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 Los Angeles

Los Angeles Reconsidered

When I moved to Los Angeles for professional reasons, I was prepared to dislike it intensely.  I brought with me from my native New York many unfavorable assumptions and negative stereotypes about California and Californians.  I believed that LA was full of self-absorbed, superficial people; a cultural wasteland that existed as a city but was really a sprawling suburb; a horizontal city rather than a vertical one.

Initially, LA met my low expectations: it is a sprawling wasteland with Wal-Marts and K-Marts next to small streets of cafes, shops, residences and strip malls; and there are so many Mercedes, Ranger Rovers, and Hummers that I thought that people were automatically given them once they attained a certain income.  I’d go to barbeques and have six-minute conversations with people I’d meet about what we each did for work and who would then offer to show me their headshots or resumes and get vacant-eyed when I changed the subject.  Working in the film industry, I discovered that it could be, as I had thought, self-absorbed, unjust, and harsh.

Then about a year into living there, I began to see LA differently: I started noticing that the desert life is beautiful and courageous; the succulents, such as the Joshua trees and cacti, are resourceful, keeping water in their hard, leaves and stems; the Oleanders grow beside the dirty highways without any encouragement; the vines of pink, red and purple flowers are everywhere; there are birds singing in every neighborhood, in palm, lemon and lime trees.  I started turning towards the dark, dusty hills that surround the city and took walks and horseback rides through them, seeing coyotes, skunks, and bobcats; and every time I’d come over a westward crest near the ocean, I’d find myself catching my breath with the first glimpse of the breaking waves.

CINEMA DISCOVERED

Buoyed by the city’s natural beauty, I started exploring further.

Cinema venues, of course, abound: there are the American Cinematheque and the NuArt, that run festivals from various countries and themed screenings in various genres; there is the El Capitan, where an organ player rises from the floor and plays while you’re being seated; there’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with its grand architecture and the footprints from the silver-screen actors of Hollywood to today’s superstars out front, combined with its supersonic sound and fine picture quality inside, is a movie cathedral.  There’s the Arclight, where ushers wear nametags with their favorite movie characters and introduce the films. There’s the Kodak Theater special screenings of classic movies and where the Oscar ceremony is held.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

There are free tennis courts everywhere, public pools for a dollar, and skating, bike-riding, and skateboarding activities along the long coastline from Malibu to Hermosa Beach.  Tolerable skiing is only an hour away, and good skiing is a five-hour drive through the desert. The desert is also great for camping and visiting motels and hotels hidden away in the Joshua tree forest, or near Barstow or Palm Springs, where there are natural aquifers allowing ranches and settlements to seem like oasis’.

EMIGRES AND EXILES

I saw anew the colorful contributions of immigrant Mexicans: murals everywhere, little stucco churches with tall, simple steeples, colorfully painted houses terraced into the hills of Silverlake and Echo Park, and I was fascinated by the fact that Mexican families use the parks on the weekends en masse, having picnics and playing games with their extended families.  I found a Korean town, a Japanese town, a China town, a Thai town, and an Armenian town, in each of which the people have retained their own culture’s foods, clothing, shops, and lifestyles, despite the inevitable move toward assimilation into the general culture, which is enhanced by this diversity.

Writers, directors, actors, migrated en masse to LA at the turn of the 20th century for a variety of reasons, and stayed. They still do. The long list is, in itself, a testimonial to the appeal, financially, symbolically, and topographically of Hollywood-Los Angeles.

Most people focus on the exploitive business practices of the many unprincipled executives in the film industry, which creates the negative stereotypes of LA, but there’s a well-developed infrastructure in the city, its highways, its airports, its businesses, its cultural scene, as well as the tropical climate.

THE PROMISED LAND

In time, I learned the subtle fact that Californians know and outsiders don’t: Hollywood and Los Angeles should be evaluated as two cities, which are separate but symbiotic.  I then learned the history of the region that put the present day city in context—a place of easy money and easy ways, a place that cashed in on gambler’s luck, first with the Franciscan padres finding artesian wells in the late 19th century that made the region a veritable Garden of Eden, then the Gold Rush to Northern California, the influx of oil Sheiks of the 1920’s in Southern California, and finally the boom of the film industry. All of these events carried out the theme of California as a place that promised the American ideal of riches. I considered the harsh reality of those working in film, and the “truth” of these stereotypes – it’s a difficult city to penetrate, because it seems to exist on the surface, but it does deserve to be considered more fully.

IN CONCLUSION

I was, and am, still aware that there’s a sharp contrast between the haves and have-nots in Los Angeles. And the sentiments I held when I first moved to Los Angeles – basically that it’s a cultural wasteland that exists as a city but is really a sprawling suburb – still holds truth. But it’s not the whole truth.

I’ve since moved to Europe, and I often think of California. It’s to its credit that it convinced this skeptic of its charms. So much so, that I become defensive when listening to many stereotypes about Hollywood-Los Angeles uttered by people in my adopted country (and despite having held them myself at one point!), especially statements about the negative television and film images exported to the rest of the world (but eagerly seized upon, I may add) as the sole purpose of the city and examples of its offerings.

It’s unfair to LA to cling only to the negative, to the stereotypes – LA has various storylines – urban and suburban sprawl, ‘high’ and popular culture, sun and sand, mountains and trees, diverse languages and people. It’s all of these wonderful and unexpected elements of the city, in contrast to the pretentious and often tawdry goings on, that function as a chorus, and sometimes principal character, in the story of LA.



Denmark: Copenhagen, the suburbs and beyond

Narrow 17th century apartment buildings, white-paned, in yellow, green, pink. Boats and ships. A stone mermaid. 1960’s suburban houses. White, low, thatch-roofed houses with tiny, narrow windows throughout the countryside. Churches with steeples dotting city and country. The Royal Guards, barracks, crown jewels, monarchy. A noble, honest history. Niels Bohr. Bikes, bike paths, lanes. Ponds, lakes and ocean. People swimming in cold seas. Jellyfish. Strong winds. Chill. Flat. Forests of Birch and Beech. Simple, elegant design. Bang & Olufsen, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen. High-concept boutiques and toy stores. Driving the speed limit. Mostly white. Mostly good-looking. Tall. Clean. Dull. New-looking cars. The happiest people in Europe. Julefrokost or Christmas lunch. Smørrebrød. Herring. Schnapps. Rice pudding. Tiborg’s yearly TV commercial. Food, services, clothes, expensive. Incomes high. Smoking indoors. Shoes off in the house. House-proud. Wood floors and good use of space. Fur coats. Tall. Large WWII style prams used by all. Strange letter combinations (Nyhavn?). Dogme 95. Great film directors. Movies subtitled, not dubbed.