Sunday, June 24, 2007

Foreignness

A quote from an interview with Margaret Atwood:

Foreignness is all around. Only in the heart of the heart of the country, namely the heart of the United States, can you avoid such a thing. In the center of an empire, you can think of your experience as universal. Outside the empire, or on the fringes of the empire, you cannot.

This speaks to me because of my own biographical history, namely, spending the earliest years of my childhood in a foreign land, a foreign culture, and then returning to my "homeland" in my youth. As a result, I've never felt the same sense of "hometown place" that many do; conversely, I'm comfortable when traveling, and can feel at home almost anywhere.

I wrote a paper in grad school coining the concept of insider/outsider status; the paper discussed an example based on fieldwork in an ethnic musical setting, was well-received, and presented at a couple of different academic conferences. Of course I realized, even then, that it was really an oblique attempt at spiritual autobiography. The truth is, I often still feel like a foreigner in my homeland; especially politically, when I often have to shake my head, unable to understand what seems to me to be utter madness. In truth, there's a long list of realms of life in which I remain someone who straddles the borders, one foot in one world, the other foot in another: constantly on the fence, walking between worlds, aware of both home and Other. It's been an interesting process, learning to balance all that, in my life.

How does foreignness affect us as poets? How does insider/outsider status? How about when we write from a viewpoint "alien" to our basic one?



I think about raiding my past. I've been finding family photos in my cleaning and organizing of my parents' house, and thinking about who that boy and young man was, in those old photos: what he was thinking about. (Ignoring the fact that the photo I found of myself at 16, wearing very tight white shorts—it was 1975—and a yellow tank top, makes me remember how continuously I was thinking, as young men do at that age, about sex, sex, sex.) One of my ongoing projects right now is to scan alll of our re-discovered family photos, both to preserve them digitally, but also to distribute copies on CD to family members; fortunately, many of the old photos are labeled on their backs. I have a picture of my Dad in short pants on the sunlit porch of his childhood home in Lansing, MI. I have photos of my school friends, and myself, playing, in short pants. You think about time, and its passing. Perhaps it puts you into an elegiac mood, but it also makes you think in a very hard-headed way about legacy, time, change, growth, and death. What dies? Individual biographies die, but species biography might continue, if all goes well. I am thinking in multiple scales, multiple frames. What's foreign to me is a lack of such inner contemplation; what's foreign is the unexamined life.

I'm also thinking of raiding my storage boxes with all those old grad school papers in them, maybe revising them, and posting them on my website; maybe as PDFs rather than HTML pages. In the forefront of my mind at the moment is the insider/outsider paper I mentioned above. Technical conversion challenges (about getting those old papers digitized) aside, it's interesting to look back at what I used to think, and see where I've evolved, and where I still basically think the same things. My own insider/outsider status (bisexual, born on an astrological cusp, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, two-spirited, etc.) is on the table.

When I was in my 30s, I had a friend (wife of an acquaintance) who was born and raised in Africa of English ancestry, and had married an American and was living in Madison, WI. She introduced me to the concept of the Global Nomad: people who are stateless, sometimes by choice, more often by habit because of rootless upbringing, who share some common characteristics; one of them being the ability to be comfortable when traveling. "Culture shock" is something many global nomads don't feel very often—except perhaps when confronted by something from within their theoretical home-culture that shocks them because of its provinciality. We are accustomed to change, and tend to be adaptable, and open to new experiences; we tend to be unfazed by the Unknown and the Exotic.

I think also of Bruce Chatwin, in some ways the embodied archetype of the global nomad: a bisexual man who married but never stopped sleeping with men, whenever he traveled, which was most of the year; he wanted both the respectability of a rooted British citizenship and the openness of being able to go wherever intrigued him, and whenever. He used his consdierable charm to cajole people into supprting him. He was a gifted writer, whose talent never reached its full power when he wrote novels (in my opinion); while it was his ambition to be a famous travel-novelist, in fact his most compelling, gripping writing (in my opinion) is in his journals, his travel notes, his random jottings about nomadics. Every Global Nomad needs to carry a copy of Chatwin's The Songlines on their travels. It's a book I carry with me whenever I take one of my long road trips. It contains not only wisdom, but comfort.

