Monday, May 21, 2012

Re-Learning to Read


            Do you speak a foreign language? Go ahead, say Si, Oui, or Igen. Great! Now say everything else you know in that language, go ahead, speak for five minutes, fifteen minutes, for as long as you can. Say everything you know in that language, from asking for coffee or directions to pleading with a lover. How long does it take until your knowledge is exhausted?
            Now imagine that you have to work in that language. That you have to read, write, pass oral exams in a doctoral program, teach students (all your insecurities will multiply astronomically in front of an audience of bored twenty-year-old native speakers), apply for jobs, be promoted, talk to your boss and socialize with your colleagues in this foreign language.
            This is what it means to be an immigrant in the United States—among other things.
            (You are going to read this differently if you’re bilingual. That is, if your mother tongue isn’t English and you had to learn English in school and now speak it with an accent; or if you grew up with two or three languages spoken around you; or, like one amazing individual I once met, if your native tongue is English, but you’ve dedicated your life to learning and translating literatures and are able to speak something like eight or nine languages by now.)
            But I craved this experience of bilingualism. Growing up in an ethnically diverse region in Romania, where many families included members who were German, Hungarian, Jewish, Serbian, and Romanian, it was not unusual for some kids to speak three or four different languages, simply by growing up in that environment. I envied that plurality. In Romanian, the only language I spoke, they had accents, mispronounced words, sometimes used unusual syntactic constructions. But then other Hungarian kids would come around, or their German mothers would call them home, and there they were, suddenly metamorphosed into foreigners, voicing unexpected rhythms, vowels, feelings.
            There was one family my parents were friends with, who lived on the same floor (the sixth) in our apartment building: the mother was Hungarian and knew Romanian too. The father knew German and Romanian (he was an engineer at the train carriage factory) and he had learned Hungarian too, so that he could speak it with his wife. Their children (a girl older than me and a boy who was a little younger) spoke all three languages.
            I envied them: I only spoke Romanian. On various occasions when we visited, Cati, the mother, would ask them to perform some small duty, like bring sugar for coffee or answer the phone, reverting to familiar Hungarian, then switch back to Romanian to speak to my parents. If the kids misbehaved, the father would intervene in German, calling them to order in a language that seemed designed especially for that.
            Years later, as an immigrant, I am grateful for new syntax and intonation, for being able to switch back and forth. There is a quote by one of the great linguists of our time (either Chomsky or Piaget), something to the extent that “he who speaks two languages has two souls.” I am grateful for a new soul; but as of now, most of my feelings are untranslatable longings, or dor.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Food and Migration (2)

Mythologies, New and Old
            A few years passed, and it sort of gradually became clear that I might stay in the United States. Perhaps sensing that, my mother started telling me, during our long international phone calls, about the virtues of water drunk from the wells of my childhood.
            “It’s the only water that has the right energetic balance for you,” she said.
            She was talking about energy a lot, positive and healing versus negative and destructive. It seemed that energy, unlike most other things, was never neutral, unknowable, or an amalgam of good and bad stuff. As my mother described it, the positive and healing type was somehow connected with my homeland and its waters.
            I never knew what to answer. It felt like she was warning me of some unknown danger lurking in the future. Wasn’t it enough that I went home, back to Romania, once a year, then once every two years or so, to drink its energy-laden water? Or were the aquifers of another continent doing some irreparable damage to my energy? I had to admit that living in the States did feel exhausting at times.
            My mother’s watery mythologies made me think of other ones—Antaeus, for example, the giant from ancient Greek legends, son of Gaia, our mother earth. Antaeus was invincible while touching the earth, as Gaia protected him. While fighting him, Hercules discovered that Antaeus, whenever fallen to the ground, almost defeated, would rise back up, healed and more energized than before. In the end, Hercules defeated Antaeus because he held the giant up in the air, while Antaeus was losing his power, becoming like any mortal, so Hercules could kill him in the end. Had I, like Antaeus, lost contact with the source of my life and was now going to lose my power? Was I going to be defeated in everything, just because I wasn’t touching the land I was born on anymore?
            The truth was, I didn’t feel comfortable in the New World. I had thought that it would be nothing else than some sort of a Western Europe just a bit farther away—how one can be wrong! Everything was different, unexpected, and vaguely threatening. Ladybugs, I noticed, were orange, while in Europe they have a deeper reddish hue. In the fall, trees turned intense red, orange, and purple, while back home they stayed within tamer ranges of yellow and rust. Sweet potatoes, peanut butter, maple syrup, corn bread, tortillas—all these foods hinted at a different life system, here for thousands of years, different from everything I had encountered so far.
            From the outside—and I was a complete outsider at that point—the locals themselves, as far as I could tell, exhibited an ongoing discomfort at being here, one that they didn’t seem to notice. They never treaded the earth, but drove huge terrain vehicles, as if ready to conquer any land that had not been asphalted yet; they lived in houses whose windows never opened; chemical smells replaced the fresh air from outside; and plasticky foodstuffs in bright packages filled the aisles of supermarkets. It looked like they were spending a considerable amount of time to avoid the reality of the place piercing through some comfortable fantasy that they were other people doing something else in a different place that was nicer and cleaner. It felt as if nature was out to get them, and in order to prevent that hostile overtake they surrounded themselves with chemical lawns, landscaped bushes and trees never more than ten years old, miles and miles of asphalt, and ingeniously padded objects.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

