Thursday 01 June 2023

‘Foreigners’ can read what you are saying too, you know

This article first appeared on Malta Today

It never fails to amaze me how many people repeatedly forget that everything they write on online fora is very, very public. And, if you are going to write in English rather than Maltese, than basically anyone with a knowledge of that language and access to an Internet connection or Wifi, can potentially read what you are writing. With the majority of our news portals being in English, even the daily news coverage is going to reach anyone with a rudimentary grasp of the language.

That is why I cannot understand what many hope to achieve by bashing those who live here who are not Maltese (collectively referred to as foreigners) whether in careless comments on social media or in official statements by politicians?

Adrian Delia made this gaffe recently when he was quoted as saying that “it was important to question how the influx of foreign workers was impacting Malta’s social fabric. With 20% of births coming to mothers who are not Maltese, we have to understand how this will impact our identity, how we think, what we do…Any plan has to take into account whether we want to change into something else, transform and lose our identity…Let us be careful of creating a country where foreigners come here to work but our children choose to leave because it will become a Malta they do not recognise any longer.” (Malta Today, 1 May 2018)

When I read these kind of statements I always try to put myself in the shoes of others and imagine myself living in say, Italy or Germany and being constantly told, practically to my face, how I am not really wanted because I am not a native or a local. I am on several ex-pat groups and let us just say that these type of remarks do not go down very well – to put i mildly.

While I realise that this kind of rationale is often expressed by the man-in-the-street, when it comes to someone in a leadership role they have to be very careful not to be fanning the flames of xenophobia.

On the other hand, Muscat, who was quick to latch on to Delia’s faux pas, rebutted by saying that Malta needs a foreign workforce to sustain its economic growth. However, this too, smacks of a rather flippant, mercenary, exploitative attitude towards those who have upped sticks and chosen to come to our country to work and live. The reality for many of those who have chosen to relocate to this “laid-back island in the sun” is more like a very rude awakening when they realise that the average wage here is no great shakes, and that the rents have spiked so high that finding somewhere decent and affordable to live is like searching for the Holy Grail. Yes, well-paid jobs do exist, but not for everyone. (And, as an aside, I really do wish more people would do their homework before re-locating. How do you suddenly decide to move to another country without a job, a place to live and enough savings to last you at least six months or preferably a year, should things go wrong?)
But, where I think foreigners (which can include everyone from EU citizens to third party nationals) are really taken aback and truly start living the ‘Malta Experience’ is when they come up against a hostile, aggressive attitude by those who resent their very presence. It is one thing to come here as a tourist, where everyone seems happy to fleece (sorry I mean, take) your money, and it is another to settle down here for good, or at least for the foreseeable future.

Malta’s relationship with ‘barranin’ (which literally translates to outsiders) has always been a curious mixture of an inferiority complex (where many still insist that anything done by foreigners is better) and its dual opposite: a weird kind of superiority complex where you will find those who feel that foreigners are not really quite like ‘us’ when it comes to family, hygiene and moral behaviour. It is not uncommon to speak to a woman of a certain age who has a daughter-in-law who is not Maltese and who will refer to her with a lot of tsk-tsk-ing disapproval about the way she runs her household, how she raises the kids, and above all, how she treats her Maltese husband (the woman’s son). Nothing is ever good enough, clean enough or cooked well enough, purely because she is a barranija.

Mixed marriages are on the increase as never before, and children with one Maltese parent and the other parent being every other nationality under the sun have become so commonplace that those who are under the age of ten will see this as being perfectly ordinary. The constant aggro towards ‘the foreigner’ is therefore completely out of a synch with the reality we are living in.

While I have myself pointed out in the past that our tourism needs to be sustainable, and that there needs to be a capping of certain industries and above all, construction, because Malta’s size is what it is, this does not translate into being rude and obnoxious to anyone who is not Maltese. I often hear alarmed remarks because on buses and promenades and shops and offices “there are more foreigners than Maltese” but this kind of fearful apprehension does not make sense to me. What are we afraid of? Why are we so much on the defence and so territorial, when opening ourselves to other cultures and peoples can be used to our advantage? Rather than this almost irrational fear of being ‘taken over’ and putting up fences, we would be wiser to demonstrate a more inclusive approach, to help people from other countries to assimilate better.

For example, on a recent trip to my local supermarket, the Italian employee behind the cheese counter was cheerfully speaking to customers using Maltese phrases, asking them which item they wanted, how much and so on. I was pleasantly surprised to see someone making this kind of effort to accommodate his clients and I also mentally applauded whoever took the time to teach him these phrases. It might seem like a small gesture, but these small gestures go a long way.

On the other side of the coin, I read about a dismal incident when a foreign lady involved with Clean up Malta was picking up litter in a public place but was furiously shouted at by a Maltese man who basically told her, “it is our rubbish, leave it alone, don’t interfere”. I mean, can it get any more pathetic than this: that we have to even be possessive about our worst, most negative national traits? I really wracked my brains trying to understand the mindset of this man to figure out what was going on in his head to have become so angry. I guess it must be something on the lines of: yes, we litter, that’s how we are, this is Malta, like it or leave it”. In other words, don’t you (a foreigner) try to change us into something we are not (i.e. civic-minded).

What people like this man consistently fail to appreciate is that anyone who goes to live in another country does feel, after a while, that they have the right to have a say in what goes on, whether good or bad. This should not be too hard to understand: just think of all the Maltese emigrants who speak of the country they have moved to with the same proprietary air as any native. They speak of “us” and “ours” because year after year of living there has blurred the differences but also, I suspect, because they have been made to feel at home, and are not treated differently, insulted or discriminated against, just because they are Maltese. I also have a hunch that they are also not told, on a regular basis, to go back to their country.

The role of the media

The role of the media in all this cannot be stressed enough. The frequency of certain types of news reports which seem to be encouraging xenophobic behaviour really make me ask myself: how is this helping?

A man of Ghanian nationality, attacked a police officer in Rome and ran away after stripping naked. Should this really have been headline news, especially as the MV Lifeline rescue ship with immigrants on board, had just docked?

A child being egged on by her mother to shout abuse at the immigrants as they landed was taped – again, why was this made into a news story and shared repeatedly? Those who are racist will applaud it, while those who aren’t will be appalled. So, tell me, what has been achieved exactly?

And finally, one of the crew members of the MV Lifeline was filmed giving the finger to the pro-right group Patriotti Maltin. If any of this has helped in any remote way to defuse the situation rather than enflame it, I would be curious to know how.

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