To the Editor
I always read Mr. Watanabe’s column with pleasure, as he has such a unique yet universal point of view! The column in the current Bulletin (April 21010) is no exception. Having to do things a certain way because otherwise “the neighbours might talk unfavourably about our family” is the way I was raised . . . not in Japan but in Southern France. My maternal grandma raised this concern to such a fine art that she would always tidy up her house before going to bed. She worried that, should a thief break in the house in the dead of night, he might think that she was a terrible housekeeper!
GPS systems are quite popular in Western Europe as many towns are a maze of streets going in every direction. To make it worse, a street often changes name every few blocks as there is obviously an amazing number of once-famous historical figures. The buildings numbers are quite often not in a logical sequence either. People give directions on how to go to their home based on local landmarks rather than secondary streets names. In other words, this is somewhat similar to Japan.
The first time I used a “wossuretto” in Japan was in the mid-1990s. I was overjoyed as, since I moved to Canada, I dearly miss the bidets that are commonly found in most European homes. And yes men do use them. Duravit, a German company, makes a European version. TOTO washlets are sold in Metro Vancouver by the way, unfortunately one needs to do some plumbing and electrical work. Several friends of mine, both male and female, came back from Japan saying that it was the most amazing thing they had seen and used in Japan, especially the ones, operated by a remote control, that play music to cover bodily noises.
There were a few articles recently in several Vancouver newspapers about the invisibility of non-Caucasians in the local media. This is true enough, but it appears that many recent immigrants aren’t aware that all Caucasians aren’t created equals. Until relatively recently, European immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were definitely not considered as good as those from Anglo-Saxons areas . . .
I never thought as myself as a Caucasian when I was growing up in Southern France, and it wasn’t because we all had the same origin. Lots of French people have ancestors born in other parts of Europe. Others were born in the colonies that France had all around the world.
A fair number of my schoolmates were from immigrant families while others were from Overseas France.
(France is made of Metropolitan France—the European country—and Overseas France, scattered on three oceans. People born in the Overseas regions are full-fledged French citizens)
Those of us whose families have lived in Southern France for at least 300 years only became French as a the result of a succession of wars within what is now Metropolitan France. We don’t look like the stereotypical French person (blond and blue eyed according to French history manuals) and speak a non-standard French that is liberally sprinkled with words from our regional native tongue
(2/3 of the people in Metropolitan France did not speak French at the eve of the 19th century and quite a few still didn’t speak French by WWI).
You could say that we are First Nations of France, especially considering that the ancestors of the “true” French, the Franks, were a Germanic tribe that came to what is now the Parisian region around 500 AD.
It is only when I came to Canada—40 years ago already—that ethnicity became a concern. For the first time in my life I was asked if I was Caucasian (I found later that a Canadian immigration bureaucrat had assigned me the Catholic religion on my immigration papers without even asking me. My family is in fact Protestant).
At jobs interviews I was condescendingly asked if we had real houses and real schools in France. I had to explain that the town where I was born was destroyed and rebuilt quite a few times through the centuries so most of its buildings, made of solid stone, were not very old as they only go back to the 18th and 19th centuries, save for several big medieval churches and a handful of medieval and renaissance buildings. As for the local University it is barely 500 years old.
Twice in my life a manager at work (one in Toronto in the late 70s, one in Vancouver in the late 1990s) told other workers and I—all immigrants—that “you people can’t understand the white man ways” . . . then, pointing at me, said to my colleagues from visible minorities “he isn’t white, he is European.” In other words to these managers “white” meant only a North-American English-speaking person.
In both workplaces a few workers from Asia, Africa, the West Indies etc. were cold towards me (while others were friendly from day one). After the manager remark, these “cold” colleagues actually hugged me, expressing their shock and amazement . . .They had assumed that I was a supervisor only because of my skin colour.
To tell the truth, I thought that the attitude of these managers was hilarious. They only showed their ignorance and pettiness.
Being less and less shy with age, I like to remind those (few) English-speaking Canadians with UK roots that have a tendency to put down all others, that Normand-French became the official language of the English Crown from 1066 to sometime around the 1400s and that the UK monarchy still use French in its coat of arms.
Not to mention that the Celts originated in Eastern Europe and slowly settled in various parts of Western Europe, eventually ending in the British Isles and Ireland. As for the Anglo-Saxon culture, like all other European cultures it owes everything to the Greeks and the Romans.
According to some popular North American guidebooks, France is not a multicultural country at all. Yet an amazing number of famous French people (artists, scientists, politicians) have foreign blood. Edith Piaf mother was an Italian whose own mother was from Algeria. Charles Aznavour’ parents were both from Armenia. Jeanne Moreau, the movie star, had an English mother. Yves Montand was Italian, so is Pierre Cardin, and so on. It would take a thick book to list them all.
Hardly a few months goes by without another famous French person “coming out” has either being an immigrant or having immigrant parents. This not new. Michel de Montaigne, the famous Renaissance philosopher, was the son of a Spanish-Jewish mother. He was born in Bordeaux, my birthplace.
One last bit of rambling . . .
I started travelling outside my native region of France, and even outside France, in my mid-teens. After high school I had the opportunity to study for a whole summer in Finland then did my (then compulsory and unpaid) military duties in what was then West Germany.
There is a huge difference between being a tourist in a country and an immigrant. In the first case you are welcome—especially if you agree that the host country is definitely the best place on earth. In the second case you are stealing jobs from the natives and whatever education and skills you have are not worth much. This is not even a matter of language. I knew a UK architect who wasn’t allowed to practice in BC. Luckily for him, his wife had a good job but they did have to live on the cheap while he was going back to school full time.
Of course the reverse is likely true for a Canadian trying to immigrate to Europe or Japan, the more the pity.
I must add that, in the long run, living in Canada has been great for me. Not necessarily financially, but emotionally and personally. I was able to find myself, without the shackles of “what will the neighbours say” and to build friendships with people that like me for myself, not because I am from such and such town and family. Growing up, my brother and I felt that we were generic children. Especially after we found out we were expected to marry girls we didn’t even know! (yes, in 20th century France). What we really liked, who we were, didn’t matter. That—not fame or fortune— was my reason for coming to Canada.
Mr. J-L Brussac
P.S. why do I read The Bulletin? I have always fascinated by Japan, even as a child, and became friends in Vancouver with a couple of Japanese guys.