Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language

Yes, I know this isn't one of our books, but I've become so used to writing about the books I read on here that I just couldn't help myself, and this book has so many interesting points. To give you some background, this is the memoirs of Eva Hoffman who emmigrated to the U.S. when she was thirteen from Poland in 1959. Her family was Jewish and her parents had barely survived WWII (the tidbits she tells about them are the most gut-wrenching parts). The whole book is her reflections on what it is like to adopt a new culture and language. Very good for the most part, but completely pretentious at other times. She ended up going to Rice University, then Yale, and then Harvard and became an editor at the New York Times.

Mostly though I just wanted to record some of my favorite quotes. Read if you wish...

"Once in New York, I met a Russian artist who tried to explain to me why his compatriots are so despondent when they get to America. Like most self-respecting Russian artists who end up emigrating, he was a pretty active dissident. And yet, he told me, his eyes filling with revealing fire, he felt convinced that Russia was the greatest--really, the only--country in the world. "We defeated the Germans in the war, we had the greatest literature in the world, we had the greatest culture. It was such a pride," he said intently. I looked back intently, trying to understand. National pride? It seems, for our globe, a terribly old-fashioned sentiment. I hardly know what it means.
No, I'm no patriot, nor was I ever allowed to be. And yet, the country of my childhood lives withing me with a primacy that is a form of love. It lives within me despite my knowledge of our marginality, and its primitive, unpretty emotions...All it has given me is the world, but that is enough. It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me the colors and furrows of reality, my first loves. The absoluteness of those loves can never be recaptured: no geometry of the landscape, no haze in the air, will live in us as intensely as the landscapes that we saw as the first, and to which we gave ourselves wholly, without reservations."

I loved this description, it so accurately describes how I feel for Canada. I think since I left so young I've romanticized it immensely, but still what I remember is so vivid and remains the most beautiful and inviting place to be. Perhaps because I only associate it with good times, vacations and visits and relaxing.

"Immigrant energy, admirable name though it has gained for itself, does not seem a wholly joyful phenomenon to me. I understand the desperado drive that fuels it. But I also understand how it happens that so many immigrant Horatio Algers overshoot themselves so unexpectedly as they move on their sped-up trajectories through several strata of society all the way to the top. From the perspective outside, everything inside looks equally impenetrable, from below everything above equally forbidding. It takes the same bullish will to gain a foothold in some modest spot as to insist on entering some sacred inner sanctum, and that insistence, and ignorance, and obliviousness of the rules and social distinctions--not to speak of "your own place"--can land you anywhere at all. As a radically marginal person, you have two choices: to be intimidated by every situation, every social stratum, or to confront all them with the same leveling vision, the same brash and stubborn spunk. I too am goaded on by the forked whip of ambition and fear, and I derive strength--a ferocity, a puissance--from the sense of my responsibility, the sense that survival is in my own hands."

While I agree with her in some of this--mainly that the sense of fear probably goads a lot of immigrants to work hard, in discussing it with Leo he disagreed to the main point. He thinks (as an immigrant himself) that the different social strata are very apparent and that only someone completely unaware of social context could fail to see the varying levels of society and the increased difficulties in entering a higher level vs a lower level.

"Nobody gives you your identity here, you have to reinvent yourself every day. He is right, I suspect, but I can't figure out how this done. You just say what you are and everyone believes you? That seems like a confidence trick to me, and not one I think I can pull off. Still, somehow, invent myself I must. But how do I choose from identity options available all around me? I feel, once again, as I did when facing those ten brands of toothpaste--faint from excess, paralyzed by choice."

This is what bothers me the most about the author, one of the themes of her book is finding her identity in a new plane of existence. She imagines all the time of what her life in Poland would have been and can't seem to bring her reality around to the fact that what she grew up believing her life would be is now no longer possible. I think she's a bit absurd and pretentious. To me, instead of some immigrant angst, it seems she just doesn't know what she wants, which could happen to anyone. How could she be so lacking in identity, you are what you are. Even if I moved to another culture in say, Poland, I would still now my goals, values, principles... self. Blah. She gets annoying.

