Thursday, February 11, 2010

an immigrant in my own home

an open mind


I recently threw in the proverbial towel and joined Facebook. While I was sure that I would hate the additional e-mails and alerts that would add to my constantly blinking and beeping computers, that I would never want to participate and be only a lurker, the truth is that I have actually gotten a lot from joining. I have moved around so much in my adult life, and so geographically far away, that I inevitably lost touch with many of the people I was close to in my youth. Facebook has given me the opportunity to reconnect with many of the people that I knew were smart and special way back when. The passage of time has only confirmed this. What a treat to suddenly know so many fascinating people doing so many fascinating things with their lives. I who have lived for so long without a web of people around me… I feel lucky to be somewhat back in the loop.

There is also another side to my Facebook experience which has left me wanting to hightail it and run, and I have spent the last several days with a visceral queasiness in my gut. Not only do you suddenly know where everyone is and what they are doing, you also know what everyone thinks. You even know what their friends and even their friends think. Depending on how much someone is willing to post on their wall, you know things you probably would prefer not to… at least for someone like me.

A queasy sick feeling crept up on me after reading just such a posting on one of my friend’s walls. It was a friend (or maybe even friend of a friend, I’m not sure) who wrote what I read. I would like to preface this by saying that in an environment of such great division and flat out fighting, I do not espouse my political views on Facebook. Talk about a great way to lose the new “friends” I have so recently found again! I tread lightly and on eggshells. I try mightily to live my own life and raise my own children in a way that supports my beliefs. I vote. I write editorials. I read. A lot. I try not to make things personal even when I feel they are. I try, and sometimes fail, to live by example, and admire others who do the same.

But what I read that day saw me draw my hand over my mouth in disbelief. What I read touched me personally and at home, and I felt sick and hurt by words on a Facebook wall from a friend of a friend of a friend, a person who I will never know or see or talk to. A person who means nothing to me. A person who cares not a crumb for me or what I think or feel. What I read was “I'm reminding you to join If you live in America - speak english!” I have not changed the spelling or grammar. There it is, in all its glory.

It is hard to explain how offensive those words were to me on several levels. The first of which is my own tight circle, my own family, my husband and children. I live in a bilingual house. We rant in one language and laugh in another. My children are trilingual, and hope one day to acquire at least one more language. My dog is even bilingual. My husband is the dearest, best human being you could meet. Anyone who knows him will tell you this. He is a rare sort man. He is one of our finest. And he is also an immigrant. After my 15 years of living as a foreigner, it is now his turn. There is nothing easy about it. There is nothing simple at all about having to live your life not only in a foreign land, but also in a foreign language. I have written at length here about the challenges of expat living. It was the greatest, most life changing experience of my life, and it helped make me who I am today. The words on the Facebook page felt as if they were a double barrel shotgun pointed straight at my husband, or even at my own heart 20 years ago. The person holding that gun must be a fool.

The Facebook “cause” that the slimy link took me to was even worse. There was a list of over 64,000 members and comments left to spur on the cause. The greater part of these comments consisted of misspelled rants full of vitriol. Why should anyone have to learn Spanish at school just to be a good nurse? Why should anyone have to learn any language at all, aside from English? Why don’t they all just go back to where they came from?

The ignorance was stunning. So was the anger and hate. As a person who makes her living as a linguist, I have been so saddened to see the complete lack of importance put on foreign languages in American schools. My children began studying their first foreign language in the first grade while living abroad, and their second in the fifth grade. I have spent the last several years answering their constant questions while watching American television about why correct grammar is always so lacking. The logic behind English grammar was drilled into their heads long ago… why on earth are Americans having such a hard time? Learning a language that is not your mother tongue not only opens up an entirely different culture and way of life to your mind, but it also literally opens up doors in the brain. My own work has kept my mind nimble and my brain quick. I feel so rich to be a linguist, and I know that the ability to speak more than one language is one of the greatest gifts my husband and I have given our children.

