Patriotism and Belonging

by Britta Jensen

I act like I am an immigrant to my own country. Because I am. I have been in the sweltering heat of Austin, Texas for three weeks, avoiding my fear of:

  • the bugs,
  • the possibility of being robbed
  • not knowing how to do things that any normal American should know how to do.
  • a lack of health insurance
  • the unknown

Isn’t this all a part of the adventure of re-immigration?

Wait. I’m a U.S. citizen. My passport says I belong. However, pieces of paper rarely define who we are, regardless of what the census demands. (Yes, I had a census packet awaiting me on my first day of receiving mail at my new flat). I was reminded that it was federal law that I had to fill it out. (And if I wasn’t Mormon and reliant upon census data to do family history I probably would have ignored it.) After ten years of government service and a lifetime of living under military hierarchy I have varied views on what the government can and cannot ask from its “free citizens.”

A week after I’d arrived, with only two local (and recent) friends and several social engagements lined up, my first worry (along with finding a good exterminator) was what was I going to do on my first July 4th back in the U.S?

 

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Because I’ve spent 22 years of my life abroad I couldn’t ignore this first auspicious July 4th and let it pass by in a blur, waiting for the next Bavarian fireworks display to count as my observation of July 4th. (This was similar to what we did in Japan, except Yokosuka and Zushi do a fireworks display to rival all fireworks world-wide, in my very biased opinion). I needed an event to replace previous stateside encounters where July 4th brought a sense of dislocation instead of celebration.

As I contemplated what I would do, I had an inner conversation with myself that went a little something like this:

“I will not don the red, white and blue. I will not sing patriotic songs and look like a gun-toting redneck.”

Instead, I wanted to talk to people about what freedom means to them. I wanted to share what I’ve lived from living overseas while trying to adjust to the fact a huge part of me still resides mentally in Germany, and Korea and Japan. My mind and body hasn’t made the full transition and for the first time I’m willing to accept that it takes a long time to make that complete mental journey. I’m willing to accept my best efforts and not get hung up on the details I can’t handle yet.

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Then, July 4th happened. And it was glorious and wonderful. It shouldn’t have been glorious and wonderful, because it was so bloody hot, humid and we were outside with the pregnant expectation of rain in the air. One of my book club members kindly recommended we vacate indoors before the showers started and fifteen minutes before taking respite inside her house the thunder and showers began. Part of me wanted to be outside soaking in it. But, you can’t do things like this when you’re visiting with people. They don’t like wet stains on their furnishings.

So, I watched and listen to the ebb and flow of conversation and felt, though I’d only known this lovely group of women and men for about two weeks (our book club organizer I met at the salon here in Austin when I visited in April and she could see I needed a friend). It was the kindness of these new faces that made me think: this is what makes America great. This was the sense of belonging that I have been missing probably my whole life, with the exception of nine years in New York City. And, the communities in NYC I felt the most comfortable with, no wonder, were recent immigrants, expats, and individuals who looked nothing like me. I never thought this was weird pre-Lord Cheeto.

A small minority of “well-wishers” or “masquerading self appointed prophets” warned me that the U.S. would not be like Germany. I needed to protect myself, not smile so much, be wary and not talk to strangers. (You would think I was 15, not 39). Some made dire predictions that I would be back in Germany within a few years when I got sick of how messed up the U.S. is now. “You’ll see Britta, you’ve been overseas too long.”

It is important to be wary about advice from individuals who have never had a huge emotional investment, and therefore little stored capital in your life. When one makes a huge life/career move, people come from the woodwork. I think it’s a type of spectator sport. “We’ll act like we care so we can say ‘told-you-so’ from the eves and rafters where we’re watching.” It’s an emotional coliseum where the horrors and tragedies are dramatic because they’re happening to someone else and not the audience.

