Victoria Jelinek


December 11, 2018 IV – Identity

My identity was a big issue when I was a teenager, and I had a lot of questions, like: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Who do I belong to?’ But when I was still quite young, I decided that belonging is a tough process in life, and I’d better say I belonged to myself and the world rather than belonging to one nationality or another. Hiam Abbass

thirdcultureI feel great sentiment for the land in which I was born, the USA. I feel pride that I’m from the state of Oregon, and I appreciate my childhood there as something rather exotic to my present reality, and I’m grateful for it. But I also feel sentimental about the other countries I’ve lived in – Scotland, England, France – and empathy with other countries that I’ve known well, Denmark and Germany. Each of them in their unique ways approximates my notion of “home,” which I define as where you feel a sense of familiarity and love. However, I don’t feel nationalistic about any of these countries, meaning that I don’t believe one is ‘better’ than another, or feel prouder with my affiliation with one country over another–I appreciate each of them in different ways, just as I’m also critical of each of them. Even so, I’m identified as an American – with all of its constructs and connotations – everywhere I go because my accent defines who I am for others. This, despite my peripatetic background, or the fact I’m also a naturalized French woman, and even as I don’t share the values, ideas, and desires most Americans have faith in, such as the American Dream.

That said, any latent Yankee tendencies in me – forthrightness, warmth, enthusiasm, and the propensity to vomit my life story upon meeting someone – came to the fore when I moved to France. Over thirteen years in London, with no American friends, had prompted me to be more polite, more discreet, more modest, and dryer in my humour. In France, being direct, even confrontational, and more opinionated, seems appreciated by the natives. I’m not sure if this dormant Yankee in me came to the fore because I moved from England, a country in which I shared the language, to being a complete outsider linguistically in France and, therefore, I reverted back to my American manners once England was not influencing me daily. Or whether American and French comportment compatibility, as well as a shared, allied history, instinctively felt more complementary than English and French. What I have discovered over the last nine years in France, as I observe how people speak to me, or behave towards me, is that a person’s perception of an American and the USA, can loosely be classified into four distinct types:

The first are those that are automatically and openly hostile to me because I’m a foreigner. This includes the English expatriates who have disdain for Americans (always the case, not because of Trump and his administration).

There’s the pseudo political sophisticate. They think they’re well travelled because they’ve travelled outside of Europe, read some news, enjoy film and television, and speak two languages. In discussion, these folks will proffer an opinion on American politics that is extremely critical, not particularly discerning, and then apologize to me for saying whatever they’ve said as though I’m personally responsible for American society and its politics or I hold these views myself.

True sophisticates exist. They are those who have lived in a few countries, perhaps had a few long time lovers or spouses from countries other than their own, and consider another person’s nationality only as information for a contextual perspective of a given person. I’ve learned a great deal from their example, too, such as learning to deprioritize my own trigger response to a person’s nationality or accent. For example, not all English people are funny, nor do all Russians hide money.

The fourth type, though not so prevalent these days, is the wide-eyed American ideologue. They have holidayed in the USA or they’d LOVE to visit the USA, especially Disneyworld, New York, and Yosemite. They rave about how friendly Americans are. These folks regularly buy clothing and paraphilia with American slogans, flags, and iconic images that they think are “cool” or confirm their romantic image of the USA. They generally watch a lot of television, perhaps a few popular films, and aren’t “interested” in politics. They think it’s great that I’m a “Yank” but they’ll never see me as anything but this.

And, like most people, I imagine myself as unique and complicated, not simply relegated to a national identity because of my deeply entrenched accent. I’d prefer to have the reasonable judgement against me that I’m a shit mimic or lack any real talent for language acquisition.

All countries have their merits and demerits, but one (ideally) chooses to live in a place that suits your needs and values most. While I believe in the competition inherent in Capitalism, I think that without concerted regulation, enforcement, and fair taxation, it manifests into the perversion of inequality we see today. Capitalism is the bedrock of the USA, and what I’m about to say might mark me as a “red” or a “commie” to many stateside, which I’m not: I don’t believe your work defines who you are as a person. I believe ‘success’ is measured by the amount of time you have for leisure in relation to material needs having been met. I value reading books highly, and those that read them regularly are those that I believe are intelligent. I believe healthcare, access to a good public education, and safe housing are universal rights. I believe in modest portions of food at regular sittings, and I’m disdainful of fad diets. I believe in minimal consumption of goods, and collective conservation enforced by law. I believe smoking only kills the person doing it, and negative judgement about it indicates a type of puritanical moralism. Likewise regarding drinking.

