to most of America. Most San Franciscans I’ve met take a particular pride in asserting that they live in the most un-American of all American cities. A year in, and my new familiarity with American bureaucracy and commerce – my bank account, drivers’ licence, health insurance – would undoubtedly make it far easier to stay awhile in Illinois or Idaho. But I don’t think for a second that it would add up to integration

There’s a strange contradiction in this, because it’s the national government that controls your right to stay and provides the documents and the papers that give you status. But this year has reinforced a sense that integration is ultimately about neighbourhoods, not nationalism. It’s about the street you live on, the conversations you have, the building of the fabric of an everyday shared life. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that the least integrated British-American migrants I know are all working in Washington D.C.

So here’s a third and final thought. In the past year, I’ve come to believe that integration is not only a two-way process, it’s also one that works best when it celebrates not the patriotic but the absurd. For the first few months of living in a new country, you are a bemused voyeur. The strange habits of your new neighbours and colleague are to be laughed at, and to be scorned. But if you keep laughing, integration creeps up on you unexpectedly, until you realize one day you are no longer laughing at them: you’re laughing at yourself. Yes, life is still absurd here: but now it’s your life too.

And that’s why kale — and yoga mats — are such good metaphors for my own San Franciscan integration.

10 Signs you may be becoming “integrated” in San Francisco:

  1. You accept that kale is no longer something you eat with roast potatoes and gravy. It’s a salad ingredient. And it’s everywhere.
  2. You complain about the cold because you had to put a sweater on to go outside. In January.

(2b. You call it a sweater).

(2c. You also complain about San Francisco having terrible weather compared to the rest of California. When it’s sunny. In January.)

  1. You no longer think it is strange that even though the US economy is the largest in the world, you still have to write “checks”, and no one’s heard of chip-and-pin.
  2. You don’t just join in conversations with perfect strangers on the bus. You start them.
  3. You get annoyed when the waiter/sale assistant doesn’t want to chat.
  4. You do a double-take when you see a man in a suit. Because, well, why?
  5. You no longer do a double-take when you realize everyone at brunch is wearing yoga gear. Because you are wearing yoga gear too.
  6. You don’t criticize: you provide feedback. And when you do provide feedback, you are not afraid to tell someone that their idea is ‘not-so-great’.
  7. You realize that as well as over-using italics when you write, you now over-use them when you speak.

(9b. And your new favourite prefix? ‘Super’ As in… super-great, super-fun, super-awesome. Because just ‘great’ just isn’t good enough.)

  1. You give in and admit it: all that sunshine (and kale) has turned you into an optimist.