There was something in their premonitions because I do fear for my life on the freeways of Texas. How can a people so kind to your face be such jerks when they drive and risk the life and limb of everyone around them to get somewhere only two minutes earlier than scheduled? It’s almost as bad as driving in Korea. But, these bad drivers–like the bad people we see on the news– only account for a minority.

Another moment of truth brought from my wondrous 4th of July: my belonging is not dependent on other people’s acceptance. And, this is a new tenet in my belief about culture and patriotism. It is possible to be a loyal American without being a crazy patriot. I finally pinned down why I can never be a true patriot: to be one is to deny my foundational belief in the importance of all cultures.

I cannot say “America the Great” without feeling that I’m denigrating someone who doesn’t come from America. I can say that America is a great and mighty country. But, in the next sentence I will say that America has a lot to learn because we put out a public image of greatness without listening to what others have to say.

But, I have to revise this statement about listening, because here in Texas people really want to know (from all walks of life): what is life like in Germany? From the 80+ year old ladies at church, to the opera-happy lifeguard at the YMCA, to the lovely Beijing native watching his daughter swim, to my new neighbour helping me get acquainted with the landscape: everyone is eager to hear what it is like to make such a huge transition. And, unlike past encounters, they really listen. God bless Texas.

When I had a moment of wide-eyed awe at HEB in Mueller with two book club friends, they didn’t chastise me or act like I needed to hurry up and adjust. Marcia (pseudonym) said, “I’m loving watching our city through your eyes, it’s such a joy.” And I felt that trickle, again, of belonging. And part of it is that I’m looking for it. Everyday I’m going out and trying to connect, to be a part of my environment in a way I couldn’t quite manage the past ten years either because my surrounding community wasn’t open to it, or I was too ashamed of my poor linguistic skills.

My brother and I recently had a phone conversation about what it’s like to live in a country where you haven’t lived there long enough to run into people you know. It’s so isolating you wonder if you’re really alive, or if you’re a spirit drifting through another dimension. It is both trippy and incredibly devastating if you are an introvert who is afraid of being impolite and starting a conversation that might burden a stranger.

In my new surroundings, I’ve tried to follow the Brene Brown motto in Rising Strong of connecting, of reaching deeply (daring deeply) and embracing whatever failure might arise as being a part of the courageous living I’ve shied away from in one way or another.

There is a bravery required in belonging that I think can be a part of patriotism. Instead of saying, “look how free America is,” I’d love to hear people say, “What can I do to bring my freedoms to communities that are struggling?” Instead of criticizing your neighbours who leave their chicken bones in the street: try and see why they’re doing it. Have a conversation with them: “It matters to me that our neighbourhood is clean, how I can help make this a possibility?”

I agree that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another,” and I see many individuals working at grocery stores until 0100 in the morning and I can’t help wondering if that’s what America needs to be: an altar to the worship of endless goods? Or, can we be the instruments of an endless good that won’t begin and end with things, but people? My life is forever changed by the love of my friends in Germany. Without their faith in me, support, and kindness my life would have turned out very differently.

Andrew Jackson, that old rascal, stated: “No free government can stand without virtue.”And, I believe I have seen more virtue and kindness in my three weeks in Texas than ugly moments. I’ve had so many past ugly moments that I let define my opinion of my country. Now, I’ve chosen to be open to the stories, not the statistics, of what is every individual’s truth. I want to look at people on both a micro and macro level while avoiding easy answers and palliatives. Regardless of what goes on around me, it is not what I wear everyday or put on my bumper sticker that defines me, but what is written on my heart and evident in my daily actions.

 

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Returned From Abroad: Barriers to Integration

by Britta Jensen

WHERE INTEGRATION STARTS

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My brother and I have figured out that it takes less than seven days for a letter to transverse the globe from his home in Abuta-gun, Hokkaido, Japan to my flat in Amberg, Germany. His notes remind me of the multi-lingual missives my high school best friend and I wrote in a tiny green notebook that still resides in a trunk of journals I have kept since I was eight.