“The Land of the Free”


            I never thought of myself as an immigrant, not until recently. I thought I was an academic / writer / public intellectual crossing borders, writing, doing research, going back and from Romania to the US and back and, most of the time, living in a country that was so diverse and used to its diversity that accent and skin color didn’t matter as long as you worked hard and got along with everyone else.
            Somehow, at the end of my bios that I had to submit for conferences or publications, the phrase “originally from Romania” made its way. And once I heard myself say, in a faculty meeting, “as an immigrant woman,” which kind of scared me. I didn’t think I was an immigrant. I thought I was a hip academic who happened to have an accent and a Romanian passport.
            Yet after ten years of teaching and writing, after living in New York, Texas, Michigan, and New Jersey, teaching more than a thousand students in the process, struggling very hard to get an academic job, and even getting some two-year positions, it gradually dawned upon me that I’m not a tourist, I’m not visiting, that I actually live here, work here and work hard for that matter, and that the locals, from my students to the USCIS, do think that I’m an immigrant, a newcomer in a long series of arrivals, someone who has given up being in the country of their birth in order to be here, the land of the free.
            Ok, fine, but what do they have to say about it? At the beginning of every course I teach, one of my students usually informs me that they can’t stand it when immigrants come to the United States and then criticize their country. They also say that the US is the land of the free and that in the US people have freedoms they don’t have in other countries. Usually it’s students who have never traveled abroad who say that.
            Now I agree that counting who has how many freedoms where is a tough question to answer. But my student are right in a way: in the United States, we talk about freedom a lot. The United States does pride itself in its national identity, like every nation should, and it defines its national identity as “the land of the free”. In contrast, Romania never thought of itself as “the land of the free.” If anything, they would call it “the land where Romanians can be free,” given that Romanians had been dominated by Turks, Russians, and Hungarians from the Middle Ages on.
            So it’s all fine so far, we can call the United States “the land of the free”, but that sets it up high and at some point or another the US has to respond to such lofty expectations. And it does at times and it tried to do so, in an honest way, many times in its history. Like for example during Radical Reconstruction, when the South experienced one of the most progressive “interracial democracies”, or during the 1960s, when women gained new freedoms, or more recently, by attempting, again honestly, to expand the definition of marriage.  
            But that begs the question, how should we define freedom? Is it “freedom from” you name it—government interference in private matters, government regulations, taxes, ideological control, etc.? According to John Dewey, American philosopher, that would be freedom defined as a negative concept, freedom defined as the absence of something.  
            Or should it rather be freedom, defined as a positive concept this time, to do what makes us happy (provided it doesn’t hurt someone else), freedom to thrive, freedom to be healthy and generous and creative and freedom to make sure that everyone has opportunities to do the same?
            I’d love to live in a country like that.           

