Last month we were in France to witness the ‘soutenance’ (thesis presentation) of our eldest daughter. M has now spent five years at the University of Angers in western France, and she’ll be able to stay a little longer thanks to a professional masters programme she’s taking part in. Job opportunities look more favourable in France, than if she returned to Ivory Coast.
Hanging out with her, you immediately notice one thing – all but one of her close friends are either Ivorian or at least from francophone Africa. For a gathering at a restaurant, the most likely spot would be an Ivorian place in the city centre. Food shopping includes an inevitable stop at the West Africa food stores – one run by a Senegalese lady, another by Chinese. Conversation frequently turns around who has someone coming back from Abidjan who could bring some fresh food.
I see similar trends with my Ivorian relatives living in France. For me, it’s a reminder of just how strong the ties of culture are, whether for Ivorians in Europe or Europeans in Ivory Coast. Superficially it can often look like racism, and I’ve heard it described as such – ‘How can you live in a country and not mix more with the local population?’ It can certainly look like that in Abidjan. But given the same phenomenon is seen in France, I suspect it’s in fact culture which is the strong separator. I spoke with my daughter about why she didn’t have more French friends. She said that in the beginning she did, but she found them often ‘bizarre’, and didn’t fit in to the partying and drinking culture. I told my wife recently that when she wants to use the word bizarre, ‘think culture’.
Culture colours so much of who we are that it almost makes us different species of human. One can generalise too much, but for Ivorians in Europe there are points of diversion from the native population on many fronts. Ivorians tend to be religious – regularly attending church or the mosque (though even within church, these divisions often hold). Food is a key difference – and the culture around its preparation and sourcing ingredients. Attitudes to money are different – for many Ivorian students, money is in short supply and being sent at incredible sacrifice from families back home. There’s a responsibility to do well for the family (which is extended and frequently complicated) – prove that the investment wasn’t wasted, find a good job. For women, there’s a strong culture around hair and skin products. One should also mention music and football. Then there are similar sets of issues that they share – residency status, citizenship, politics, begging letters from family including health and education needs from the extended family etc.
I’m not saying anything new of course – this is the common migrant/expat experience. While moving to a foreign country as an adult changes us, we remain essentially the person we were when we stepped off the plane. On the surface it is easy to say ‘why don’t you mix more?’, but underneath there are strong undercurrents that drive people to stick with their own. Mixing is not impossible – when I pivoted my social circles after two years in Abidjan, I switched to almost all my friends and contacts being Ivorian. But I think that’s unusual, and it also comes at a cost. You never completely fit in.
Down the road is the challenge of children that are born in the foreign country, who are much more attached to the new country, and don’t have that grounding in their parents’ country. There are also mixed-culture children who find themselves with a foot in different camps. And there are mixed marriages, where cultures interact, sometimes with success, sometimes with tension, but always needing plenty of patience and understanding. So it’s no surprise that when you walk around cosmopolitan cities, you’ll see an Ivorian with an Ivorian, a Chinese person with Chinese, Indian with Indian etc.