Now notes to myself are often written in three languages: English, Japanese and German. Individuals familiar with my background often ask about my “Asian” handwriting, love of hospitality (it’s difficult to leave my home without having had something to drink or eat), and will make fun of the fact I bow when I’m deeply grateful. A well meaning colleague went as far as to tell me it was time to “get over” the way I was raised so that I would have an easier time assimilating to life in the U.S. After twenty two years (split between childhood and working adulthood) spent living in Japan, South Korea and Germany I have come to appreciate that integration into any culture is often a two-way street.

My early life started close to the Mexican border. My mother was an interpreter for the deaf and my early memories are of conversations with hands, Mexican markets where she would bargain for the best vegetables on offer, and eating spicey dinners with our neighbour from Turkey. My family often drove across the Coronado Bay Bridge singing along to “Peki, Peki, Anlidik.” It wasn’t until two decades later, while dancing with my Turkish tango partner, that I learned the song’s translation. Unlike our neighbour, my partner wasn’t eager to talk about anything from his native country. He had learned early the necessity, even in New York City, of subsuming his other cultural identity. Like Yiyun Li states in her essay “To Speak is to Blunder” once he came to the U.S. he “became a new person…These are false and forced frameworks, providing illusory freedom…” I wonder how necessary it is for us to shed one identity in order to adopt another?

I understand the weariness of many an immigrant. When my family made a rare pilgrimage back to the U.S., relatives warned us about writing in hieroglyphs. My sister and I were told to stop speaking in Japanese in public because people would assume we were talking about them. For individuals not accustomed to speaking in more than one language, it was probably inconceivable that we weren’t being intentionally exclusive about communication. My sister and I were accustomed to speaking in two languages in a language mishmash. We also had assumed, mistakenly, that the cultural melting pot that the U.S. was famed for being, would go with the flow when it came to our speaking Japanese in public. We hadn’t spent enough time in the U.S. to know otherwise. America was still a famed country that had gilt edges whilst we were away. On NYC subway we became a target for every weirdo who wanted to ask us if we were speaking Swedish.

When I started taking post graduate courses at Columbia University I stopped hiding my multi-lingual background. In my first creative writing class the instructor asked us what we were afraid of.  My answer: “that my English isn’t good enough to become a decent writer.”  My brain considers all the languages I’ve studied one whole, not separate  branches on a language tree. Perhaps it is why half of my stories are set in places I’ve created, because the reality of where I came from is too difficult to extrapolate without making a setting that can integrate all of these cultural forces.

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It can be hard to describe what it is like to feel that a place is home, even while the people who inhabit that place will always view me as a foreigner. (Or, as the above right graphic exhibits think it is okay to comment on my genetic origins because I do not belong to the dominant culture).  Nevertheless, the pervasive racism in Japan could not destroy my love of my home because I had spent so many happy moments there and felt like I was woven into the fabric of my surrounding community.

When I moved to the northern tip of Manhattan, I had had similar feelings of integration in Washington Heights where I was invited to christenings, baptisms, weddings, and various other cultural celebrations. I quickly learned Spanish, lived in Argentina for a summer, and found a wonderful second home. This false sense of cultural security made me believe it was possible to assimilate anywhere.

A DECADE BETWEEN ASIA AND EUROPE

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In South Korea I encountered my first obstacle to integration: I had no relevant background or knowledge of Hongul (Korean). I had been there once in high school and though the country had encountered huge shifts of technological advancement, Daegu, where I lived, didn’t have enough foreigners for people not to constantly stare or point at me. There were enough false cognates in Hongul for me to have a very hard time learning the language.

However, after a year and a half of individual study I was able to read. It probably helped that I started attending an all-Korean congregation and sang in the regional choir. Surrounded by a band of Korean ladies between the ages of 15-70 they would whisper the words of the songs to me so I could write them down. Every Sunday baffled children would watch me sing in Hongul and wonder why it was I couldn’t have a conversation with them. Integration was not possible, but I was happy in knowing I had a community where I had a defined function and purpose.

