Something about my life in America
(I started writing this post 10 days before the move and only finished it now. I struggled through it because the more time passed the more I felt I had to say and the less I felt I could make one good point. I've decided to post it because lots of it tells exactly how I feel, although on the whole it's a mess. It needs total rewriting, but I don't have that kind of time.)
Sadly my departure from the States coincides with my 10-year-anniversary of living here. I'd planned to write about it months ago. I was going to have a series of posts about all the things I've come to love and include some witty observations that would rival Bill Bryson's famous travel writing. It was going to be about all the places I've lived in and also some sweeping - yet moving - generalizations, it was going to be extensive and my vast readership would have been anxiously awaiting the next installment. It looked brilliant in my head, as it always does. There is no limit to my delusions.
Yet - I also knew from the start it was not going to happen. My choice was to just let it all go or sit down and write something, anything. I'm going with the latter. I promise nothing.
The advantage as a non-native is that you can make your mind up about everything in the new country because you have something to compare it to. The places you're from cling to you whether you want it or not, they are you. Some things you might not like, but you cannot separate from them. As a foreigner, they are not part of you until you let them. Coming here I was prepared for a lot of unhappiness, simply because I had changed countries before and knew that it's human nature to dislike newness - it's simple law of inertia. Despite any excitement you might feel about the new place, at the end of the day you will be disgruntled because it's just not what you're used to. I knew this was a phase, but still unavoidable. Most things I loathed I have now overcome through assimilation which led me to either understanding or acceptance.
Americans used to strike me as incredibly fake with their GREAT! AWESOME! I LOVE IT! HOW CAN I HELP YOU!? I reacted like any respectable European would: "Goodness, these people are so childish. Stop harrassing me, you're embarassing yourself." A true European (=sweeping, inaccurate generalization) does not let his - most likely always unfounded - enthusiasm run free in front of stranger. A cool, restrained and sceptical view of life is always recommended there. Unlike in America, where enthusiasm and positivity are everywhere. It's a lot to handle in the beginning. Constant bright sunshine can be sickening.
If you look at me now, I'm probably that sickeningly positive person. It's not like I wasn't before moving here, it's just that showing it would have seemed too banal. Culture is a language and I didn't speak that language. I appreciate it now as I do a million other things. Not because I would say it's the better way to communicate - in fact I don't believe there is a "best" way to communicate - but because it's part of who people are and I've come to love the people. I think it's impossible not to love the people. I consider it a special privilege I received from being multi-cultural, the opportunity to come to love people across cultural differences.
So I learned how to eat corn on the cob, not as an occasional fall treat, but as part of a meal, as a side dish. I found that most curious - and most delicious. I ate hamburgers a lot, not as a McDonalds specialty but a staple at every party and get-together, - and I liked it. And now, corn on the cob will conjure up a mesmerizing mix of images of lawns and paper plates and dear friends and sunsets and air smelling just so. It's a totally different world from anything I knew growing up but it is still familiar in its essence. It might sound cliche, but in the end whatever is strange and new and unacceptable at first eventually becomes clear through the prism of relationships. Everything I've come to know and learn about America was through people and regardless of whether I adopted it myself (... like calling everyone by their first name and pouring syrup on my food) or continued to find it unacceptable (...like the absolute rule of having to own and drive a car unless you live in a major City. What kind of freedom is this?) it could not be dismissed.
The one place that stands out for me is Connecticut, because we didn't choose it but it ended up being our home during some very significant times (two babies, several forever friends...). I'm surprised myself how much I came to love it, because I've practiced detachment from places all my life and this one snuck up on me. Actually the whole Northeast charmed me with its ocean and old houses and an incredible mix of people. Some people in Danbury lamented the rapid increase in immigrants. I loved it. As a homeland-challenged person I felt we had so much in common even if our cultures were worlds apart. I understood every Brazilian restaurant and Indian store as someone's bittersweet pain for the place they left and the need to recreate a piece of home in the new world. Immigrants carry themselves differently when they walk in those places and I was grateful they brought their country here. Who knows if I'll ever get to go to Ecuador, but I feel like I've been there a little already. Everyone who's from somewhere else has a whole other identity they have to set aside in the new place, but that doesn't mean it's gone. I like to look for it when I meet someone. I have it myself, I know what it's like to have to put a part of you on hold. America is full of new and old immigrants. It's probably one of my favorite things about it.
Like I said above, I was going to dedicate lots of blog space to each and every place I've lived in or visited, but I find it impossible to do. I can't really put it into words without slipping into sentimentalities. I've rewritten a few paragraphs and then scrapped it all. I can't. Too many feelings, that kind of stuff. Maybe it'll all come out down the road.
