Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Where I Sit bis (Lost in Translation)

In my previous post I included a rather long quotation from "Lost in Translation" by Eva Hoffman. I have included this book in the My Favorites section of this blog for the simple reason that this is THE book that captures most accurately my own experiences as an immigrant.

There are differences. Eva left Poland for Canada as an adolescent. I left the United States for France as a young bride. Eva left with her family and seems to have been aware that this was pretty much a one-way trip (un aller simple). I left alone and in a situation that was ambiguous at best. We were married in France but my French husband could get a green card and we could move to the U.S . That question, "So, where are we going to live?" has been asked and re-asked many times in the nearly 20 years my husband and I have been together.

And if I may cite another difference? In her book I am reading the words of a woman who grieves for what she has lost but Poland, her home country, seems to exist more and more only in her memory. It is not a constant unescapable presence in her life. She challenges her adopted culture on the basis of her status as a foreigner, not as as an Eastern European.

In constrast, an American emigrant anywhere in the world does not have the luxury of relegating his country to an abstract ideal or a mere memory. The activites of the American president, the opinions of the American people, the policies of the American government are the object of intense scrutiny. And you become painfully aware as you read the local papers and talk to your friends that all of the above matter very much to the people you interact with on a daily basis. There is no escape as much as you would like to hide yourself behind the "I am an individual speaking for myself," the interpretation is entirely beyond your control because it relies utterly on their perception of your identity.

It took me years to come to terms with this. In the beginning it infuriated me because I wanted desperately to assimiliate. Later I went to the other extreme thinking that if the only part I was allowed to play was The American, then I would do so. These days I am more centered, more forgiving of myself and of other people. Today, I cheerfully answer the inevitable question, "McCain or Obama?" and I try to be as gentle as I can with those people in both my countries when they decide to share their more violent stereotypes of the Other with me.

Eva Hoffman wites, "It is only after I have taken in disparate bits of cultural matter, after I have accepted its seduction and snares, that I can make my way theough the medium of language to distill my own meanings; and it is only coming from the ground up that I can hit the tenor of my own sensibility, hit home."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Where I sit

Right now I am sitting in front of a crackling fire in my apartment in Versailles which is not too far from the lovely chateau and gardens for which this city is well known.

The children (my Frenchlings are in bed), my French husband is in Tokyo but my thoughts are turning toward my friends and colleagues all over the world.

A quick glance at my systray shows that it is nearly 11 PM in France (digestif, anyone?), 5 AM in Tokyo (the party is just winding down in Roppongi), 5 PM on the US East Coast (the cocktail hour is just beginning) and nearly 2 PM in Seattle (the time zone in which most of my close family lives).

I never meant to leave my home permanently. Whole generations of my family have lived and died in the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America having made tentative (but very temporary) forays into other places. But they always came home. I didn't. Not permanently anyway. And for the life of me sometimes I don't understand why. It just happened. A sequence of events that had its own momentum and has taken me to this place and this time which could be anywhere and nowhere all at once.

There is nothing particularly unique in my experience. France is a nation of immigrants and I meet people (Serb taxi drivers, Algerian system administrators, and so on) who struggle with the same things. Struggling with language and cultural differences, wanting to go home, wanting to stay in our adopted world. Feeling safe, feeling scared. Feeling connected and then feeling so foreign.

But if I had a chance to do it all again, I would. What I lost (loss of place, identity, language) has been more than compensated by the truly remarkable people I have met and the places I have experienced. I have lived in two of the world's great cities: Paris and Tokyo. I went to India and fell in love with Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore. Most recently I have discovered parts of my own country that I never knew before, , Detroit, Boston and Providence. . Everywhere I go, I marvel at the ingenuity, passion, ambition and energy of the people I meet.

I have never seen a culture or language that was not complex or beautiful in its own particular way once I surrendered myself to it. And as I enter the second half of my life I believe that I am so fortunate and so blessed to have had the chance to experience some of this complexity and beauty. This is a chance my grand-parents and great-grand-parents never had. They had roots and continuity; I have something else.

From Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation:

"Multivalence is no more than a condition of contemporary awareness, and no more than the contemporary world demands. The weight of the world used to be vertical: it used to come from the past, or from the hierarchy of heaven and earth and hell; now it's horizontal, made up of the endless multiplicity of events going on at once and pressing at each moment on our minds and our living rooms. Dislocation is the norm rather than the aberration in our time, but even in the unlikely event that we spend an entire lifetime in one place, the fabulous diverseness with which we live reminds us constantly that we are no longer the norm or the center, that there is no one geographic center pulling the world together and glowing with the allure of the real thing; there are instead, scattered nodules competing for our attention. New York, Warsaw, Tehran, Tokyo, Kabul - they all make claims on our imagination, all remind us that in this decentered world, that every competing center makes us marginal."