Perhaps it was the influence of my educator activist parents who took me with them on their many travels and sabbaticals, and were  embarrassingly progressive throughout my life. Perhaps it has been the influence of my fair-minded husbands, German and Danish, respectively. Perhaps it’s that I read a lot. Perhaps its that I’ve lived, been educated, and worked in several countries over the entirety of my life and been influenced by a variety of people of all creeds, races, cultures, and nationalities. I’m not sure, but it’s a curious and sometimes frustrating phenomena when considered in light of rising nationalism throughout the world. If there is any nationalistic tendency in me (and please note that I’m suspicious of humanity regardless of origin) it’d be towards France. I deeply love French culture – its food, its literature, its history, its geography, its weather, its films, its general philosophy on life, and its approach to governance. However, even as I’m French in spirit and hold a French passport, I will never sound like a French person and consequently I won’t ever be truly accepted as one of them. I will always be l’étranger.

My son, however, who has neither my propensity towards self-absorption (other than the normal level accompanying his seven years), nor the tendency to “overthink,” has a slightly different reality. One parent is Danish, one is American French. He speaks Danish with his father, English with me, and French at school and during his extracurricular activities. Additionally, when he speaks English, he has a unique accent – he doesn’t pronounce his “th’s” as English speakers do, his vowels vary between the French as well as the English expatriate influences, yet his dialogue is interspersed with American idioms. Recently, a teacher of his called together eight little boys from his class, including my son, who had been harassing others on the playground in order to have a conversation with them about the similarities and differences between people and why we should appreciate these contrasts. She told me later that each of the boys, when asked what their respective nationalities are, adopted their parents’ nationalities: “I’m German,” “I’m Italian,” “I’m Swedish,” “I’m English,” etc., despite the fact that most of them had been born and were being raised in France. My son was the only one who said “I’m French.” Not Danish, as his father is, or American, as I am also, and despite holding these passports, too. France is the country he unequivocally identifies with. In fact, during the World Cup 2018, France was playing Denmark in one of the quarterfinal games and my son’s father wanted him to wear his Danish football costume. Being considerate, my son did so, but at one point, out of earshot of his father, he told me that he felt “strange” wearing Denmark’s uniform when he actually wanted France to win the game: “You see mommy, I don’t know Denmark or the USA…yes, I’ve been to these countries and I have family in these places, and that’s something, I know…but I really only know France…and I really want to wear France’s football uniform.”

Arguably, my son’s a potential nationalist and is being indoctrinated to France’s mores given his environment. But I doubt this, given his parentage and the perspectives that provides. And, I hope, he’ll live, study, and work in other countries, garnering more information and consequent insights than even I will have experienced because I do not have multiple languages natively. But my point remains: my son is viewed as a foreigner by the French given his parents, and viewed as a Dane or an American depending on who the (other) expatriate emigrant is, but he, himself, does not accept any of this. Similarly, I may have a strong American accent that creates the impressions and judgements of others about me, but this is not primarily how I see myself.

In the interest of exploring nationalism and identity, I’m going to start asking people how they define themselves & others and why – watch this space.

 

 



Homage to the USA

Patriotism is supporting your country all of the time, and your government when it deserves it. Mark Twain

USA flag_Jasper Johns.jpgI was born in Oregon and spent most of my childhood there. We fished for crawdads in mountain creeks during the summer, took inner-tubes down small rapids, climbed the trestles for the Great Western Pacific trains, biked everywhere through the fields and pastoral lands, with the gentle mountains in the distance. We ‘drag raced’ down Main Street on the weekends, saved money for the state fair and Turkey Rama, picked magic mushrooms in the forests, and went to Friday night football at the high school – not necessarily because of interest in the game, but because it was a community social event. My family regularly camped and hiked at Neskowin, Canon Beach, and Newport City, and ate clam chowder at “Mo’s.” I remember that my bright red feet from the cold of the Pacific Ocean would not deter me from playing in it. We grew up skiing on Mount Hood, and dining at a pizza barn near Government Camp, as well as hiking at Multnomah Falls and through the Cascades. Family holidays involved traveling in our VW van with a styrofoam mattress laid out in the back for we children, staying in Motel 6’s or KOA campsites. I remember that hanging our washing out to dry made it smell even lovelier after a rain, and lying on my back in order to look up at the leaves of the many ancient oak and maple trees on my family’s property (though raking them in the autumn was an onerous task). Badminton and croquet over a bumpy, rooty lawn. Trading candy with my siblings after the Halloween haul on the floor of our den. Thanksgiving as the only time my father would cook things simply.

