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.

 

 

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Possibly Nationalistic, but…
August 19, 2017, 5:19 pm
Filed under: From the Soap Box | Tags: , , , , , ,

Jasper Johns FlagDear Rasmus,

I’m writing to you because it’s the medium in which I feel I can calmly explain my perspective and hopefully be listened to. While I have generally always agreed with your view of America and Americans – that they are (often) materialistic, wasteful, entitled, nationalistic, and spoiled – I don’t agree with your recent hard stance that the US and its citizens are not “worth” considering seriously anymore. Your saying this frustrates and hurts me.

Like you, I think that we are witnessing something in the USA akin to the fall of Rome, a state that has grown too corrupt to sustain itself anymore as it is. And, I, too, have lost much faith in the people of the USA since Trump’s election. I suspect that his brand of boorishness, misogyny, racism, stupidity, and aggression is very attractive to more people in the USA than I care to admit, and this is disheartening and scary. Moreover, the recent march of Nazi’s & white supremacists down the street of one of its cities has exposed the terrible fact that at its core, America is racist & violent. A fact that makes me sick to my stomach with grief, even as it does not surprise me.

However, to say “Americans voted him in,” and “Americans wanted him and like him…” is not to consider the context of the states or this particular situation, facts, and nuances. Furthermore, it exposes your ignorance about my country, which alarms and upsets me (and you can’t counter that I don’t know much about your country – I do historically, and you must admit it does not play as large a part on the global stage as the US does, thereby creating more opportunities for exposure to it, some superficial knowledge of it, and consequently an opinion of it). Yes, the electoral college is the way that the US runs its election, but it’s an antiquated system that does not at all reflect the popular vote – quite the opposite both in its historical inception and its objectives at the time, and at present, because HRC won the popular vote by a large percentage and still lost the election. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that Americans wanted Trump in the White House. This is further exacerbated by the fact that 29% of the population didn’t vote – which I find irresponsible and terrible, too – and they were mostly on the left side of the gamut. They shortsightedly and ideologically didn’t want to “vote for the lesser of two evils.” Also, there are PACS that are financed by conservative individuals and organizations that give huge amounts of money to GOP campaigns because they are ideologically and fiscally driven and ultimately run the current political narrative. Yes, this reflects a rotten state of affairs, but it also means that it’s very, very difficult for a Democratic candidate (much less a third-party candidate) to run independent of corporate and conservative interests. Finally, there is voter suppression and gerrymandering, which are technically illegal, but these are laws that GOP members have consistently violated and are constantly being called out for doing so to no avail, as yet. To add further complexity, there is mounting evidence that there was collusion with a foreign government to influence the outcome of this last presidential election.

Therefore, to say, too simply, that the American people “obviously” want Trump in office, and to any retort or proffered information on the subject, to arbitrarily respond that it’s a morally corrupt country that “deserves” to fail, as do its people for “allowing” this state of affairs, is to bely a lack of true understanding of the context and the insidiousness of the multi-faceted obstacles to fair election processes in the USA which I have outlined above. By refusing to accept these facts, it appears that you are ready to assume the worst and are hoping for mayhem and tragedy in order to “show” the Americans how “bad” they are, etc. Which in turn hurts my feelings because it reflects an emotional response I sense is born of resentment, and given your intimacy with me, I can’t help but take this personally.

Since Brexit last year, then the Trump “victory,” then the nail-biting race to presidency between Macron and Le Pen, I have felt closer to you because I have discovered that people and their political beliefs are not what they seem. Otherwise “normal” and intelligent friends and acquaintances I have had have surprised me by being pro-Brexit, or pro- Trump, or pro-Le Pen. Seemingly liberal English friends living in Europe who raise their families in the EU, work and profit in and from the EU, have believed Brexit is the “best choice” due to misplaced nationalism and their extended families frustrations in the UK. American people living in Europe, raising families, working and profiting in and from the EU, have supported Trump because of tax breaks for their families, erroneous ideas about the “communist” aspect of Obamacare, or they have simply not voted for the aforementioned reasons. And in France, friends who seem to appreciate the cosmopolitan influence of the expatriate community, and the money and the livelihood that it brings to our home, suddenly ‘busted out’ with pro nationalistic fervor and the belief that France should close its borders and leave the EU. In the wake of this, I have found very few people who seem to be authentically liberal – inclusive, thoughtful, farsighted, global in perspective, with no hint of racism, sexism or xenophobia – and you are one of them. This fact has made me appreciate you more and to be grateful for your friendship and your (generally) liberal and global values and perspectives.

Until now. By explicitly stating that America is “not worth saving” and Americans are entitled, horrible, narrow-minded, faddists, etc., you are insulting me. I am not like this. I am thoughtful, bright, curious, kind, generous (obviously modest), and it was an American environment that raised me. Doesn’t it follow that it can’t be all bad? Nor can my loved ones in the USA be all bad. Not to mention its artists, writers, filmmakers, philosophers, political leaders, and the great entrepreneurial and scientific minds that have been, and are, American. Additionally, since Trump took office, the American people have successfully battled back an encroachment on healthcare, environmental protections, a Muslim ban, and now against white supremacy, with relentless protests, rallies, donations of time and money, calls and letters to newspapers and their congressional leaders – by unrelentingly fighting for the ‘fair’ and ‘just’ cause despite the odds, which are a house and a senate full of GOP members and a president and a cabinet prepared to do anything to erase Obama’s era of leadership. That’s impressive. Have the Brits rallied against the mess of Brexit, the debacle of their situation and the confusion of their leaders? The French almost voted in a fascist and they don’t speak out/protest/rally against or around anything unless it’s a threat to their working or social benefits. No person or country is perfect. Give due respect where it is deserved, and it is deserved by most of my countrymen and by me.

Consideration and judiciousness is also deserved on behalf of my son, who is (part) American (and it’s not all the “bad” parts). He is affected by your comments about Americans because he likes you very much and he hears everything. Your comments confuse him, and make him feel defensive on behalf of his mother. I know that you’re frustrated and upset by a few American clients you have had over the summer who were atrociously rude and ungracious and that this has colored your perspective. But don’t let it. For my sake as well as for your own.

With love,

Victoria