Once you know someone, every memory with this person turns the anonymous place into your life. I am so grateful for every person that made the US my life. People like to talk about what this country has to offer. And it does have a lot to offer, but for me this was never on top of the list. Lots of places have great things to offer. But just like in a friendship, a friend is a friend not because of the gifts they give you, but simply for being who they are.Posted at 02:32 PM on July 26, 2010
Whee... and it's been a month. I've been circling the blog lately, because I don't know how to go about this. We are moving to Austria in July. On July 13th via Air Berlin. There are so many things about it I need to say, it's completely overwhelming.
So first: Why? I need to get this out of the way because I must explain myself at all times. Also, I could be misunderstood. Probably if I explain myself right, nobody will misunderstand, right? This is how the world works, yes?
We've been thinking about this for a long time. We are a two-nation (well, three) family. We knew this going in and it will never change. Part of the reason Lincoln and I could even meet was that nowadays people are not separated by oceans in the way they used to be, although that ocean, it's still just as painfully wide as it was hundreds of years ago. When we got married we were probably not quite aware what our situation would mean for our kids, so when they came along we started wondering how to make this bi-cultural situation work. We wanted them to learn both languages, know both worlds, both families. Living in both countries for a period of time seemed like a good idea, but for the last few years we were mostly busy surviving daily life with three kids 6 and under.
We've been living in Connecticut because of a great job and all the security and health insurance that comes with it. Then we had babies and just stayed put. Once the worst of the babyhood was over and our oldest child started to be more and more involved with school and friends we realized it was time to make a decision. We wanted to move closer to family but we also figured if we were ever going to make the move to Europe, this was probably our best chance. Letting another five or ten years pass by could anchor us, especially the children to a degree that we would not want to disrupt their lives so drastically. Learning a new language is easier when you're young and stays with you longer. The kids understand German perfectly but speaking is not going so well and we feel this is one of the more positive aspects of their often so stressful international situation: they could speak two languages fluently with virtually no effort at all. This last part is probably our second most important reason for going. Our kids will always be torn between two places, between dear people, between time zones and cultures. They will carry both in their hearts and their blood. I know so well how that feels (which I'm sure will add to their confusion of identity... a mother of clear origins, yet murky allegiances) and I'm sad with them for the heartache it will cause. At the same time I also know so well what incredible, priceless benefit it is to be familiar and at home in two different worlds. It's something that can't be artificially created or obtained at a renowned university. All experience and knowledge it brings aside, most of all they will get the opportunity to meet and love so many different people. I might have put them in a predicament by marrying their father, but I know it can also offer them richness in unexpected ways.
The first thing people say when they hear about our move is something like "Wow.... Wow. What a big move! That is so big! That is exciting! You must be so happy to be with your family!"
They are right, it is big and it's exciting and I'm happy. There are many good reasons we are doing this. I am happy to be close to my family again. But then again it isn't quite what it looks like. I wasn't dying to go "back". I didn't spend ten years in the US crying for my homeland. In fact I have done enough whining on this blog about my undefined cultural identity and the resulting permanent confusion and lack of that thing people call homeland that it should be obvious I could not have been championing for this move for the last ten years. I moved here because I wanted to and I embraced it all as much as I could, so much so, that I will miss it terribly and I bet when I get to Austria people will think me "americanized" and laugh at the funny way I make German sentences that really are just bad English translations. And then I will feel a bit heartbroken inside and secretly wish I could go to the US for a few days so I can feel "normal" again.
I know my children will likely go through similar feelings at some point in their lives. I'm ready to be there for them in case they need me. You feel like you don't quite belong anywhere? Call me. You wish you could melt all your countries into one happy perfect place? Call me. You miss someone? You have to say goodbye again? You have best friends you only see once a year (or a decade)? Call me.