Typical to a small town girl, I moved away as soon as I graduated from high school: first to Portland, then Seattle, then London, then New York, then Los Angeles, then Berlin, then back to London, then to France. I’ve now lived in Europe for a third of my life, and half of my adult life. I’m formally naturalizing as a French citizen on Thanksgiving this year (not through my own design, but because that’s what the Minister of Interior set as the date). I’ve always maintained that one place is not “better” than another place – they simply represent our different needs and desires at a given time in our life. The inherent values in Europe, of a safety net for the public, even as there are capitalistic markets, align with my personal values: healthcare for all, housing subsidies for those in need, mandatory WEEKS off of holiday, paid, per year, plus personal days, and free (or almost free) university education. Additionally, the pace of life is slower in Europe, and I appreciate this because I believe the frenetic pace of American life is debilitating and anxiety provoking for the populace.

Visiting the USA each year, keeping in close touch with my family, and assiduously reading the global news each day, means I have watched all the negative elements of my native society become exaggerated: workers not taking the minimal days off they have ‘cause they can’t afford to, or they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs; the employment figures being misrepresented, as many people have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet; there is no time for most Americans to simply rest, ‘cause they are always working, and stores and restaurants are always open, implicitly encouraging the people to consume more than they need; the cost of an emergency or a long term illness fells a person or a family who does not have adequate healthcare coverage; even as the USA has the most highly trained teachers in the world, they are paid the least and the public school system receives substantially less each year in federal funds than the penal system does; diets for most Americans are evidence of a cultural polarity – there are those that are hyper ‘healthy’ with diet and exercise, and those that are obese. Suffice to say, that the milieu that I want to live in is one in which there is a social safety net for those that pay their taxes (however nominal), and people are encouraged to have time to eat, think, and spend time with their families and friends.

That is NOT to say that I am not also in love with my native land, the USA. I love it and it hurts me personally when people criticize it, even as I may agree with them intellectually. For me, I think of my interesting, liberal childhood, the gorgeous and diverse nature of the land itself, its film, its music, its ingenuity in all things, and my heart fills with nostalgia, pride, and gratefulness. Even as I have lived abroad in tough times – the Reagan/Thatcher reign, the GATT Talks 1994, Bush Jr’s reign, to name a few – I have always been proud to be American ‘cause I believe there’s a certain ‘energy’ to us, both good and bad. But now, to see my beloved country so divided within itself, and so alienated from the rest of the world, truly breaks my heart and makes me feel ashamed of what it happening there.

The intolerance and loathing from both sides of the aisle – the fact that there ARE just two choices in American politics – is shockingly fierce and illiberal. To observe cynical, self-serving politicians capitalize on the American people’s personal fears and anxieties, encouraging tribalism, so that the people will be too busy infighting and creating scapegoats, that they will not notice what is happening to their land and their laws, is starkly shocking and sad. It’s as though all the goodness of the USA – its receptivity to new ideas, its consequent ingenuity, its warmth, its diverse and gorgeous cities, natural landscapes and wildlife – are succumbing entirely to its underside – blind ambition, greed, racism, anger, violence, and ignorance. My defense of my native land in conversation here usually goes along the lines of explaining the context for the current situation (the electoral college, the Southern Strategy, Super PACs, Fox News, and an effective smear campaign against Socialism as “commie” interests, the vast swaths of land effecting perspectives), but this falls deaf on European ears. Ironically, they seem to believe MORE in the idea of personal responsibility for one’s destiny socially and politically than Americans generally do, even as we are professed individualists. Even so, they will politely listen to my contextual explanations if the wine keeps flowing, then they predict that it’s simply a repetition of historical dominance of given countries, the fall of the Roman Empire, so to speak, and if there is any fear here, it’s that it will effect the world order ‘cause there will be no one to lead in global policies that monitor corruption, extortion, human rights infringements, and the need for clean energy. Lamentably, the USA and its leaders cannot be quarantined.

For the first time in history, Europeans know what a midterm election in the USA is and are paying attention. I’m pensive and worried today ‘cause I really don’t know what tomorrow’s vote will bring. I’m skeptical that despite all the noise, voters will NOT turn out in the droves that they need to in order to offset the gerrymandering and voter repression. I worry Trump, enabled by sociopathic ideologues like Pence, McConnell, and Ryan, will declare the results – IF they indicate congress will have a Democratic majority – as false and refuse to adhere to the vote of the citizens. My Danish husband says, “That’s impossible! That would be breaking the law, no?” I don’t know what to say to that. A president who has been accused of sexual harassment repeatedly, found fraudulent in his financial declarations and business endeavors, who has never revealed his tax returns publicly, who has been ‘caught’ telling as many as 200 lies in a single week publicly, whose administration has altered law and protocol to put two justices on the Supreme Court and push through over 50 more judges on the lower courts, and who has turned back clean air and clean water protections, food protections, and undermined national parks borders, caged children in privately profiting detention centers that refuse elected officials entry into them, and now has used the US military as an election gimmick to capitalize on his bases’ fears and racism (ostensibly declaring martial law)…well, it’s not inconceivable that he and the sitting GOP’s will just refuse to budge, no? What will the world do then? Perhaps it will be just the excuse to invade and topple this regime. But who could do it? China, Russia and Saudi Arabia have, together, the military might to take on the USA, but why would they do that when they have so much invested in the country? Alas…