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Resisting Translation

            I’m a good immigrant. Seriously. I do my best to blend in. I have a deep respect for place, language, culture—when I lived in Budapest for a year, I tried to learn Hungarian; good luck trying to learn Hungarian in a year! But I diligently studied prepositions added at the end of the noun and nouns that changed their last syllable according to the preposition added and made choppy sentences with all that.
            Living in the US for ten years, you can guess, I give my bookishness free reins. I get a doctorate in American Studies (once someone remarked, “Well, this is the right place to do that!”). I read as much as I can on American history. I check English words in my etymological dictionary: hood and house come from the same root, according to the Chambers, a Germanic word that signifies “cover.” How important is that?
            Yet my Romanianness sneaks up on me at the most unexpected moments. I don’t know where I read about hybrid identities and how immigrant people manage their multiple identities etc. I don’t manage that well. It’s more like I’m controlled by foreign forces. They come and seize me when I’m not aware.
            Like for example when I answer the phone and say Alo! Instead of Hello!
            Like when I explain an assignment to a student and all of a sudden, in my speech, Romanian words mix with English ones. “You only missed one class and in the syllabus it says you can miss up to two without grade penalty, prin urmare you don’t need to worry about it.” I wonder how my student hears it. Are foreigners supposed to babble anyway?
            Like when I get angry and my accent becomes stronger and all of a sudden I can’t find English words, right when I need them the most.
            Like when I count in Romanian—sorry, can’t do two things at the same time, count and speak a foreign language, it’s either one or the other. To the bank teller it must seem like I’m whispering charms over twenty dollar bills.
            Like when I apologize too much, or say thank you when there’s nothing really to thank someone for, I just like that person and I say thanks to mask my happiness.
            And these are situations when I know it. How many other times do I act Romanian, speak Romanian, betray myself as being from somewhere else, perform my foreignness in perhaps disruptive ways?
            But what is my fantasy here? That indeed I can control my worlds, prevent them from seeping undetected into one another, crossing the mental border between “I am here” and “I was there”? Maybe I fear that, unbeknownst to me, I’m functioning according to rules that have changed since I last took a serious look at them, as if I’m playing a game of soccer and halftime has passed and the teams have switched halves but I still don’t know it yet, and I’m running triumphantly with the ball toward the net, about to score a goal, and it’s too late when I realize that it’s my own team’s net and I’ve just scored for the other team?
            This whole experience of living away from the country where I was born, under very different circumstances, makes me realize at a very deep level how much we’re a product of our worlds, how what we believe, expect from life, celebrate and eat all depend on how we spent the first twenty years of our lives. But then, what should I keep? What should I actively try to lose? Here's what's frightening: it doesn't completely depend on me.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Migration, Poverty, and Food

I arrived in Buffalo, NY, in August 2001, to go to graduate school. The first three days I spent at one of my professors’ apartment, a penthouse overlooking the impoverished Buffalo downtown. It struck me as a town of sharp contrasts and sharp winters. Nothing seemed to be in the middle, everything white or black, old, very rich and decaying or young and extremely poor. Where did I belong? I found out soon enough after learning about the many deductions from my $8,000 a year teaching assistant’s stipend.
            That first week, from my professor’s penthouse, I walked to a train station, six or seven blocks away. Used to living in Europe and walking downtown and pretty much everywhere—I didn't need a car in Europe and I couldn’t afford a car in the US—it didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the presence of extreme poverty just a block away from the fashionable area with interwar buildings inhabited by middle-class professionals.
            At a street corner, already in the “bad” area that as I learned later my colleagues who had cars avoided, there was a neighborhood food store owned by a Middle Eastern family. That was my first experience buying food in the United States. Everything was canned and dusty, the sloping floors were covered with ancient linoleum, the smell of some disinfectant detergent made me sneeze. In the end I picked up some cheese, wanting to reward my professor’s hospitality. I wanted to make an omelet. The cheese turned out to be Monterey Jack and, for my tastes at that time, uneatable. My professor, shocked yet amused, explained to me “what horrible things they were doing to cheese”—that’s how she put it—and then two days later took me shopping to a nice smelling shop with bright windows, a young good looking sales person, and carefully wrapped cheeses and jars of olives that cost as much as some of the books I needed to buy—another expense I had failed to calculate out of my meager TA paycheck.
            Then I found a room in a house and I started cooking at home. I dreaded the foreignness of it all. Everything tasted different, even the milk: whether Vitamin D enhanced or the simple 2%, it tasted as if it had been made out of powdered milk, not as if it came from a cow. Bread was different too—either the prohibitively expensive baguettes or the prepackaged stuff, which I once tried to eat untoasted and regretted it. Why did bread have to be sweet? Where were the regular bakeries that poor people could afford, so that they could eat bread, real bread with crust and middle, and not… and not… this? And why were tomatoes so expensive—that was poor people’s food back in Romania, everyone had tomatoes, with everything, they were cheap, you could grow them in your backyard—and why, and why please someone tell me, even when these tomatoes were so expensive, why is it that they didn’t have any taste, just a pale color and a slippery yet hard texture that made me think of seafood?
            And why did it bother me so much?
            “But of course,” an anthropology professor said to me, “it’s normal, it’s food, the ground of your identity.” I thought about this for a long time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Politics of Emotions

