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Homesickness Part I

This is the thing with homesickness. It hits you at the most unexpected times, triggered by the weirdest things.

As I was researching some St. Nicholas sites, I come acrross this one and then in particular about St. Nikolaus on the Danube and there at the end of the site, way below is a picture of an old stamp. And then there it is. I don't know what triggered it, maybe the font... Flashbacks to being 9 and in Volksschule. The sounds of the train. Reading boring schoolbooks on a late winter afternoon. Going to piano lessons afterwards.

All from a random stamp. Don't ask, it really doesn't make sense.

Posted at 08:29 AM on December 03, 2004 | Comments (4)

Immigration Issues: 5. The prideful p-word

I think we have already established from previous entries in this series that when you're an immigrant, you just can't win. It's a constant back-and-forth and there is no escaping the judgement from either side of the identity spectrum, but when it comes down to really cracking down on an immigrant's sore spot, there's nothing like taking a good swing at it with something called patriotism.

In its original meaning and purpose patriotism means the love of one's country - a definitely positive attitude and action, a virtue that inspired great heroism. That's what I'm told anyway. And it's not that I'm against loving one's country or loving "my" country for that matter, that's not the issue. The issue for the immigrant is "what is my country?" and since that one will fade to the background to give priority to love, commitment and loyalty to friends and family from the different countries the immigrant has lived in, patriotism in its traditional sense is impossible... and irrelevant.

That does not sit well with most people though. Saying, you do not feel patriotic for any particular country is heresy. Alright, almost. It's insulting and ungrateful. To who? Well, to whoever feels you owe loyalty to a homeland (obviously their own). It is possible that patriotism really does exist in its pure form. It is possible that it inspires good things. To be honest though, I have not seen that happen... yet.

"You should be patriotic because this is a great country. It's better than most other countries."
- I know patriotism doesn't imply pride in the sense of feeling superior, just pride in the sense of gratitude and achievement. Unfortunately every time someone mentions patriotism it is to support their views on the superiority of their country. I understand that people will have a special place in their heart for the place they grew up in and for what's "theirs". We are all very fond of our own families, much more than of any other, but what it comes down to is putting other people down in order to see oneself emerge above. Patriotism is always used to boast and brag and to mask contempt.

"You should be patriotic because you owe your country what you are today."
- No. I owe many people what I am today. I owe many countries what I am today. I love the people more though. Today's borders are a consequence of deliberate decisions and bloody wars. Even though countries developed a common identity, my personal identity might not be woven of those same ingredients.

"We are all patriotic. We decide what that means and you are not it."
- Oh the times I have been given the feeling that without "being patriotic" (whatever that meant at the particular moment) I will be denied friendship and respect! What it really came down to is, that there was a group of people with a huge nothing where self-esteem and identity was supposed to be and patriotism filled it. It was an unspoken agreement that they will protect each other by covering up for the void, and patriotism was the name of the pact.

"You don't want to be pariotic because you shun commitment. You are a liberal wuss."
- I don't even want to go there.

Maybe my view is one-sided. I just grew weary of trying to argue nationalistic tendencies - just because they were relabeled "patriotic". I have seen too many places, too many people and too many common grounds to be able to draw lines and say: my country - your country. If as an immigrant you want to be true to your heritage, you will have to lie to yourself first in order to fit someone's concept of loyalty and identity. It's wonderful to be born and grow up in the same place, admittedly the immigrant doesn't know what that feels like. Does that make him lesser of a person? Does that imply a handicap, a fault, a mistake? I don't believe that and I therefore I don't believe that a "native's" true self is a direct result of having had the same passport all his life.

Patriotic pride thrives on two premises:
1. "All I've really seen in my life is my country, so it must be the best!"
2. "I've seen lots of other places, but I'm nothing if I can't feel superior to someone else."

Granted, that's not what "love of country" implies, but that's what's out there. Take it from an immigrant.

Posted at 01:46 PM on March 09, 2004 | Comments (1)

Immigration Issues: 4. Can you ever go back?

That's the constant question for the immigrant. After fighting through the adaptation process of the new country the prospect of just returning home even if just for a visit seems more and more appealing. Finally, no comparing, just fitting in. Well. More times than I can count going back just left me more confused than before.

Unfortunately everything is more complicated and this simple question turns out to be incomplete. Going back to... where or when? To who? To what? The immigrant always returns to the past as well as the place. There is just no other way. Time has elapsed but your memory is stuck and you come back expecting your life to greet you but all you get is the visual track for your memory because everything else seems gone. Depending on how and why you left your country this will be a major or minor inconvenience (I'm sure some people are glad not to find the exact same misery they left.), but it will leave you desperate to find a connection because at the same time you know that what you left is such a big part of you.

So you turn to people, meet old friends, spend time with family. Everyone is happy to see you but then there is the silent awkwardness. They are not sure if you are still the same. And you aren't - it never bothered you, but now you wish you could just erase the new experience and just melt with your surrounding. You do the same things you used to do, everybody is trying to erase what happened in the meantime. You try to fast forward on your life in the home country, trying hard to convince everyone it's the same old you. But it's not. At some point it gets too much and you stop hiding. That's when the real friends show themselves and you have to let go. The truth is, people who stayed are not the same either but for some this is an impossible realization. They thrive on patterns and who are you to come here and try to make it all irrelevant? Not insisting on certain regional and national idiosyncracies equals suicide to them. Oh, you have an accent now! Oh, you wear different clothes! Oh, you don't share my exact daily reality! What a betrayal! It hurts. But when the emotion subsides you realize they do it for their own protection and slowly you need their affirmation less and less. Maybe their definition of the "real native" is something completely different to yours? You are left amazed by the fact you never noticed that before.