Anyway. Living somewhere changes you, forever. It's not so much a loss of self as it's an expansion. Nevertheless it's difficult. I would have never pressured my husband into anything like it, I have nothing to gain from his unhappiness. This move is a 100% mutual idea. It's a big decision, but a good decision for our family right now. I don't know how long we will stay. I'm learning our life will not be planned out before us for 5, 10, 20 years at the time and I'm fine with that. Very much so. I just wish we didn't have to break hearts again and have dear family and friends suffer the consequences. There is no good solution to this but I'm trusting that - as always - love will come through in the end.Posted at 09:21 AM on June 17, 2010 | Comments (12)
Last Thursday was a long day. Flying from Europe is easier than the other way round, but only to the extent that instead of feeling like being up in the middle of the night you feel like your day is never going to end. This wouldn't be so bad if that day happened to be a fun one, but flying with two small kids for 8 hours and then riding in the car with them for a few more does not make for a whole lot of relaxing entertainment. While Ivan was trying to find yet another way to climb his way out of my arms into the front seat, pulling my shirt and hair I caught a glimpse of the other passengers... sitting still, yawning, being oh, so bored! They had read all their magazines, had picked around their food and left half of their coffee in their cup, which was also sitting quietly on their tray not in any danger to be spilled into their lap any minute. I tried to remember the times when this scenario was what I dreaded when thinking of a long flight. Fool I was. What was that like? I cannot remember for the life of me. Eight hours of sitting still, fed up with reading and conversation! I allowed myself a few moments of self-pity. When did all of the mundane situations in my life become hard work?
Well, we all made it home fine. The kids were exhausted in every way. We had two weeks packed with every family activity we could fit in. It was one highlight after another especially for Veronika and even though I'm sure she enjoyed every minute of it, there is such a thing as too much even with positive emotions. It was time to come home. Nevertheless saying goodbye was tough, because nothing we did was more than normal things you would do with your family: go shopping, go for a walk, celebrate a birthday, play with your cousins. Why could we not have this at home?
When I was putting Veronika down that night she said: "I want to go back on the airplane. I want to go back to Baka and Deda. I don't wanna go to preschool." Putting up my parental I-know-what-I'm-talking-about-face I said: "It's nice at Baka and Deda's, huh? It's sad we had to leave. But we will go again. Until then we have a lot of things to do though. We will have Easter and color the eggs and then it's going to get warmer and we'll go to the park and swimming and we have to play with Drew and Emma and Ellie and then we will celebrate your birthday..." Her expression was still the same, a little worried, serious. Then she said "I wanna go. I wanna go to preschool. I don't want to go on the airplane again." And just like that she summed up all those terribly conflicting feelings. I almost wanted to say: You're right. That's just how it is. One minute you want to go back, the other you want to be home. You feel both things at the same time. It's exhausting and there's no real fix. I'm saving that for when she's older, because I know she will be revisiting those feelings on a regular basis.
While we were in Austria, we got to take Veronika to a live performance of an Austrian children's song writer whose CDs she's been listening to for years. She started out excited and intrigued, trying to keep up with singing and moving along, but with time she got more and more quiet and by the end of the concert declared she wanted to go home... to Danbury. That was the only time during the trip where she specified where she wanted to go home to and my heart was breaking a little bit because I could so clearly see what it was all about. Welcome to the world of the split identity, baby, of you heart always partially somewhere else, of constant confusion of belonging. There were all these little kids just like her, singing songs she knew, but she also clearly felt they were part of a different world. They didn't go to preschool with Ms Kelly, they didn't speak English and they had a whole "thing" she was not directly part of.
Like a good mother I immediately felt guilty. It is my fault for putting her in this situation! That train of thought has a very unsatisfactory ending though... should I not have married her father? I wish there was a way for me to handle this for her, emotionally, but there isn't. I was surprised how hard it was to sit on my hands, because I know this is where her life starts and she has to grow through it herself. I will tell her eventually that it's hard to be the odd one out either way you go, to be permanently split because you have two perfect identities in two countries I will also tell her how great it is and totally worth it, but all of this will have to wait for some time and it will involve a lot of me watching her and fretting and fretting.
I know for myself I don't regret anything. I don't feel like I was disadvantaged at all, but I know some feelings will always come and there will always be goodbyes and as much as one makes peace with it, they will hurt. We'll just have to take it a step at a time, her living her life and me watching (while slowly spiraling into insanity).
Alle Jahre Wieder
Anyway, I added a photo site to my links in order to aide my imagination on the bad days: Zoom Vienna. Check it out, the photos are great.Posted at 08:46 PM on December 15, 2005
More immigration angst
You might have noticed in the lower left corner is a new link to amazon.com. This is to give you easy access to the books I occasionally review on this site, which also means a tiny percentage for the souzek household. Yep, I'm totally making money off of you. There are no limits to my greed!