(After her childhood best friend commits suicide as an adult--he had immigrated to Israel as a teenager, just FYI.)
"But sometimes, I think of him and Zofia and myself, and others like us I know, as part of the same story--the story of children who came from the war, and who couldn't make sufficient sense of the several worlds they grew up in, and didn't know by what lights to act. I think, sometimes, that we were children too overshadowed by our parents' stories, and without enough sympathy for ourselves, for the serious dilemmas of our lives, and who thereby couldn't live up to our parents' desire--amazing in its strength--to create a new life and to bestow on us a new world."

I found her parents' stories the most poignant part (her dad carrying her mother on his back for miles and miles to a new hide out because she was to weak to walk after having a miscarriage; her father's sister being betrayed by another Jew and paying off the soldiers to stay alive, but not soon enough to save her son; of hiding for years in a bunker and then in an attic; of the author's own amazement as a child of one of her friend's grandparents still being alive--the only live grandparents she'd ever heard of) and perhaps because of this, her description above rang true to me. I can understand how her parents lives might have cast a long shadow over her own life. Interesting, anyway.

"Over there, you wouldn't even think about getting divorced. You'd be staying married, happily or unhappily, it wouldn't matter much.
Oh, wouldn't it? Think hard. Wouldn't your unhappiness be just the same as here?
No, it wouldn't. It would exist within the claustrophobia of no choice, rather than the agoraphobia of open options. It would have different dimensions, different weight.
But surely an incompatible marriage is unacceptable.
An American notion.
A universal notion...
If you were in Poland, you'd be making a sensible accommodation to your situation. You've seen people live perfectly happily within their less than perfect unions. They just have affairs, they don't go around blowing their lives apart."

This is one of my favorite of her comparisons between American culture and Polish culture. I think "It would have different dimensions, different weight," brilliantly describes what constitutes a culture. That's just my opinion though.

"You used to be able to emigrate to America," a Polish friend, who has been here several years, quips. "Now where do you emigrate to?" For her, the world is too small to sustain the fabulous America of people's dreams; there is no America any longer, no place the mind can turn to for fantastic hope. But for Maria, who nurtures no fantastic hopes, it's still America you emigrate to--this all-too-real America."

I love this description too. I think many people would agree that the America that is imagined by many people far surpasses the reality of being here, however in the case of her Brazilian maid the reality is still extremely better than her circumstances before, hence her desire to be here, without complaints or criticisms.

"A culture talks most about what most bothers it: the Poles talk compulsively about the Russians and the most minute shifts of political strategy. Americans worry about who they are. Each conversation breeds its excesses of overinterpretation and stupidity, and its compensatory wisdom. Each, of courses, is delicious comedy to the other--the comedy from which so much expatriate writing is made."

Hmmm....Americans obsessed with themselves...sounds a bit familiar.

"What's this thing Americans have about their mothers?" my Polish friends ask. "Why do they talk about their mothers all the time?"
Indeed, my American friends talk about their mothers a lot. The oppressive mother, or the distant mother, or the overloving mother, is an accepted conversational trope, like the weather or the stock market or the latest Mideast crisis. My American friends pay their mothers the indirect tribute of incessant and highly subtle scrutiny. They measure the exact weight the mother exercises upon their psyche, and they practice careful equilibrating acts between letting the mother too much in and keeping her too much out. In their accounts, the mother comes out both extremely close and remote, as if she were both a vampiric incubus and a puzzling stranger.
For my Polish friends, this is grist for cross-cultural satire. Only Americans can make so much fuss about something so...well, normal. A mother, for heaven's sake, is a mother. In Poland itself, you usually live with her until you get married, or sometimes until much later. After you move out, she comes over to help out in the kitchen or with the kids... Things sometimes get uncomfortable in a small kitchen, and the mother and daughter, or son, quarrel. But basically, the mother is as familiar as the slippers in which she shuffles around the apartment, and getting along with her is not a matter for lengthy discussion. The air around her isn't charged with gothic menace."

I found this cultural comparison also amusing. I know my sisters and I discuss our mother a lot. And depending on the sister, she was either a demon or angel. Ah, funny the outside view looking in. The author thinks it's because of the space (size of house, having our own bedrooms etc) growing up and then the distance that children sometimes move from their parents once grown that keeps Americans at odds with their mothers. I don't know that I exactly agree, but it's an interesting theory.

Anyway, I had fun writing this. Feel free to comment, or not. Goodnight.

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