As an immigrant you have the advantage to actually "see" time go by. Certain periods of your life are limited to a certain setting and so visiting often means visiting your childhood or your adolescence. Since you also usually only visit for a short amount of time, the entire experience lends itself easily to lots of nostalgia and idealization. I usually end up in an inner frenzy of comparing... the then-and-now, the here-and-there. Is it what it seems? What is my conclusion, where do I stand on the perpetual identity-question? It's never conclusive, you just get a headache.

It's hard to go back. You see what you left and you have to let it go all over again. Then again it's nice. you see what you left and you find yourself in it. And so you hang there... spread like a bridge between two places, neither here nor there.

Can you ever go back? I don't know.

Posted at 04:41 PM on January 28, 2004 | Comments (4)

"Among the golden corn rows of Indiana"

The Americans have a fascination with Europe. It's the "foreign" place to go: it has similar lifestyle yet is so much more,well, - "euro".
As a European I have always felt American tourists were a little strange. I guess, like many, I resented their quantity - but now I understand that it obviously isn't their fault: their country is just huge, so understandably they will come in throngs.

Having lived here for 3 1/2 years (I know, it's a reaaally long time so I must know what I'm talking about! ;) I have to say I feel my suspicions confirmed. Europe is like Disneyland for Americans. You go there to travel from attraction to attraction in order to get a different feeling from each place but those places are not "real", they are here to entertain you, not to be taken seriously.

If you want romance, obviously you will go to Paris (as shown in this movie) and enjoy those cute little bistros while you wear black and think of Audrey Hepburn in Charade. For a more serious romantic experience you will - of course! - go to Italy, preferably Tuscany, where you will obviously buy a villa on impulse, buy a white dress and meet new people. Read: fall in love with a hunky Italian who has lived a pictoresque life in a pictoresque village just so he can finally meet his American sweetheart. On the other hand if you are looking for a more historical or cultural experience you will visit Prague (I could say Czech Republic, but let's be honest, can anybody name a Czech city besides Prague?) or Russia or some other Eastern European country, hoping it's one that still suffers under Communist-Regime-leftovers so you get some good pictures of Lenin statues, empty grocery stores or people dressed in gray.

Generally though it has to be noted that people in those countries serve more or less as extras, hired by the travel agency to supply us with all the necessary details to make the whole thing as believable as we've seen it on TV.

Sitting in Indiana, where people take it for granted that even the best restaurant in town will be located on a busy street in a regular strip-mall-type of building, I get really frustrated. Why don't people make their own surrounding "romantic", "pictoresque" and "cultural"? Why not make beautiful things part of everyday life? It baffles me. People here will have gorgeous houses, with pretty porches, seasonal decorations, different shaped windows, impeccable yards, but then they go and throw their main public buildings into shapeless boxes that get destroyed every 5 years to make room for a new parking lot or something.

Well, there's always museums and Disneyland. And Europe. :)

Posted at 08:11 PM on October 29, 2003 | Comments (9)

When I grow up ...

I apologize for the delays but I have a 6-week-old. ;)

It seems that I have now definitely entered the "mom"-chapter of my life, not only by having eliminated useless things as "time for myself" from my existence but by having attended a "MOMS" group. This particular one actually does stand for "M oms O ffering M oms S upport" but I believe there are a gazillion moms-groups out there that are not an acronym and work the same way.

It was a fun and strange experience I must say. I guess the fact that the group is organized by the First Methodist Church added some of the strangeness. Not that Methodists are strange, but I'm not really familiar with many other Christian denominations. I will confess I did feel a small pang of guilt spending two hours listening to a non-Catholic lady tell me about marriage in the Christian sense, but I quickly eliminated that by being my also very open-minded self. That and my parish does not have a moms-group.

Apart from the denominational strangeness I found myself immediately in my alien-role. It's a little like "Third Rock from the Sun" - I SEEM to look normal but actually deep down I'm an extraterrestrial. ;) Anyway, I sit there and see about 20 ladies, a little WASP-y-looking to me. You know... a little like that soccer mom... very put together (well, not too much, it's the midwest of course), very kind and friendly, a little high-strung, very christian (with little cross earrings), talkative and smiling - always a teeny bit too much. I know this is terrible stereotyping and I feel bad for that, I really do. These ladies were really very nice, but I can't help getting a little panicky. As much as I'm sure of my identity... there's no way to escape that little voice that is suggesting that one day I will be sitting there among them saying: "I'm Dinka, married to Lincoln, I've been living in Valpo for 15 years and I LOOOVE it, absolutely LOOOOVE it." I will be wearing hideous shorts I don't have the butt nor legs for anymore. I will have cut my hair real short, not because I think it's cute but "it's sooo much more practical". I will spend my free nights distributing potpourri in my carpeted living room or attending Tuppware-style parties and gush with my friends over the incredible prices at Sam's.

Oh I feel so bad now. I apologize. This is not the real me. I can be a nice person. But I will NOT spend my life in Valparaiso, Indiana, no offense.

Posted at 01:52 PM on September 18, 2003 | Comments (3)