            I want to write about the emotions that exist in political issues and about the politics of my emotions.
            Can I be an artist committed to social justice? Not in a socialist realist sense, of course: Ben Shahn, painted, photographer, and muralist, once criticized Diego Rivera for depicting workers stereotypically, “with heavy wrists.” I’m looking for art that doesn’t eschew the complexity of human experience in order to make a political point, because life always exceeds any depictions of right and wrong.
            This being said, all human experience does have a moral dimension—looks like I’m using moral and political interchangeably here. For me, art that doesn’t to a certain extent “make a point”, or even worse, is not aware of the arguments it does make, isn’t good art.
            The politics of emotions: I was nine and my little brother was four and my mother worked until four pm everyday. In exchange for a sum that my mother at times complained about, an elderly neighbor came to our apartment, heated up our lunch for us, and waited while we ate. She lived in the same apartment building, with her daughter and her son-in-law, who in turn had two daughters. I think she must have wanted a son, or at least a grandson, because my little brother could get away with murder in her presence; he was four, but she spoonfed him his lunch, voluntarily. At times, he’d just refuse to eat, and she’d wait patiently until he finished playing with his toys. Once he gave her a card he had made for her birthday: “My sunshine!” she exclaimed with a lot of emotion, then she wiped off a tear from the corner of her eye.
            I could never elicit this kind of response. Months of good behavior, helping out with the dishes etc. could barely receive approval: tanti Eleonora wasn’t actually very expressive emotionally and I never saw her very effusive around her own granddaughters. But there were more than actions at play there: there were emotions, and hers gravitated toward the young male.
            The politics of emotions (2): once my friend Cristina asked me whether I had noticed that people (back home) loved women only if they were really unhappy—if they could say poor X, she has three small children and her husband deserted her and now she’s about to lose her job, or poor Y, who has cancer and her husband drinks and what’s going to happen to her now… it seemed, according to Cristina, that everyone loved unhappy women in terrible life situations not of their own making. That was one way women could get social approval back home.
            Are things any different here?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Feminist (2)

            I became a feminist in my early twenties. I was a student at the University of the West, Timisoara (that’s in Romania), and I was studying literature and languages. It was the early 90s. In my Romanian literature classes, made up of twenty-five women and at times one or two men, I learned, from male professors, that women can’t write Great Novels. There was a female novelist, Hortensia Papadat Bengescu (the Romanian equivalent of Virginia Woolf) whom we studied and who actually had written great novels… and our professors told us that she had had a very, very unhappy life. When Virginia Woolf herself was mentioned, everyone reminded us about her suicide. In other words: writing is so bad for women, it makes them suicidal.
            I was then reading Christa Wolf’s Cassandra too, one feminist book available among shelves and shelves of theory of literature, linguistics, history, novels, so many novels, most of them written by male authors of course. Out of one hundred books I read every four or five months, let’s say less than ten were by women, and I almost expected that the author’s femaleness would carry into her writing, the mark of their gender giving an indelible aura to the printed word: this was written by a woman. I almost expected the black ink to ripple: what would this woman have to say that it would be so different? and of course, it was up to the male professors to prove, immediately after the word was read, that it was… well, insufficient, different, charming perhaps at first but soon revealing some mysterious flaw emanating from the gender of the writer. 
            One of my professors once told me, about a modern Romanian (guy) writer, that the said writer had been complimented—by women, no less!—that he understood female psychology better than any woman could. In other words, why should women write at all?
            But I still owe it to another male professor (who taught Comparative Literature) with whom I once shared this story and talked about Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf and he suggested, for my senior thesis, to write about feminist literary criticism. It was the early nineties, after all, and he was perhaps more attuned to what was going on beyond the parochial borders of our country that had for more than two decades shut itself off from foreign cultures.
            After a tour through libraries around the country, I assembled a bibliography that included Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Toril Moi, Elaine Showalter… I agreed and disagreed with all. I had finally found my books.
            But more about this later.