Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Where Do I Belong?

The title question was crucial to me through my adolescence and young adulthood. In response to Chani's post of a few days ago, I'm willing to do a little archeology of the soul -- the Greek ψυχή (psyché), not the Latin anima -- in public.

Because my father happened to leap in the 1940s from political prisoner to government official, in one of those tales that was all too common for Latin Americans of his generation, I am the most accidental of native New Yorkers.

Thereafter I grew up in a number of countries. By the age of 8 I had been exposed to five languages, of which I now speak and write two indistinguishably, two more with many grammar and pronunciation mistakes and one, German, just to enough to ask for the bathroom, sing Deutschland Über Alles and occasionally to answer the phone in a faux command tone, "Achtung!" (It sure throws off the sales callers.)

"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse," the Belgian-born Charles the V of Germany and I of Spain is reputed to have remarked on the subject of languages.

Growing up with many languages has its drawbacks as well as advantages. A boyhood friend whose mother was Latin American and father Czech ceased talking altogether at about the age of five. He only began again once his family followed the advice of a psychologist to speak to him only in one language, English, since they were in the United States.

Of course, Czech is an utterly baffling language that looks Western but has no obvious cognates -- taxi, restaurant, etc. -- to the speaker of Western European languages. No wonder my friend had this problem. My sons grew up monolingual, due in part to my recollection of that experience.

Another side of languages is that you're always translating and making puns across linguistic barriers so that only childhood trilingual friends can get your jokes. Adding Latin and Greek to the melange makes meaning come together. Words carry customs and history. You can guess at the meaning of almost any Western word.

From about the age of 7 to 10 or 12 I could barely finish a sentence in one language before switching somewhere in the middle, so that I really spoke in macaronic until monolingual teachers browbeat me into speaking one language per mental paragraph at least. Now I do this habitually, switching only when my interlocutor switches -- or for fun, verstehen Sie? The same goes for manners, foods, customs, national perspectives and so forth.

Somewhere in the middle of my adolescence, however, I found myself feeling stranded in many ways that are beside the point here, in another country. In my journals I spoke of myself as an "exile."

Gradually, I became convinced that my life would only come together when I moved back to New York City, where I would be met with open arms by my childhood friends, a Henry Mancini film score playing in the background as the yellow cab went from JFK to Manhattan. Add the closing-circle transition to the end title. The End. Das Ende. Fine.

Naturally, you guessed, it didn't work. Life is what happens when you had other plans, isn't it? This is how I ended up going to university in Canada -- which became my country, in the sense that I alone in my family "discovered" it.

In fact, I recall listening to the radio in Montreal, watching the snow come down -- what else? -- as Helen Reddy belted out "I Am Woman." I was so convinced she was balladeering about Canada -- at the time, separation between Quebec and the anglophone provinces seemed imminent -- that I heard "I Am One," as if she were riffing on Gordon Lightfoot's "Nous Vivons Ensemble."

OK, Canadians, enjoy this. Picture the Beaver, the Maple Leaf and a bottle of Labatt (I preferred Brador), then think of the following words describing your country:
Oh yes I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am O-o-o-o-ne
Apologies to Helen Reddy, wherever she is. O Canada! Terre de nos aïeux ...

All this, in sum, goes to say that I'm agnostic concerning the idea that living in a particular country makes you happy. At least it's not my experience.

True: because of my choice of the United States, I was spared horrifying political and economic times endured by many with whom I went to secondary school in my parents' homeland. I also find North American English to be an economical, precise tongue in which I can more or less organize my craziness. Spanish is less so, certainly not a good language in which to philosophize.

I feel I am in every sense a U.S. American, although I am a little Canadian and European and Latin American, too.

But I also lost a whole emotional range that is not understood in the anglophone world as anything but insane. A couple of years ago I fell madly in love with a woman from Argentina because I felt a part of me touched that had never been touched before. It was a temporary fever. Yet it spoke to the existence of a whole personal subcontinent.

U.S. Americans sometimes see a "Latin" in me and Latin Americans see a Yanqui. I know I am really neither -- and both. I am a citizen of the republic of me, a nation without a territory, much the way many Jews found themselves until 1948.

What if I had ended up elsewhere? I did live abroad as an adult. It didn't make much of a difference. I always carried me and my neuroses with me.

So it really doesn't matter where you are. It only matters who you are. Sometimes only the state of your liver matters.
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