This ignorant, hateful, litany of comments felt to me like a personal attack. How could their standards be so painfully low? How could their minds be so painfully narrow? When had diversity, one of the things I missed the most about America when I was living abroad, become a liability? I know I sound incredibly na├»ve. I can’t help it. I live in a microcosm of a melting pot. We do not have fancy cars or fine things, but we have traveled with our children around the world and hope to continue to do so, opening their minds to what it means to be a human being one this planet, helping them to become communicators and quick minded. Respect for the other is the mantra in our home, whoever the other may be. Even if we have now become the other.

Reading that friend of a friend of a friend’s comment saw my valiant effort not to bring political views into my relationships fall flat on its face. How could I pretend that such a “cause” didn’t deeply offend me? How could I ignore it? What could I possibly do, except nothing? What made me the saddest reading that meaningless Facebook page was the feeling I had, after so many years living away from my homeland and my intense yearning to come back, that I was once again a foreigner living in a foreign land. An immigrant in my own home.

8 comments:

Betsy said...

This is a perfect post.

Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

Wonderful post. I don't hide my political views on FB at all; they are such an integral part of who I am, and I don't really care to be friends with people who can't accept that (they don't have to agree with me, but they *must* respect my views). Btw, if you want to add me on FB, "Michelle Fabio" :D

Anonymous said...

interesting post. I would love to follow you on twitter.

Jennifer said...

I don't do Facebook but my grandmother sends me mass emails like that. My grandma! They are all extremely offensive and many are about requiring everyone in "America" to speak only English. I am often tempted to reply that the authors of the emails might want to try learning English as a first step toward their goal.

G in Berlin said...

I am almost afraid to say: I agree. I think if you live in America you should learn English. I live in Germany and take German class 4x a week- and it's not fun. My kids go to German school so they can be accepted as part of German society (and they get remedial help with pronunciation, and that's not fun). Thinking countries should have national languages doesn't make me a racist, although racists may also think that. My dad and my maternal grandparents also were American immigrants and learned English: in those days, they wouldn't even let their kids learn the home tongue (which I think is a terrible shame).

jennifer said...

To G in Berlin, it should be noted that in my post I was referring to speaking English, not learning English. There is a very big difference.
To assume that my post was about not having to learn English is wrong. Totally to the contrary.

G in Berlin said...

Feel free to call me G:). And I assure you that here in Germany I am required to speak German in every official meeting- which is a lot of meetings. We just moved and we had to de-register, re-register, get new parking. All our rential meetings were in German, all our contacts. the meeting with school officials in both schools in German,etc. Turning off and turning on utilities, dealing with broken plumbing and plumbers, the telephone that didn't work... everything was in German. With all of thses interactions, the only one in English was today- when the Deutsche Telekom man spoke English after I asked him to speak more slowly in German. Luckily, I have a personal translator (spouse) or I would need to hire a service, as so many do.
When I was at the swim hall with my children last year, and said I didn't understand something, the woman (behind the class for a reason) told me that I was in Germany and I should be able to speak German. I pointed put that I was trying and that being able to buy a swim pass without being cheated was not really something I should need to speak German for- but Germans really do think everyone who lives here should speak German, German is the national language (by law) and to become a German citizen or get permanent residency one must pass a language test at the B1 (or really hard) level. Is it too much to ask? Otherwise you develop schisms in society that are bad both for democracy and for the future of children.

Bill Nixon said...

Okay, I am kind of magnetized to your blog now and just read this post. Our experience out of the country gave us a great appreciation for our home, but also a longing that you perfectly explain. Learning another language (certainly not bi-lingual after only two years though) brought a perspective that is difficult to explain to others.

Learning another culture brought an even deeper perspective that NO ONE can understand in the US without a similar experience.

I am so eternally grateful for my time out of this bubble. The people I met while in Romania and Hungary were so important to who I am today. A better man because of them. Some people I met spoke as many as 5 languages.

Again, I long to be in another place (N. Italy) where I can study what I want to -- language and pizza. I can work from my home as I do now, and I can be with my boys as they grow up and learn another language and culture.

Now, if only I can figure out all of the paperwork.