“You can’t really understand foreigners until you are one,” Rich remarked to me today.
Instantly my mind was flooded with memories from more than a dozen years ago when we were new residents of Spain. Like most transplants, we worked like dogs (or perros as I had to remember to call them) to come to grips with our new language. Our classmates were twentysomething Europeans who already spoke five languages and found Spanish almost laughably easy to absorb. We, on the other hand, had the unwelcome experience of feeling like complete and utter dunces (bobos) in scenes like this:
Teacher, holding up a flash card: “¿Que hace ella?” (What is she doing?)
Me, after a long pause: “¿Cepilla su pollo?” (Brushing her chicken?)
Rich, after a longer pause: “¿Camino su pelo?” (Walking her hair?)
Being a foreigner is incredibly hard work, and there are countless cultural tripwires. Women in my painting class held an intervention about my hair, which they felt should be “happier,” and they let me know my painting (simple, representational stuff) was “too creative.” At first I was offended by these remarks, but then I realized that they were cluing me in about survival in a more conformist society. If I wanted to belong, I should have massive, frilly hair with blonde highlights and paint conventional copies of approved prints of second-rate impressionist works. I was striving mightily to integrate into Spanish society, and I was very fond of these women, but even for them I could not embrace big hair and bad art.
So I can tell you from personal experience that for foreigners, it's a tricky business balancing the desire to fit in with the need to be true to yourself. And it’s easy to criticize the results if you’ve never tried to do it. In response to my recent post, Do Immigrants Make America Less American? someone wrote this on my Facebook page (using this spelling and punctuation):
People youst to come here to beee. Americans. Now to many come here just for financial gains. Its whats in your heart that makes an american. People need to assimilate. To our. Culture. Not vice versa
Actually, if you look at the historical record, financial gain is the number one reason most people originally came to our shores. From the beginning, “the drive to colonize the Americas was almost entirely economic,” says Reference.com. To bolster productivity, between 1501 and 1866 more than 300,000 African men, women, and children were kidnapped and forced into slavery in the New World. The second major wave of Europeans arrived between 1815 and 1865, and while some were seeking religious freedom, most were motivated by economic necessity, including millions impoverished by the Great Irish Potato Famine. Want to know why people come to America? Follow the money.
And is it really “whats in your heart that makes an american”? I grew up in a nation that cherished personal freedom, social responsibility, respect for the law, generosity to the less fortunate, and the right to practice whatever faith you chose. And yet we’re now a nation where hate crimes are on the rise — up by double digits in seven major cities. The FBI reports hate crimes against Muslim-Americans have jumped 67% in the past year. Comparing this winter to last, New York City’s anti-Semitic hate crimes have increased 189%. Last week I wrote about people who burst into an 8-year-old’s birthday party to shout racial death threats at that little girl and her friends and family. Should we view the perpetrators of such crimes as un-American? Do we re-define what it means to be American? Or is it time to take steps to stop the madness?
Understanding our own homeland — let alone other people’s — isn’t always easy. I just learned that Joseph Stalin once said, “Gaiety is among the most outstanding features of the Soviet Union.” Wow, I didn’t see that coming! And here’s another shocker: contrary to what many in the USA believe, most people around the world love their birthplace and don’t have the slightest desire to become Americans — or even to become more like Americans. They have their own views on everything from gun laws to religious freedom to race relations, and they certainly aren’t looking to America for moral guidance. Living in a foreign country, you are a minority in a community where everybody is operating from a belief system you know almost nothing about.
And that’s what makes living abroad so fascinating. You find yourself gaining fresh perspective on everything from Palestine to the media to whether the proper low cholesterol diet revolves around red wine, dark chocolate, and high-quality ham (as my Spanish doctor advises). Of course, it’s a two-way street, and I share my foreign viewpoint with local friends. Lately, they’ve all been asking what happened in the last American election. Where do I start? Although I attempt to frame things in a rational context, I suspect that’s one facet of American culture that will forever remain as baffling to them as my inability to embrace bad art and big hair.
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I'm an American travel writer currently living in California.
My weekly updates contain tips for keeping our mental equilibrium and living more authentically during these turbulent times.