Gender and Integration. Polish migration to Norway

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The context of everyday life is undeniably the most important sphere for anthropological exploration. The observation of daily habits and mundane routines of people we study provides us with unexpected outcomes and interesting food for thought. After all, it is the everyday life that problematizes our ‘taken for granted’ ideas, imaginaries, and ways of understanding. In case of migrants, however, it also reveals different social and cultural contexts—often neglected in public discourse on integration–in which integration processes take place. In other words, by taking a closer look at migrants’ daily practices, we may uncover important integration mechanisms.

I am no stranger to conducting field research on Polish migration to Norway. In 2009, I worked with male migrants—mostly construction workers—living and working in Oslo, whilst this time around, I spent six weeks observing and interviewing Polish women in Oslo. I believe that comparing different mobilities of Poles residing in Norway brings interesting insights on gendered migratory practices and integration efforts.

Hailing from the same country, these two groups of migrants used their spatial mobility in remarkably different ways. Mobility was a livelihood strategy for the men I studied. They made the most of their freedom of movement. Their “ideal life” consisted of “living in Poland” and “working in Norway.” Fellow Poles called them pendlerzy (pendulum migrants). They would come to Norway for two or three weeks and promptly return to their families as soon as they received their paychecks. As a result, they did not feel any genuine need to interact with Norwegians, let alone a desire for any deeper kind of social, cultural, and political integration. While the men seemed to have thrived or at least didn’t mind the lives in motion, many of the women I met this past summer were “fed up” with transnational lives and split families.

Krystyna came to Norway over 10 years ago to join her husband, who had already been working in Oslo as a construction worker. She thought their son, Kamil, who was 6 years old, should live with both of his parents on a daily basis and not see his Dad every few weeks. Although happy to be reunited with her husband, Krystyna recalls the beginnings as rather difficult and harsh. Living in one room in a shared flat with other Polish migrants was tough, she said. At first, Krystyna stayed at home, helping her son to adjust to Norwegian educational system. Having a child in a Norwegian school “forced” Krystyna to interact with Norwegian parents. Needing to communicate with Norwegians—at her son’s school and in the playground—Krystyna promptly enrolled in a Norwegian language course. Now Krystyna and Jan have their own construction company and since Jan is not fluent in Norwegian, it is Krystyna who not only takes care of the household, but also manages the company and negotiates with Norwegian clients.

Many of my female informants often compared their labor market opportunities with those of Polish males. Eliza and Dagmara remarked that it is easier for men to find jobs, especially in construction, a sector that always needs new manpower. Having fewer job prospects, women have to invest in language skills in order to compete successfully in the labor market and find opportunities beyond the proverbial house-cleaning. Many of my interlocutors aspire to work as waitresses or shop assistants.

Paradoxically, the “traditional” (and oversimplified) division of gender roles in Polish public discourse and imaginaries – i.e., women as “housekeepers”, men as “providers” – leads to women’s engagement in Norwegian society and everyday life. Obviously, the language skills are of a great importance here. Men, who work at various construction sites – usually with other Poles or, broadly speaking, Eastern Europeans – often don’t “feel” the need to learn Norwegian. For women, on the other hand, spending time as stay-at-home mothers–at least at the beginning–provides them with the opportunity to concentrate on learning Norwegian. Daily forays into the neighborhood—to shop for groceries, take children to a park or playground—give them a chance to strike a conversation with Norwegians.

Of course, I also met women, who work outside the home, but they too seem to have more opportunities to learn and practice Norwegian than men. Iwona cleans different Norwegian apartments (so-called domki). This line of work is conducive to chit-chats with Norwegians. As Joanna told me, working mainly for older people and cleaning their flats provided numerous opportunities for her to practice the language. Older Norwegians living alone are eager to talk to break out of their isolation. Integration is often measured by language acquisition, labor force participation, and socio-economic mobility. But these are not the only factors facilitating integration.

Integration also means being engaged in rather “unnoticeable” and “non-measureable” contexts of everyday activities and “ways of being.” Whether it is hiking in the woods on Sunday, meetings friends for coffee in the city center, or getting to know what a Norwegian “work-life balance” is about. After all, this is what the “locals” do, and following into their footsteps means to acquire Norwegian know-how.

Of course, I do not mean to imply that men are not engaged in Norwegian everyday life; there are many male migrants (mostly young), whom I met in Oslo and who are as well adapted to “Norwegianness” as female migrants. Rather, I’m contextualizing the ethnographic detail and compare it to male migrants, whose strategies rely chiefly on transnational commuting between Poland and Norway, and who would rather send money to their families in Poland than go out for coffee to the city center. Their migratory strategies are quite different – usually constrained to hanging out with fellow-workers in rented shared flats – but also very interesting and important from anthropological perspective. They create their own everyday life, which is as fascinating and justified as the everyday life of Polish female migrants.

By Marek Pawlak

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