A recent slightly stingy criticism from a friend, about using a foreign language as an aid to explain something to a weaker English speaker, triggered a nostalgic thinking spree. In my first 17 years in the States, I spoke English only. From the moment my passport was stamped and green card was handed to me at the airport, I was an exclusively English speaking resident, part by personal choice and part by my mother’s stubborn refusal to speak to me in any other language, and she began as soon as my jet lag wore off and I woke up from my first NyQuil induced coma. This was the same mother who on the other side of the border, had no problem speaking to me in our native tongue, but not here, ever! (hard core Balkan women, it’s how we roll)
Arriving to America, among other new beginnings, also meant no longer speaking a word of my native language, which translated into slow, deliberate schism from my past, my friends, relatives, culture, tradition and habits… My mother was probably convinced that immediate and full assimilation was necessary to keep any amount of teen nostalgia from rubber-banding me right back to Europe. In this case, even though the pull back was very strong, resistance was truly futile. She was smart, and intimately familiar with my passionate, loyal personality. I am sure she counted her blessings when she found out that at the time of arrival to America, I no longer had a boyfriend. She was asserting her will boldly, hoping she would prevent secret strings pulling my heart back, yet, she made one small error, she failed to secure the phone line. Within 2 weeks, I had to get a job to pay her back for all the extravagant reconnecting I did with my past, while she was at work.
Thrown into work immediately, I immersed myself into a new routine, I was busily assimilating, day in and out, slowly separating from old thinking, old conversations, old concerns, old world. But I felt like I was in a no man’s land during that time. I belonged nowhere in particular and nowhere completely, neither here nor there. My native language was getting weaker and weaker with each year of non use, letters became impossible to write, I was forgetting things, it was getting challenging to talk on the phone as I ended up stuttering, desperately searching for words that faded away.
With my new busy lifestyle, I no longer had time nor energy to keep trying. The distance was growing further and my past was rapidly fizzing away. While my English was getting stronger, my accent was often getting in the way of being taken seriously, regardless of my knowledge, experience or abilities it was slowly chipping away at my confidence. Over time I sank from highly egotistical surface existence into an overly humble, inner, solitary one. It wasn’t until years later that I reached a point in my corporate career, when peers kept coming to me to proof-read their work, that I finally realized that I can actually write okay in English, it gave me just enough of the necessary boost in confidence to consider starting to attempt more of the kind of writing I was once used to. But it was just not there yet at that point.
And then Facebook happened! It was a paradigm shift for me, and my cognitive and lingual world was turned upside down once more. This time it pulled the old world super close to me, pretty much outside my window, I could not deny it or run from it. Facebook was an instant reconnection to and an undeniable re-bonding with the world I used to belong to. It was like opening the door and stepping straight into my youth and my past, to my language, and my past identity.
Now safely anchored into my not so new life in America, I was free to explore and let myself dive straight into my past, without dire consequences that frightened the daylights out of my mother. My first messages to my friends on Facebook were all written in English, my friends responded in our native tongue. I understood perfectly well, but I could not speak or write. I was stuck for so long, it seemed I would never get moving. I remember how insanely accomplished and proud I felt when I finally composed my first e-mail, start to finish, with using only few English words as props.
My mother’s bizarre master plan may have been brilliant after all. This experience of relearning and reconnecting was completely cathartic, and besides it being so stimulating, it also opened up a whole new world for me. It connected me with the local community of expats, former citizens of my country, the same country that was torn into pieces, dispersing its people around the planet, seeking safer, freer life elsewhere, the country that regretfully no longer exists, former Yugoslavia. But despite the war and bloodshed, these people, expats, do still happily co-exist together forming a live and well mini version of the country which we so sweetly shared and cherished, until its sad demise. It’s here, they are all here, and have been here, despite my decades long denial about their existence, ever since I arrived to America.
Once my native language found its way back, rolling of my tongue confidently, existing along side English peacefully, unselfishly sharing my life’s “timeline”, proudly and in equal parts, I was ready to accept, to add and reconnect and to love and appreciate my native language, my past and my roots. I no longer feel conflicted about my past, or forced to deny it, or dismiss it. It didn’t take long to speak fluently again, like a native, to write effortlessly and even joke or swear. And because I was so amputated from that world for almost 2 decades, I now appreciate and devour every little nuance of it, with more zeal than ever before.
So when after years worth of effort to self assimilate and prove to my mother, myself and others how solidly American I am, how I earned and deserved my right to vote, celebrate, feel patriotic, live this American dream, and dream in English, I am accused of not letting go of my past, or keeping the country, language and tradition from which I came in higher regard or even let it trump the country of which I have been a proud citizen for over 2 decades, it makes me want to do one of my rarely used eastern European eye rolls, along with air hand gesture, and a faint, under chin uttered whateva’, put on an American flag baseball hat, and go have a cappuccino, with my comrades, at a local cafe Europa.
Tags: american dream, assimilate, balkan, cognitive, confidence, friendship, humble, language, life in america, lingual, native, paradigm shift, passion, past, reconnection, speaking, words, writing, youth, yugoslavia