Despite my worry and misgivings, I will try to believe that America will re assert itself as a land of hope for all. As the Marquis de Lafayette wrote about the USA after the French helped the Americans to overthrow the tyranny of the English: “Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.”

 

 

 

 



Polanski Exhibit in Paris

http://www.france24.com/en/20171030-france-roman-polanski-retrospective-sex-assault-allegations-paris-protest-cinema-weinstein

Chinatown_1It makes me frustrated and sad that feminist groups are protesting this retrospective of Roman Polanski’s work at La Cinémathèque Française in Paris. The exhibit is not about the man and allegations of sexual misconduct against him – it is about his filmmaking, and his films are masterpieces.

As an aside, for those interested in hearing details about his 1973 rape conviction in Los Angeles, the then-girl that Polanski raped supported a 2008 documentary that claimed there was judicial misconduct in the case, which may inform one’s opinion of the situation.

I am NOT defending assault or sexual harassment or sexual predators. I worked in Hollywood for ten years, and am not naive to the innuendos and injustices against women behind closed doors AND on the screen. It bothers me tremendously that I have to insert that disclaimer from the ‘get go’ in the hope of being listened to and not judged as a sexist or “traitor” myself. But sexism and misogyny exist in all fields and are insidious elements in every society. What I AM condemning is what seems to be a fevered frenzy at the moment. I AM condemning the lack of judiciousness on the part of the public. Allegations are ‘coming out of the woodwork’ about claims of hands on knees, or “inappropriate suggestions,” or implicit expectations, or “gropes,” from a variety of sources, which, in my opinion, undermines actual rape, assault, and battery and adds to a cacophony that is no longer really listened to, becoming, instead, part of an over-information storm akin to the environment depicted in A Brave New World. Why aren’t people being more critical about the recent barrage of sexual misconduct claims against celebrities and public figures? Why aren’t people considering the details, such as source, context, the current social climate (desire for celebrity status, however short lived, an age of “alternative facts” and moral perceptions entering popular “knowledge” and worse, politics, rising populism in the face of fear and a general sense of powerlessness, etc.).

Why aren’t we looking to the elements that create sexism and misogyny in the first place? I won’t even get into philosophical ruminations on the role of woman as “other” in society, but suggest concrete considerations: perhaps start with inequality in reproductive care, such as easy access to birth control or a safe abortion? Or inadequate financial help for single mothers? Or inequality in pay for the same work between men and women, as well as unequal opportunities to enter certain fields? Or inadequate practical support and protection for victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault? Or inadequate representation of women in politics, which, perhaps, comes down to inequality in campaign financing? Or inadequate protection for women during divorce, especially from powerful or abusive husbands? Why are we, instead, focusing on the language we use, and exhibits of artwork, and ‘crimes’ based on hearsay propagated by social media platforms whose only interest is in identifying and categorizing the parameters of our consumer behavior?
If we protest the work of a great filmmaker based on his personal life – the details of which have not been proven without a doubt in a court of law anywhere in the world (prompting the question as to whether there is real respect for the law), then soon, we’ll be pulling books from male authors that discuss a woman’s body in a sexual light, of which there are many. And films that objectify women, of which there are many. And if we begin going down that road, we must eliminate classic film and literature that perpetuates stereotypes about women, men, Germans, Russians, Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, the French, the Spanish, Arabs, or the Chinese. Why not watch them, read them, study and discuss them? Deconstruct and consider the context they were created in, and by whom, and the opinions and emotions they inspire in us now and ask “why” frequently. If we start censoring art and expression – which is what this is – then we will soon have a dull, moralistic, constrained society with little imagination motivated absolutely by fear and anger and, likely, suppressed violence. And meanwhile, there will be no difference in the real and practical source of inequality for women, which is, in my opinion, economic and representative inequality. We will have undermined it all in a great, drowning, cacophony without clarity of focus.

Personally, I would not want to live in a society such as this. In what I perceive to be a very worrying time politically, socially, and environmentally, I derive strength from film and literature of the past and present – their excellence gives me hope for and in humanity. And, critically speaking, Polanski’s canon of work is an example of the finest filmmaking.