On Being Foreign

MY FATHER ARRIVED in America in 1951, after selling the last of everything the family owned to begin new lives in New York. He had grown up speaking Italian at home, French in school and Arabic on the streets. English was one of the languages my dad didn’t know. He would have to learn a new way to speak, a new way of life at 25 years of age.

They were a gypsy sort of family, roaming from Italy, to Algeria, to Tunisia and, finally, America; first New York, then to California. He was a third-culture kid well before it became part of the global lexicon. I suppose that was partially why my father was never quite clear about his background. He never would readily admit to being Italian, despite our surname, which was a dead giveaway and led straight back to the Sicilian village of Calatafimi. He would say we had a French-Italian background if pressed, adding that maybe the reason he was so strict with his girls was that he had a bit too much Arab in him.

“Can you put some goddamned shit on your ass?” he’d yell after us when we tried to sneak out of the house in a miniskirt in the oppressive San Fernando Valley heat.

We would be American kids. None of my father’s four children would learn to speak Italian. My grandparents were the only ones who spoke to us in the language, and they died when we were young. With his two sisters and younger brother, he spoke French. But not to us. The last thing he needed was for his children to be identified as poor, illiterate immigrants.

In the 1980s, when Scarface came out and everyone with any Italian heritage wore an Italian horn, my father winced when he saw a golden one dangling from my sister’s neck. He would remind us of where we were. “We are hamericans,” he would proclaim. And when I teased him about his accent in my Valley Girlesque whine, he shot back: “Don’t you give me that crap. You are the one with the goddamned haccent.”

Now it’s my daughter with the accent. She tells anyone who will listen she’s American. Mostly because she knows that’s where Mickey Mouse lives and, I suspect, finds it a bit exotic because wherever it is, it takes a really long plane ride to get there. It’s also a place where a lot of strange people kiss and hug her and give her sweets and clap when she does anything, including complicated things like tossing a ball or smiling.

Not that she remembers much about America. We’ve been back in Johannesburg for five years and she’s returned only once. She speaks with a South African accent, one that makes her American cousins giggle when she talks to them on Skype.

Multi-cultural lives
My daughter also has Czech to add to her cultural CV. My husband, who I met in Prague not long after graduating from university, is South African by way of Czech parents. He left his birth country in his young mother’s arms on a train in 1970, his father holding on to his six-year-old sister. It was two years after the Prague Spring and his father refused to stay with the communists. So they defected, closing the doors on their life, their home and their extended family.

When they arrived in Vienna with a few Czech crowns and a small bar of gold, they walked from embassy to embassy trying to get asylum. The South Africans were the first to accept and a few days later they traded communism for apartheid and took up residence in a tiny room in a cockroach-infested Hillbrow hotel.

Depending on whom he’s talking to, my husband will declare that he’s Czech or South African. This appears to be especially convenient in any kind of sporting situation. But he speaks Czech like a child and his cultural link is limited to special occasion knedliky (dumplings) and zeli (sauerkraut), and a predilection for Czech beer.

His parents, after more than 40 years in Southern Africa, which took them from Hillbrow to Parkview to Northcliff, then Francistown and, finally, a sprawling home with a pool and a tennis court in Randburg, are now selling up and returning to the Czech Republic. Their rand will go further there. They will get a small flat, socialised healthcare and a Czech pension. Well into their 60s, with their Czech-laded English, they will head back with their South African-laden Czech and become strangers yet again in a very different country to the one they left.

When I went back to California recently and asked the woman behind the till at a dress shop if she would throw away my cash slip in the “rubbish bin”, she smiled (Americans say “trash cans”) and asked with a thick Spanish accent, “Where are you from?” I chuckled to myself.

In South Africa I am a foreigner, too. I always couch my existence here by saying my husband is South African. I have my built-in defence when people ask why I’m here. I feel bad for those immigrants who don’t have marriage to hang their intrusive immigrant heads on. In general most South Africans are like most middle Americans. They are happy to see you for a while, glad you are appreciating their country and all, but you better be on your way.

Earlier this year in Arizona a stringent immigration law was passed to “identify, prosecute and deport” those illegally in the country. I wonder who will be the ones who “look” foreign in America. We are all a bunch of foreigners, save the Native Americans. That was the whole point of giving us your tired, your hungry, your poor.

“Xenophobic hatred simmers from boardrooms to townships”
South Africa has the most asylum seekers in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And xenophobic hatred simmers from boardrooms to townships. After all, what are all of us foreigners doing here taking South African jobs?

In some ways, South Africa is much like America. Growing up, my friends’ parents were from all over — Armenia, Argentina, Mexico, Lebanon, Morocco, France, England — and immigrants from Central America, Thailand, Korea and Iran were commonplace. Here in South Africa, my two last employers have been foreigners: one a Serbian, the other a Zimbabwean. Our new neighbours are Canadian by way of Bangladesh and my daughter’s best friend has a Dutch mother and a South African father from Polokwane.

The other day I met a lawyer from America who has four children, all raised in South Africa; his oldest is now at Columbia University in New York. I dream of my own daughter going to the University of California, Berkeley, and fantasise she will arrive speaking fluent Zulu and French and conversational Mandarin. These are my dreams, not hers, and who knows where she’ll end up. But I do know this: if she heads back to the land of her birth, she will be a foreigner in a foreign land just like me. My daughter, despite what her passport says, will be a South African.

Part of being from different places really means you are of none. Your sense of self is fragmented. You know the politics of San Francisco, the panelaks of Prague, the highways of Los Angeles, the malls of Rosebank. You know nothing in its entirety and unconnected strands of everything at the same time. Your memory mixes and fades and your sense of self and attachment to culture, tradition, family and place are a mirage. You reach out for something firm, something to believe in, something that has existed and will always exist and it dissipates as you wave your hand. There is a base — the constitution of your father and mother that is your very skin — but different places, different people make for different ideas.

And nothing is certain. Certainly not the weather. Not capitalism. Not democracy, not tradition, not the merging, mixed cultures and ethnicities and religions. Globalisation and third-culture kids are the present and the future; mutts, all of us, borders shifting, allegiances wavering.

My father used to say your country is where you can support your family. Joseph Oliver Pampalone was American, as red-blooded as they get. When he left Tunisia, he didn’t look back. And he never returned. He always said he wanted to remember it as it was.

The remnants of their life in North Africa are scattered throughout my aunts’ homes and my mother’s; the engraved copper tea set, the worn tapestry of an Arab family in the desert making couscous, the soft leather poofs, carefully preserved photographs of my aunts at the beach, friends dressed in Arab garb, my father drinking tea on what was then Avenue Jules Ferry.

What is my allegiance? I don’t really know. I have never even been able to choose a god, let alone live in a home, aside from the one I was raised in, for more than a couple of years. I am American. It’s what my passport says. For now, my country is South Africa. But where on the map will I live out my old age? About that I’m not at all certain.

Mail & Guardian, December 23, 2010

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