When a job transfer gave me the opportunity to move to Germany I relished the opportunity to live in Europe and to be reunited with beloved friends. I left with the assumption that I would integrate much like I had in Korea. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for the cultural differences that only residents can be aware of.

Because I am a teacher, I have certain assumptions about learning that even beloved colleagues do not share. I believe that if you want to learn something, you will. Mastery in almost any skill requires a combination of sacrifice, good teaching, and focused repetition. Because Japanese and Spanish felt like they came so easily to me (and never quite required the same level of proficiency that my life in Germany demanded) I thought I would pick up a language in which I could already read, in no time. Local residents in my neighborhood quickly became frustrated when I didn’t learn German fast enough and became a burden on their hospitality.

Until this point the idea of “not learning fast enough” was foreign to me. Everyone learns at the pace in which their brain can work. Consequently, in Germany I was doing many things too slowly: driving (even when I was driving 10km faster than the speed limit), shopping, counting money, speaking, the list seemed to be endless. In my first three years there didn’t seem to be a week that didn’t go by that I wasn’t reduced to tears in the privacy of my car. I had chosen to reside forty-five minutes away from work in the largest  nearby city so I could learn German. Finances and writing/work obligations kept me from taking night classes and I was stuck in a limbo. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for the population of migrants and refugees that soon took up residence in Amberg.

At that time, I didn’t have the patience to realize that acquiring a language– that you haven’t had a lot of exposure to– takes time. I spoke as much as a two year-old in my first three years in Germany. Now, seven years on, I speak almost as well as a highly cognitive four year-old. Germany is not an easy country, particularly in my region, to integrate. Often policy makers for refugees, migrants, and foreigners do not understand that integration requires being invited into local people’s lives. It requires a certain hospitality that often the average German lacks. When I speak to friends about this they admit, frankly, that this is a problem. But, could this also not be isolated only to Germany? I have felt similarly in America: but do I set the bar higher for the country of my birth?

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay entitled “Teach Yourself Italian” she perfectly identifies what any immigrant needs “someone with whom I can struggle, and fail.” Essentially, integration requires good teachers. These can be friends, actual language teachers, community members, neighbours. A willing community is necessary where patience is at the heart of embracing different cultures. I have found this, once again, in my church community. Unfortunately individuals without such a network can suffer.

Two things have made my life in Germany a delight: having local friends, especially Germans who have lived extensively in other countries. These friends have been patient to help bring my language skills to the next level. One good friend, a homeopathic healer has helped me to understand that if I visualize that I am already good at something, I have tricked my brain into going along for the ride. But, if I concentrate only on my mistakes, the grimaces from fellow shoppers, then I won’t latch onto the good and the beauty that comes from having the humility to learn, to make a fool of oneself and enjoy the transitory moment of being vulnerable.

FOREIGN RETURNED

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Karlovy Most by Milo Jens

There is a certain blind faith I am exercising in going back to the U.S. It is the country of my birth, of my passport, but not necessarily my overall culture. I have become what some refer to as “third culture.” I have lived abroad longer than any of my other relatives, including extended family. At work I am surrounded by individuals who will never go back to the U.S. Some claim they will be buried on German, or foreign soil, rather than go back. I used to believe I would suffer the same fate.

I am aware that I have changed and like Lahiri, if I mention my tenuous cultural beginnings I often receive mixed reactions because of my pale appearance. “[M]any people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it….They don’t want me to change.” (“Teach Yourself Italian”, p. 11). There is an immense pressure to assimilate back to what I never was.  It is too late, because I have already changed and certain cultural variables can never integrate into American culture. Instead of letting this upset me, I am happy to belong to a subset of humanity that is growing: those without a primary culture, but whom are content almost anywhere.

I welcome your insights on integration and culture.