Wednesday, August 27, 2008

a cross cultural flashback

I've been back in the US for a little more than a year now. My family's cross cultural moments are less than they were at the start, and in general are funny, centering around food and matching socks. But this morning I was reminded of one of the hardest cross cultural challenges I faced during my years in Italy. This came about in a translator's forum, places that I generally dare not haunt or show my face. But I lost my hard earned detachment and responded to a posting that frankly made me angry. And the ensuing can of worms reminded me of this one ever so difficult sticking point that I saw time and time again in Italy.
When I arrived in Italy so many years ago, I didn't realize that I was landing in the land of America Experts. Many of the Italians I met, especially my husband's long-haired friends, were great experts on America. Countless dinner conversations would eventually turn to me, asking me if I preferred the US or Italy. This was always a loaded question, and the harbinger of the ills of America and how the US was the devil. I would sit through a stream of comments about "people sleeping under bridges", "dying on the sidewalk", "racism and segregation", "savage capitalism", and on and on. These people were so sure that America was the Anti-Christ, and that she was in some way the cause of all the sorrows of the world. Nearly all of these people had never set foot on American soil, didn't speak or understand English (I personally believe that knowledge of the local language is key to even beginning to comprehend another culture) and based their knowledge of the world on television and newspapers. The problems facing down Italy, many, complex, convoluted and creeping through so much of their everyday lives, were nowhere near as interesting as the evil America. Needless to say, the early years of my stay in Italy were bearable from this point of view as compared to the final seven, when Americans had somehow placed an imbecile in the White House. After a time I found this conversation monotonous, boring and tiresome. I gave up.
Today as I responded to the forum posting of an Italian commenting that Americans cannot speak proper English, I realized that I was going nowhere fast. Her retorts were quick and self assured. She had spent four years in New York. She knew what she was talking about. Her reply even included the long suffering comment about people sleeping under bridges.
This latest cross cultural flashback happens just as I was contemplating a post about another more surprising cross cultural moment. My husband is just a bit mystified about my enthusiasm about the upcoming election. I mean, they're politicians! He was dumbstruck by the tears on my parent's faces as they watched Ted Kennedy speak at the convention. The swell of hope and thirst for real change, and the belief that it is possible, is hard for him to comprehend. He knows more of America than the Italian translator with whom I quibbled ever will, but I wonder if he will ever understand that thing that comes up in my throat when I see images of Marin Luther King. My pride overfloweth. That's when I feel truly, deeply American. And that feeling is something I could never convey during those dinner conversations in Italy, nor in my forum reply this morning. It may be something so intangible and fleeting, that it is best kept to myself.


Romerican said...

As always, a beautiful post Jennifer! I understand what you're saying 100%.
I too recall battling with those "I know everything about USA because I spent 3 months there" people in my early years in Rome. Funny how they had so much to say about the evils of another country they barely knew, yet they seemed totally oblivious to the can of worms that was right underneath their own feet. Judging a country from a distance is senseless, you can never understand a place until you've lived there for an extended period, have integrated & as you say, speak the language.

Deirdré Straughan said...

My daughter, in 10 years or so of (forced) English as a second language in Italian schools, was told more than once (in icily lofty tones): "We're not learning American here, we're learning English."

As for Italian attitudes towards the US, there's a big old "mote in your eye, beam in mine" thing going on there...

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I don't think you can ever really tell someone from another culture about the beauty of your own, when they've already decided they know all there is to know about your culture.

It's those kinds of attitudes that bring global understanding to a halt.

I'm glad you've been here to have those deeply American moments with your extended family.

Jennifer said...

I too learned to avoid conversations like that early on. They will get you nowhere fast. A quick comment on Italian food & wine and architecture will generally get you out of the minefield fairly quickly. And I never, NEVER frequent those boards! Too scary.

What gets to me though, and I'm sure you've had this too, are the translation clients who "revise" your translation into something so closely resembling Italian (without any semblance of English grammar or syntax) and tell you that's what they had in mind.

I still haven't figured out how to handle that delicately.

Betsy said...

Oh, I so know these conversations. And unfortunately it's not just the Italians who feel compelled to vent their ideas about America and all its shortcomings.

I had a guy tell me this afternoon that Americans are horrifically lazy when it comes to learning languages. (right after he'd complimented me on my German...)

And then there was that very memorable conversation with an otherwise intelligent, well-educated Belgian who tried to convince me that Americans are dimwitted, naive, religious fanatics who will do whatever they're told. When I asked him where exactly he picked up this theory since he'd never been to the States, he said without a trace of irony: "I've watched a lot of movies."