In my previous post I included a rather long quotation from "Lost in Translation" by Eva Hoffman. I have included this book in the My Favorites section of this blog for the simple reason that this is THE book that captures most accurately my own experiences as an immigrant.
There are differences. Eva left Poland for Canada as an adolescent. I left the United States for France as a young bride. Eva left with her family and seems to have been aware that this was pretty much a one-way trip (un aller simple). I left alone and in a situation that was ambiguous at best. We were married in France but my French husband could get a green card and we could move to the U.S . That question, "So, where are we going to live?" has been asked and re-asked many times in the nearly 20 years my husband and I have been together.
And if I may cite another difference? In her book I am reading the words of a woman who grieves for what she has lost but Poland, her home country, seems to exist more and more only in her memory. It is not a constant unescapable presence in her life. She challenges her adopted culture on the basis of her status as a foreigner, not as as an Eastern European.
In constrast, an American emigrant anywhere in the world does not have the luxury of relegating his country to an abstract ideal or a mere memory. The activites of the American president, the opinions of the American people, the policies of the American government are the object of intense scrutiny. And you become painfully aware as you read the local papers and talk to your friends that all of the above matter very much to the people you interact with on a daily basis. There is no escape as much as you would like to hide yourself behind the "I am an individual speaking for myself," the interpretation is entirely beyond your control because it relies utterly on their perception of your identity.
It took me years to come to terms with this. In the beginning it infuriated me because I wanted desperately to assimiliate. Later I went to the other extreme thinking that if the only part I was allowed to play was The American, then I would do so. These days I am more centered, more forgiving of myself and of other people. Today, I cheerfully answer the inevitable question, "McCain or Obama?" and I try to be as gentle as I can with those people in both my countries when they decide to share their more violent stereotypes of the Other with me.
Eva Hoffman wites, "It is only after I have taken in disparate bits of cultural matter, after I have accepted its seduction and snares, that I can make my way theough the medium of language to distill my own meanings; and it is only coming from the ground up that I can hit the tenor of my own sensibility, hit home."