Immigrant meta-culture

The capellini and eggplant at the Sheraton was nothing special, but the bartender made me a martini French style with sweet vermouth. The drink reminded me, the way it always does, of aperitif in my tiny apartment on the border of Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement in Paris. The bar on the hotel patio had been rented out to the hair group for their company party. Unseasonably cold weather drove the party inside where loud, very plastic women flirted with wannabe-actors. Being in L.A. really is different than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

The quiet guy next to me at the bar glanced over a couple of times. He looked more like me, a business traveler getting his dinner, his laptop on the bar. The place got more and more crowded and somehow we began to speak. I suppose he started it. By the time our dinner arrived, he moved to the seat next to mine so we wouldn’t have to shout.

I probably should have been playing the tourist at the third street promenade, but I was still holding out hope that I would finish writing an article on background images for a series that Opera is putting together. More on that later. Anyway, this could be some clichéd story, but actually he and I had a really interesting conversation about a new culture that is arising out of essentially fitting nowhere.

Anyone that has lived abroad for more than a few years, understands fundamentally not fitting. When I moved to Paris, I expected it to be a culture shock, to really change my ideas. It’s natural, I had to learn the language, and more than that, figure out how to make my way in a culture with vastly different values and customs than my own. To my surprise then, the biggest not-fitting had nothing to do with my adopted culture, but rather the first time I returned home after truly becoming French somewhere deep in my core. It’s only then that you realize your instincts are off, you find odd those who share the culture you once considered as natural as water to a fish.

Dario confirmed that ultimately, when you’ve truly adopted another culture, you can never feel ordinary again. I will be an etranger for the rest of my life. I only feel French when I’m in the States, and I only feel American in Paris. I can only imagine what California is doing to my brain as we speak. In fact, just last night I casually told a group of people about buying a treadmill for my dog, without once thinking that this was a little eccentric.

I wrote about The Namesake, an excellent book about Indians moving to Cambridge for graduate school. When I read it, I wasn’t thinking about the cultural differences of the Indian family, I was empathizing with a situation that so closely resembled my own. These same stories echo in people from around the world. I know an Indian married to a Jewish American woman, living in Boston. I’m an American who married a Frenchman and we’ve lived in Boston, France, and the Silicon Valley. I work with a Bulgarian who has lived in Canada and California. I went to school with Algerians living in the banlieue. I have friends here who have American children though both parents are foreign (what does a word like foreign or international even mean anymore?). I sang with Brits living in Nairobi. And, on this night, I talked to a Spanish man living in New York.

These people, pioneers really, are comfortable everywhere, even as they fit perfectly nowhere. They’ll never have the luxury of believing that their home is perfect or being so firm in their ideas that they don’t even notice them. No matter where they settle, they’ll miss something, or someone, from everywhere they’ve ever lived. And each knows, that they can never truly go home again. In each place, they’ll only feel all the more strongly the parts of them that are drawn to another home. They’ll mix up languages and use words that don’t belong. For me it is dégradé, I simply cannot remember the word in English, at least not while speaking.

Similarly, I’ve come to believe everyone should have access to healthcare, an idea that is only beginning to be considered other than shockingly left wing, in my own country. For an Indian friend, the press of people in Bombay feels slightly overwhelming. Or a Frenchwoman, with her stroller stuck in the sand in Cannes, prefers American friendliness to French politesse. You might think that fitting nowhere is a lonely place to be, and you’d be right, it can be. But I’ve discovered that these multicultural people fit well with each other. No matter where they’ve come from, or moved to, it seems that the archetype of the immigrant is strong enough to bond them in a common un-culture. I enjoy the sense of humor that comes with personal understanding of just how transitory strongly held beliefs can be when you begin to look at them from the eyes of the other. When you begin to be other.

3 thoughts on “Immigrant meta-culture”

  1. I was at the Griffith observatory today, clearly a tourist spot in LA, and two Australian-sounding gentlemen asked me to take a picture with their camera in front of the Hollywood sign. “Where you’re from?”, they asked, because I didn’t sound Californian (according to them, but what do a person taking a picture in front of a tourist attraction knows about local accents :P). And I thought to myself how increasingly difficult is it becoming to answer this question.

    Where I’m from? Well, that depends. Do you want to know where I live? Or where I was born? Or the countries I’m citizen of having lived there long enough? ;)

  2. Thanks for the tears Nicole.
    I’m a 37 years old kid from Buenos Aires, Argentina. who lived in Costa Rica for 2 years, Toronto for 3 years and Montreal for 5 years.
    I remember the year 97, while in Costa Rica, a couple from Buenos Aires asked me where was I from, because I had a different accent.
    That accent wasn’t only in my voice. I’m getting different accents constantly, different colors, different understanding of cultures, including the one I learned back home.
    My 4 years old son, Thiago, speaks to me half in slang Argentinean and half in Quebecois French.
    When I’m at the phone with my parents, I get stuck with some words I can’t remember in Spanish. When I’m here in Montreal, I miss the smell of my Buenos Aires. When I’m there, I wonder what I’m doing there.

    There’s a before and an after moving abroad. Nothing will be the same. Not anymore. In some aspects I feel great about it. In other aspects, I hate it.

    But this is the way I wanted to live and I deeply hope that my two kids feel the same need: if they feel too comfortable to the point of becoming stuck, do some research, grab some stuff and fly away.

    I think you’ve got another loyal reader.

    Thanks for sharing all this with us.

  3. Hi Nicole!

    I loved this post; it’s a succint reflection on the way us expats/immigrants/extrangeros feel being somewhere else. I’m Canadian and came to Spain when I was 27 to perfect my Spanish and ended up becoming a little more Spanish than I originally intended. Now whenever I go back to Toronto I feel so European/Spanish and when I’m here in Valencia, well, you know the rest. When you come to the realization that all your prior assumptions about life and people are no longer completely valid it’s a little disconcerting but then you accept it and learn that it’s an excellent way to see the world… that nothing is really one-sided and as absolute as people may think. Anyway thanks for your insight!

Comments are closed.