Monday, June 17, 2013

English Lessons: On Becoming a Foreigner

The mysterious place where reader and writer meet
Duncan's painting of eyes in the sky

The distance between New York and London is 3,461 miles as the crow flies, only a six- or seven-hour flight—that's less than an honest day's work—but the emotional distance is incalculable.

          This took me by surprise when I recently returned home to New Jersey from a visit to my sister, Dida, in Walton on Thames in Surrey, not far from London. She and I are online together daily, and New York and London are, of course, both major cities in the Western hemisphere that share a common language. But so much had happened since the last time I stayed with her. Twenty years had happened.

          To give you the peculiar flavor of this culture shock, let me give you five examples of existential disturbance, one for each day of my journey.

1. Exotica.

My first clue that things were not as they seemed: a flight attendant takes my order of chicken korma from Virgin Atlantic's menu and says, "Ah, you've chosen our national dish." He is young, pale, and British, and I wonder for a moment if he is making a racist comment, but his smile is sweetly benign. He probably utters this remark to American korma eaters on every flight.

          Later on, walking through Walton, I notice most of the restaurants are Indian. What happened to steak and kidney pie? (On the other hand, we also pass an ultra-chic McDonalds with dramatic lighting, apple-green accents, and attractive seating, suggesting that American fast-food joints are squalid by design.)

          Dida's backyard contains an olive tree, a palm tree, a very fruity fig tree, and an enormous eucalyptus towers over her neighbor Josje's fence, along with a monkey puzzle tree—none of which would survive in New Jersey. Knocking lesser birds off their feeders are squawking flocks of bright green birds with drooping tail feathers and pink beaks. Their noise can be heard all through British suburbia: the parakeets have gone native.

          Bernie, Dida's good friend and colleague, spends his free time filming the squirrels in his backyard as they devise new and clever ways to violate his bird feeders. For him, the squirrels are more fascinating than all the parakeets flapping through his videos.

          In addition to the shock of chicken korma and parakeets, to say nothing of oddly shaped electrical outlets and driving on the wrong side of the road, we must make the effort to translate our own language:
kilos to pounds, pounds to dollars, boots to trunks, pavements to sidewalks, prams to strollers, biscuits to cookies, chips to fries, crisps to chips, roundabouts to circles, car parks to parking lots, flats to apartments, pubs to bars, brilliant to  awesome, sellotape to scotch tape, plasters to Band-Aids, loos to toilets, arses to asses, bollocks to balls, aubergines* to zucchini, etc. [*My editor (my sister Kathy who lives in Holland) just informed me it's aubergines to eggplant and courgettes to zucchini.]
We have the same hours in a day and the same language, but we use and spell, pronounce and interpret ever-so-slightly differently. That's what makes us foreigners. Whether we're the same or different, our assumptions are always being challenged.

Duncan's clock

Outside McDonald's looking in

Josje's eucalyptus tree

Josje's monkey puzzle tree

Turtle dove

Parakeets at Bernie's feeder, left
Duncan's parakeet
2. Becoming a caricature.

Americans are frequently accused of being xenophobes, yet we romanticize foreign accents. French is always romantic, Spanish passionate, Russian poetic and a little decadent, German's quite sinister, and British is aristocratic.

          In England, I don't speak English properly; I speak it with an American accent.

          But even my American accent is wrong. When I say I come from New Jersey, I'm occasionally contradicted because I don't speak the way I'm supposed to, like one of the thugs on "Jersey Shore" or "The Sopranos." I suspect myself of faking the teeniest British accent under duress, just a kind of minor polishing up, softening a vowel here, trimming an offensive consonant there, so as to blend in better.

          But when I forget to pay attention, I talk way too loud and guffaw when I laugh. My body takes up too much space and I can't stop hugging everyone, and my Rs just seem to drone on and on and on like a chainsaw.

          Then it hits me. I am that bull in the china shop; I'm the Ugly American.

