Monday, August 24, 2009

legal alien

the next issue of discounderworld will feature the stories of legal aliens. i've found that phrase, legal alien, rattling around in my head for several weeks, since stacey (founder/editor of discounderworld) put out the call for stories. i've even been fortunate enough to see one of the stories before publication because it features of a good friend of mine, but without giving anything away, let's just say it has me thinking even more. because i too am a legal alien.

and i realized that a whole lot of my favorite people are also legal aliens. a very good, longtime friend is born in fiji, has a new zealand passport and lives in denmark. some of my favorite blog peeps - bee is an american in england, polly is from poland, but living in england, paris parfait is an american in paris (doesn't that sound romantic?), B from spain lives in oxford, extranjera a finn in south africa, miss buckle is an aussie living in norway, kristine a norwegian in belize (or is it costa rica?) - are all legal aliens. and somehow that makes me feel less alone.

as a legal alien, i think there's always some part of you that intentionally keeps a distance from the culture in which you find yourself. i suppose it's a way of keeping a sense of who you are and holding on to where you come from. but i also suppose that as the years go by, the grip on your former culture becomes less and less and more and more of the culture in which you find yourself takes hold.

meeting bee at blog camp last week got me pondering how much americanness i have retained after more than a decade outside of the US. and also how much i've lost. observing her in her home in the english countryside, i was feeling as if i have very little americanness left in me. but i wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or wistful about that. in bee's presence, i longed a bit for that optimism, that openness, that talkativeness that are so essentially american. living in scandinavia has made me more pragmatic, more closed and much quieter, i'm sure of that. but i felt that being with her brought some of my inner american to the fore, the best bits of it, of course, surely not any annoying overbearingness.

hans j. wegner chairs in an antique shop in copenhagen
but we have them at our house too.

i know that style is one of the places where i have changed the most and absorbed the most of a danish sensibility. as a visitor recently pointed out, there's not a boring chair in this country. even public buildings like doctors' offices and the tax authorities have designer furniture, so i've definitely become a chair snob. living in the US, i took chairs completely for granted, just sitting on them and not giving a second thought to their design. now, i love to look at chairs and when i'm done judging people by the books on their shelves, i totally judge them by the chairs they have, especially in their dining rooms.

sneaked pic of stacks of arne jakobsen's 7 chairs in a copenhagen antique place

but any real native scandinavian coming into our home feels it has a very different sensibility than a white, clean, light, typically scandinavian one you'd see in a taschen interior book. so, the style we've evolved is a combination of my american roots (antiques and odd knickknacks) and my husband's swedish-danish roots. there aren't curtains and the light, when it's here, floods into our house. but there is a lot of color around - rich yellow on the kitchen walls, red refrigerator, turquoise in the studio. a vibrancy that's not completely normal in these parts. however, it's not really normal in my upbringing either - that was more plush carpeting and flowery wallpaper. it's surely the result of the mixing of the two cultures that's happened in the past decade.

one of the cultural aspects i've acquired is a taste for and more importantly, an ability to understand, irony and sarcasm. generally speaking, americans have difficulties with that and after 8 years of the bush administration, it feels like it's gotten even more earnest and humorless "over there." whenever i encounter humorless, common senseless airport security personnel in the US, i'm quite pleased to have spent that entire era on this side of the atlantic. but it's hard to know whether i already had a tendency towards irony and sarcasm in me (knowing my dad, i did) or whether living within a culture that is rich with it brought it out in me.

there are days when i feel very far from the little town i grew up in the middle of nowhere, upper midwest. and of course, i AM very far from there. but it grounded me to grow up there, gave me a strong sense of who i am and who i am not and surely enabled me to take the leaps i've taken to be where i am now. and i don't think we can fundamentally change on the inside, so i'll no doubt always be that little girl from the prairie, with the world view that gave me as a foundation. there are just a lot of other layers on top of her now - in every sense, actually - literally, figuratively, culturally - a worldly veneer that wasn't there has been painted on top. but the willingness to meet the world head-on and jump in with both feet is the same. i guess i've just got nicer chairs and a better camera these days.

in any case, i'm looking forward to the next issue of discounderworld. i'm really interested in what other people think about being legal aliens.


Ju said...

Gosh, I didn't even know you were American. You just seem to fit so well in Scandinavia I thought you were born there. Best of both world then.
I'm also a legal allien (Brazilian living in the UK for over 15 years) I do feel like a Londoner,( not English for some reason). I have embraced the culture and habits but deep inside I am foreigner that misses a lot about my home country. I feel even emotional now...
Anyway, very interesting post, yet again.

Ju ;)

will said...

I thought having a human head collection had gone out of style ... oh, well, at least Denmark knows about Hans Wegner.

And that 'earnest and humorless' business about Americans... Humorless is correct, earnest is not correct. I suggest some different words: confused, irrational, impotent, one dimensional (that's two words) and perhaps goofy and bonkers.

But, hey, what do I know, I paid attention when I was in school.

paris parfait said...