Am I foreign from my own birthplace? Alienation isn't the right word for what I feel; foreignness seems so much more accurate. It's not that I feel alienated from my home-country; it's that I tend to view it through the lens of a visitor, a tourist, or an anthroplogist doing ethnographic fieldwork: somewhat remotely, from the emotional distance an interested and engaged foreign visitor might feel. I feel very engaged with my home-place, but I do not feel as if I am from there, or that I necessarily belong there. I can't label this alienation so much as a lack of those essential connections to place that I hear in the spaces between the words, whenever I listen to people who have been born and bred in a particular place, talk about their homes with all the love and affectionate griping that only those who have lived all their lives close to their birthplace can feel. Those strings to one's "hometown" elude me still.

But that's that insider/outsider interface, isn't it? That what from the inside seems natural is out of place in a shifted context. It's not that foreignness is defining you in the eyes of the locals, or some other Others, but rather that they're defining anyone (not just me, not just you) not of their local, familiar, well-known Tribe, to be an Other, a foreigner. In other words: it's not personal, it's general. Anyone who is foreign would get a similar response, one presumes.

The degree of isolationism and insularity practiced by the tribe has some play here, as to the matter of degree of foreignness one feels: for example, being dropped in a small isolated village where you speak little of the language is a rather different experience than being dropped in the middle of a cosmopolitan metroplex, for example, Amsterdam. (I choose Amsterdam over Paris or London or New York or Tokyo because in my experience Amsterdam is more cosmopolitan, more laissez-faire, than any other European city I've visited.)

There are moments when you get caught on this cusp, without expecting to. Growing up as I did in a relic of the British Empire, I comprehend a lot of the slang and cultural stuff about Britain and the Commonwealth that a lot of my USA friends don't. It doesn't feel foreign to me. So, I occasionally get stuck on the horns of the dilemma of being able to track a Brit joke or phrase, then realizing that no one around me got it, and then feeling like I have to "translate." (Translation is of course about more then simply words: it's about worldviews, body language, cultural tropes, and expectations.)

What makes something local is that there's an expectation, or an assumption, about its nature that isn't shared universally among all other human beings in all other cultures. Many more of these expectations are local, rather than general, than most people believe, or want to believe. My nomadic experience leads me to believe that people who travel tend to shed more of their tribal assumptions about the nature of reality than those who don't; in other words, there's truth behind the cliché that "travel broadens."



A side-bar topic that often comes up, parallel to this one, is something worth mentioning here, then letting drop: the charge that every seasoned traveler tends to run into, when they point out something from their experience of foreginness, of "cultural relativism." I'm going to address that briefly, then let it drop, and not pick it up again; call it a pre-emptive mini-rant, if you will: it's worth addressing, but I'm not going to give it any more attention than it deserves, which is a minimum. So, before anyone gets caught up in yammering about "cultural relativism," it's wise to remember that cries of "cultural relativism!" aren't about the genuine encounter with the Other, they're typically about resistance to a genuine encounter with the Other, and resistance to change: they are typically based on xenophobia, to be blunt.

I reject simplistic formulations about foreignness and foreign cultures on the basis that they are simplistic. Simplistic formulations are almost always wrong, period. For example: Most anti-"cultural relativism" rhetoric in my experience comes from the same mindset that tends to be anti-PC not because PC can be silly in its extremes, which it certainly can, but because for whatever reason some folks just don't want to have to deal with those genuine issues of fairness that underlay the origins of PC. It's very easy to be dismissive, to make broad sweeping generalizations about the goofy extremes of PC rhetoric, of which indeed there are numerous examples, but such broad sweeping generalizations tend to overlook the complexities of the motives that lay behind the ideas of equal fairness that later morphed into PC. In other words, such simplistic formulations tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

15th-century maps, with the misconceptions about what was actually there—California was an island paradise akin to El Dorado on some maps; and instead of Polynesia there's a big blank space labeled "Here Be Dragons"—such simplistic assumptions about foreignness are laughable even when offensive, coming as they do from folks whose ideas of foreignness are on the level of saying that the French put too many pickles on their hamburgers in the McDonald's joint in downtown Paris.

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