          Tourist incarnate, I actually took out my camera in Boots to snap pictures while shopkeepers looked on warily. I explained (loudly and too enthusiastically) that everything looked different. To be honest, they were probably not laughing with me. While I'm not especially violent or attracted to firearms, I recognize in myself that grain of truth that's always embedded in stereotypes.
          Certainly not all Americans are super-sized gluttons, loud, crude and demanding, simple-minded, shamelessly entitled, overbearing, overly familiar, offensively demonstrative, wildly emotional, narcissistic oafs with no self-control who own handguns.

          I am, however, fat. And loud and crude. Not so much a simpleton, perhaps, as tongue-tied and ponderous in my speech...and, I'm an emotional wreck and quite seriously self-absorbed. I'm not a person; I'm a caricature.

          Shit. Shite.

3. When a cigar is not a cigar.

For ages I've been meaning to read Susan Sontag's essay, "Against Interpretation," but there's a problem. I'm afraid she'll build such a convincing case against ever trying to make sense of anything and, by extension, the futility of ever trying to communicate with each other that, one by one, sensitive readers such as myself will curl into the fetal position and close our eyes forever. Conversely, whatever case Sontag makes is her own interpretation of facts, which presents a self-destructive paradox, right?

          When you really take time to look at the paintings of my nephew, Duncan Mitchell, you risk losing your bearings and never again being quite sure where you are. Here are five paintings he probably didn't intend to group together.






All the walls of Dida's house are covered with Duncan's paintings. I stand in a corner of the kitchen while dinner is simmering, admiring the fourth image of the pretty cup, when Dida brushes past, whispering, Tempest in a teacup.

          Once she mentions it, I notice there is definitely a tornado spinning around in the cup. How had I missed that? There are even flashes of lightning. Had I mentally airbrushed the twister into a more sensible shape, like a teaspoon or a wisp of steam, so I wouldn't have to think about it, or did Duncan mean it to be subtle?

          "Look, it starts here," she points to the third painting. "And something is definitely going on there, too," Dida says about painting number two.

          Perhaps if we don't expect a storm in a teacup, we don't see it. Of course, once you've actually seen a tornado in a teacup, you can't very well unsee it and you must immediately begin to explain it to yourself.

          As a foreigner, you expect these little shocks and learn to quickly twist the experience of incomprehension into something reasonable so you can move on—so that your hold on reality doesn't slip. Once our expectations are challenged, we either forfeit the game of sense-making or we find ourselves in Wonderland chasing meaning down that rabbit-hole.
My rabbit-hole
Duncan's archway
          Why does Duncan put a tempest in a teacup? The phrase itself refers to making a big deal out of nothing, which is what I think of every art critic (or anyone else) who insists on one correct interpretation for the masses. 

          For me, that fourth painting reverses the notion of calm in the eye of a storm. Everywhere, even here in a genteel teacup, which is supposed to provide warmth and refreshment, is the threat of chaos.

          The last painting of the series seems to flip the whole concept around so that presented on a gigantic teaspoon is a mini-teacup out of which a mini-man is peeking.

          To me these paintings are intelligent and witty, whimsical and beautiful expressions of a free spirit breaking out of the alien everyday world that confines him. Why did Duncan paint teacups? What do they mean to others? I honestly have no idea, but I long to know because every interpretation is autobiographical and I crave, as we all do, the comfort of intimacy.

Certain phrases disturbed Duncan. There's a bee in my bonnet scared him because he was capable of interpreting language quite literally, and having a bee in your bonnet is, well, scary.
Duncan's father, Allan, who was a beekeeper, shared his ideas about this painting with me. He interprets the wisp on top of the beehive hat as a swarm of bees returning to the hive. Allan's explanation probably reflects Duncan's intention.