I wanted to review Hip Mama but I didn't like it (actually I loved the introduction, but that's it) and realized I don't really want to waste any time giving negative reviews. So I skipped that and am going straight to a book I got for my birthday and really loved. "Hidden Immigrants" are stories about sons and daughters of diplomats, missionaries and other ex-pats, who spent many years of their childhood in one or several different countries and describe in an interview format how it affected their lives. I was surprised how much I could relate although my situation was quite different (I wasn't really an ex-pat, because my family wasn't planning to return to their country.) Unfortunately there is no book about Croatian children, who grew up in Austria and then got married to goodlooking American men but in many ways the statements and experiences of these people are very close to mine.
The author writes about ex-pat children growing up to be in some ways "detached" from their communities because they have learned to stay on the surface: "... they are not joiners and are often most happy in their own company, they vote but are otherwise political observers, they are not blindly patriotic and in fact the notion of patriotism in any form bothers some a great deal. [...] They don't like being pinned down on that "where are you from?" question."
It was a strange feeling of relief to read that. I just didn't know that this is really that common. It feels good to get acknowledgement from a completely unbiased source. Oh that "where are you from" question! I dread it although it can't be avoided and I know I need to be asked that, because it is so much part of me, but still. With every country and every culture you build a new identity. It is a necessity to do that not only to survive in the culture but also to be able to relate to the people you are living with. Now as you move, you leave that life and those people behind and that identity stays with you, but in a sort of unused state. It usually describes an exact time of your life, of your past and you take it along but the new people you meet, your new surrounding has no knowledge of it whatsoever... so in a way you yourself are the only one, who has been around for all the changes for all new created identities. Only you are your only witness to how you were this in this place and then became that in the other and so forth. I think that's one of the big reasons why she says "they are often most happy in their own company". It is a lot of work trying to convey who you are when you have moved so much. There are so many pieces of the puzzle and although they are essential they can not be communicated. So what you do is stick to the identity that works in your current environment and the rest you might tell someone who really is ready to be a lasting friend. That gets tiring sometimes and so it's essential to stay away from people occasionally so you can be your full self without having to do much explaining.
One of the interviewed people said something that really really hit home for me:
"One of the things I've learned about myself from Global Nomads is, while the director kept trying to get me to join, I asked myself, why is it that I don't want to join? I finally realized I don't want to join anything! I don't want to join... I'm just somebody who likes to have individual relationships, but I don't like being part of groups."
Actually I thought I must have written that. All this time I thought I was just a weirdo and then I get my suspicion confirmed, that really my immigrant experience does have a lot to do with how I feel about "joining". Of course an attitude like that could be easily a character trait but in this context I think it isn't. I have never ever found a group I really wanted to be part of. Well, I did initially because it seemed such a great idea, but then very shortly afterwards I found them suffocating and unrealistic and boring and a little bit dishonest. I cannot bear the group identity. I cannot stand the pressure to conform, even if it's conforming to some really nice ideas. The idea of the group is just wrong in my eyes, even though I'm sure it's a blessing for some. In order to fit into a group there is a price to pay, you can't be one with everyone else if you aren't ready to give up a few of your idosyncracies or if you are not ready to be loyal beyond some of your personal convictions. And I can't go there. I just can't. My whole life I had to fight to nurture and maintain my own identity in changing environments. You can't ask me to give this up so that you can have your perfect homogenized group. Sorry. I'm asocial. Whatever.
One woman said: "I really believe that if you travel, your parents are your identity. They are the cohesiveness to your future and how you're going to develop. [...] The other roots - being in the same place, have the same friends all the time - just aren't there. So you have to have the same parents all the time."
That part really rang true for me too, although I would probably extend that to siblings and husbands and not just parents. I do think that a certain sense of culture is transferred more onto the close family than the surroundings and since your parents can't make the connection from their own way of life to the outside world, a lot of the characteristics of the outside world remain rather insignificant. Not insignificant as in not important but as in not permanent and therefore secondary. I think that is another reason why I have trouble with patriotism. I don't see the importance of things that to me are and have been exchangable. A particular language, lifestyle, culture - they are important yes, but they are not "values" to me on par with things like solidarity or dignity or compassion. And that brings me back to that identity issue again. If you have experienced yourself in different languages, lifestyles and cultures and you have not lost yourself on the way, then for you those take second place to other things and you simply cannot be patriotic, because it feels like every time you are you betray another part of yourself.
I highly recommend the book to those who have gone through similar things in their life or those who want to know what it's like. It's more a collection of thoughts and experiences than an analysis but because of that it gives a really good insight into what children go through as ex-pats and how it affects them later in life. I will probably reread parts of it occasionally, if for no other reason than to remind myself I'm not the only weird one.Posted at 01:16 PM on December 10, 2004 | Comments (3)