Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The translator: a stranger in my own country

A couple of weeks ago, at a small friendly gathering of language professionals, I met an elderly gentleman who claimed to be able to pinpoint a person’s place of birth by listening to the individual’s accent.

He couldn’t correctly place me.

I might, despite decades of speaking English and French, still retain traces of the Polish I spoke as a preschooler.  I remember vividly being called a “dumb Pollack” on the school playground.  The “Pollack” part of the insult didn’t bother me as much as the prefix “dumb.”  The insult may not have been applied to me more than once or twice in my childhood, but I was determined to fight the image, especially since I had heard it being tossed around, almost like a catch phrase.  Being young and female (boys were allowed a punch in the nose), I went about it the wrong way.   I corrected our teacher’s pronunciation of Kosciusko during a history lesson.  She said “Ko-See-Us-Ko” and I winced.

It isn’t easy being “different”, being perceived as a foreigner.  We all want to belong.  In France, I strive to be one of the French.  I watch to see if cashiers in stores and wait staff in cafés instinctively speak to me in French, clueless as to my origins.  This past September, I walked into a tourism office in Bordeaux to ask for directions and I was asked “What département [French administrative district] are you from?  For our records…”  I smiled and said “Chicago!”  Under all my masquerading language games of hide and seek, I always have the comfortable feeling of two homes:  one in Chicago and one with my French family in Clamart.  A feeling of belonging. 

When I returned from France in the fall, a neighbor across the street had studded his front yard with “Trump” signs pledging to “Make America Great Again.”  My visceral reaction sent me back to Junior High, where I felt like the oddball living in the wrong place.  Or maybe this neighbor was the oddball?  I keep telling myself that Hillary won the popular vote!  The fact that Trump’s popularity could rise despite his anti-immigration remarks meant that were a whole lot of 2nd and 3rd generation Americans out there who were the grown-up versions of my bullies from the playground.  They weren’t going after me this time, but Mexicans and Muslims instead. 

Two days before the election, I had gone to visit my father at his nursing home.  A few residents were assembled in their wheelchairs in front of a big screen TV, watching (or sleeping through) a black and white video of a presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.  I sat with my Dad and watched, fascinated.  When it was over, the Activities director got up in front of the group and asked “does anyone remember these debates?”

Younger than the seniors around me in their wheelchairs, I still remembered watching recordings of the debates.  I raised my hand and launched into praise for Kennedy’s and Nixon’s eloquence, decorum, politeness, the intelligent elaboration of a thought into speech.  No easy three-word slogans in monosyllabic chants intended to spark adrenaline.  No interruptions and name calling.  Instead, we had just watched a cerebral exercise between two contenders for the highest office in the land.  The irony of the situation was that they would both eventually win the Presidency, and both lose it prematurely:  one through assassination and the other through resignation following revelations of deceit and disrespect for the law.  I watched them and thought that they were both high and low points of politics in my lifetime.

It has been difficult for my age group to be seduced by politics.  My oldest cousin fought a losing war in Vietnam, coming home to angry protest.  The first President of my memory was assassinated and we never really learned why.  Johnson’s administration was fraught with protests and race riots that had terrified my parents and kept us from venturing into downtown Chicago, isolating us in the cookie cutter houses and manicured lawns of the suburbs.  We later saw Americans taken and held hostage in the Middle East, and a B-movie actor considered to be the Great Communicator of the United States bust up unions, starting with Patco (air traffic controllers?  really?), and begin the great shift of American wealth towards the wealthiest in the country, on the premise that it would “trickle down” to the rest of us.  He was almost shot to death as well.   Gun violence has been a constant.

During the discussion in my father’s nursing home, I started to explain to the three or four assembled caregivers my complete disarray over Trump’s popularity.  Didn’t people see that, as a billionaire Republican, he wasn’t really interested in helping low-income families?  He wants to scrap health care reform, the Paris climate agreement, the EPA, and reduce taxes on the rich!  I suddenly realized that I was drawing a small crowd:  other caregivers in their smocks and running shoes were gathering around, listening to my dialog with the activities director.  “Trump is a TV personality with loads of money and no governing experience!  And the people who are voting for him are voting against their own interests.”  The closest Trump was ever going to get to the working class was putting that baseball cap over his elaborate comb-over.

When I expressed my thoughts that Trump was playing to people’s fears, someone brought up terrorists and inviting refugees into the U.S.  I told them that the guys who shot up Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan in Paris were French citizens, born and raised in France. 

Ideally, America, spread out behind Lady Liberty lighting the path inward with her torch, should be one of the rare places on earth where human tendencies towards xenophobia are conquered by higher principles.  And yet all the fears are just below the surface, just waiting for someone to come along to whip them up and give them a voice.  Racism has always been a huge factor, but what really drove the election, leading Time Magazine to call us the “Divided States of America”, is the perceived division into “haves” and “have nots”, “privileged” and “takers” that blurred racial and ethnic lines.  And it all worked because of an even greater divider:  “informed” and “uninformed”.  A poll was released last night that showed that 54% of Trump’s supporters believe he won the popular vote.  When it comes to missing the obvious, it doesn’t take a lot of information to get people to vote against their interests.  Just a few piercing syllables of the right kind.  Three word slogans and adrenaline-spurring chants.  Truth and facts are the victims.

When the election was over, I left Facebook.  I was too “radical”, posting opinion articles from the New York Times, when really I was supposed to be using Facebook to be enthused about someone’s new shoes, a photo of an elaborate drink in a bar on a Saturday night, or the latest escapades of the new puppy in the house.  I find those things hard to compare with the consequences of national elections.  The last straw was being told by someone I “friended” to “redirect my time” to other pursuits, after I posted a map of the U.S. showing just how many Americans did not vote.  The woman who criticized my post was defending her right to abstain from going to the polls.

She wrote that she should leave these decisions up to people who know more than she does. 

I have known her since childhood. She was one of the kids who had been on my playground at school.



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