          But I can't look at the painting without thinking about obsession. When you have a bee in your bonnet, you can't let go of an idea: you are in its grip. I enjoy my obsessions as much as the next person, but at the same time, complete loss of control is always frightening. Maybe that is why the wisp Allan sees as a swarm is, for me, an image of smoking out the hive. Our opposing interpretations express the same basic optimism about returning to safety. I'm not at all sure Duncan would agree to such a happy ending, but who knows?      
DuncanLand is as real, familiar, and foreign a place as England to America. It has its own landscape and language, which is different for everyone because we make it up ourselves out of Duncan's given set of elements.

          Common motifs in Duncan's paintings include stars, starfish, moons, balloons, tornadoes, lone figures, processions (both human and animal), and flat horizons. These elements are often combined in surprising ways: a man holds a moon or starfish that is tethered like a balloon; a man carries a balloon in a tornado; a marching band journeys through the desert with a camel. These themes are repeated so poignantly and so often that we know their meanings are as significant as they are mysterious. Duncan's subjectivity and creative freedom inspire us to create, to be playful and true, and to follow our hearts.

And just for elegant woman sits before a music stand
blowing the tiniest horn, maybe a children's party favor
          Duncan's brother asked him once why he so often painted flat horizons. Duncan explained it was because of all the video games they played as kids. An art critic might be disappointed by that explanation, but I am not. Duncan was very at home in childhood and that magical quality is present in his work. I can imagine him spending hours lost in that alternate universe of video games (the way my son is), where the landscape is so simplified and direct and one's purpose so clearly defined. In video games, we always know who the bad guy is, and we know we always prevail if we just persevere. In the real world there are no guarantees.

          Freud said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," but we all know he was just defending his cigar habit. A cigar is not a cigar when you enter unknown territory—like another country or another person. Subjectivity is the human condition and the idealization of objectivity is really a cruel distortion. Freud's remark can only be as valid as it's counterpart, in RenĂ© Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images. Magritte depicts a pipe, with the caption, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." This is not a pipe.

4.   Grief is a foreign land.

Grief is different for everyone, and yet also the same. Our loss is incomprehensible, so we ourselves become grief's language.

          If you met my sister, you would find yourself in the warm company of someone truly present, who is remarkably interested in the people around her, in her work, and in exchanging ideas, who listens with great attention, and enjoys laughing. And when it's time to cry, she cries.

          Dida calls weeping her hobby; she does it spontaneously, daily, openly, and often without warning. She says it is the best way to to communicate what she feels.
Sometimes a balloon is not a balloon.
At  Josje's house, as we put extra food into her fridge for our memorial gathering,
this white balloon appeared outside at the window, bobbing up and down to get our attention.   

5. Reverse culture shock.

The passenger beside me on the flight back is an attractive, youngish man in fashionably torn jeans struggling to remove his jacket without elbowing anyone. I tug at the fabric caught around his arm so he can free himself. It's a natural impulse and I don't think before touching him, but the stranger doesn't know what to make of my gesture and looks away quickly.

          There is turbulence. Far below wispy clouds is a monotonous, solid-looking surface of bottle-green flecked with white. The flight attendant looks out the window and says, "Choppy down there," like he's familiar with the area. It's the same vista for hours, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

          The last hour of the flight we are instructed to remain seated and keep our seat belts fastened. It feels like we're in an old jalopy bumping down a dirt road, hitting every pothole as fast as we can. I try to pretend we're on solid ground, but it's no use. We're 35,000 feet above the earth, traveling over 500 mph.
          Meanwhile, my neighbor turns a sickly shade of yellow. He clutches a vomit bag in one hand and with the other drapes his jacket over his head. I call the flight attendant over and she brings him a cup of ginger ale to soothe his stomach. I want so much to rub his shoulder that I clutch the armrests to stop myself. I close my eyes, concentrating on his well being with all my might, and calm down. We bounce three times on the tarmac before landing. The engine roars, then abruptly slows down. 

          I rub my neighbor's back and say, "We're almost there now."

          He takes the jacket off his head and says Thank you. Really, thank you. He's British. It's so good to be understood.
A sketch on a wall of Duncan's apartment
Duncan's way of fixing the broken lock on his door