Very thoughtful post! I'm happy to be a legal alien, although I also lived in the Middle East for years, where I technically was an illegal alien. I'm also very relieved to have been living abroad during the Bush administration years. I think you're right about the lack of humor - not to mention critical thinking - in much of the US today. It saddens me and I often feel disoriented when I arrive in the US. Recently, I re-read James Michener's The World is My Home, which talks about how many of the great writers and observers of the US had to leave it in order to see America the way it really is - Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, among many. I think as Americans abroad, we sometimes notice things we overlooked when living in the US and were caught up in work, social obligations, etc. We hear more diverse views when living abroad and gain a different perspective.

Still, we are Americans at heart, no matter the influence of our adopted countries. I am happy to retain the wonderful American optimism and sense of possibility, as well as the American willingness to step in and help those less fortunate. It annoys me when people think that because we don't live in the US, we don't have the right to vote or to speak out about what's happening there. When I lived in the US, I was just as vocal about its problems as I am now (although maybe more people are listening now).

As for the chairs, those are wonderful and I greatly admire Danish design. (I have French vintage Tolix chairs at my dining table). The antiques and design influences in Europe have certainly affected the way I live.

spudballoo said...

Very thought provoking...isn't it interesting that I was the only non alien at BC 1.5? Most odd! I have to say that both you and Beth are VERY American still, but in your shoes I would be proud of that. xx

MissBuckle said...

It's even more confusing for me. Dad is an Aussie. Mum is a Norwegian, but didn't grow up in Norway.

I'm what they call a third culture child. Not belonging (yet I do) in any of my cultures. (Maybe Sabine feels a bit like this?)

In many ways I feel like an alien i Australia and Norway. But anyone who has spent a bit of time in Scandinavia, especially Norway, knows a fair bit about being judged.

I always find that I'm more confident, more myself, when I speak English with what I like to call world citizens.

McVal said...

Ooh! I like those Wegner chairs!
When we visited Ireland, I felt like I could immerse myself in their culture completely, but I know that eventually I would hunger for something American and want to keep that bit just for me. For now, back in the states, I hunger for anything Irish and keep those little bits here and there to remind me. It must be like that in reverse for you.

Suzanne said...

We Americans developed a sense of humor because of the Bush administration, but we are afraid to show it for the same reason.


ooooh wv is: elowsive. Sort of elusive, like moi.

Cyndy said...

I think what makes it interesting is the mix ~ for both sides. When I lived in South America as a young teen, my mom insisted we embrace the culture, and we did, but we were also always comparing everything to the U.S. Add to that a European contingency, and we were quite often living yet another culture. While I was very happy to return to safer American soil, to this day I feel a little different having lived in another part of the world. My eyes and mind were opened.

I really find it very intriguing to read the viewpoints outside of the U.S. post 9/11. While Bush and his cronies certainly painted a very ugly American portrait, I am not convinced that it would not have happened to anyone else in office. The American people were scared and venerable. Kicked on their butts and reeling. Safety and patriotism because the standard for all decisions. And as much as everyone likes to have a person to blame, it must be remembered that we voted for it ~ not once, but twice. Laughter did indeed disappear. It took months before Late Night hosts would crack a joke, and they do it for a living. No one felt it was proper to be happy when others suffered so much.

But ugliness comes in many packages. During the Clinton administration we embraced the politically correct standard. While very good at making us look at the "other side" of things, I am quite convinced that it also drove us to start accepting the lowest common denominator as a standard. We pulled everyone down instead of lending a helping hand up (subject for future post, but I seem to be doing a pretty good job of miniblogging here). Our forward progress was stymied and continues today. Add to that a looser set of morals, and I was just as ashamed of the ugliness.

Geesh. Too many somber thoughts for a sunny Monday. Don't even know if I bordered on being pragmatic ~ thoughts too easily mixed with ingrained patriotism, I suppose. But thanks for sparking the thoughts, as you always do.

wv: cycionat: a blend of cynicism and national patriotism that may sometimes cause confusion

Extranjera said...

Alien, yes. Legal? That, I'm not so sure about.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I don't know about the sarcasm thing, though. I remember, in my far distant youth, meeting a British guy on the beach in Bali who was so relieved to find someone who understood irony because he'd been hanging out with Germans for too long. Is it possible, instead, that airline security personnel are just, uh, not that smart?

Bee said...

Funnily enough, B and I were in Oxford today -- discussing (amongst other topics; like a pants decorating seminar and the TV show Weeds) this very subject.
We both feel un-American (or un-Spanish) when we are in our home countries, but clearly we are not "of" our adopted cultures, either (as Spud points out).

I disagree with Bill; I DO think that Americans tend to be earnest as a generalization. I agree with you that living in England has developed my understanding of irony and sarcasm, but does all humour here have to be MEAN?

About chairs: that's an interesting sub-topic. Every chair in our house is English or French. Perhaps that's why I've always preferred the word "hybrid." I like the mix-and-match of it all. Something about the word alien is just so Sci-fi . . . and it implies (to me) that one can never fit in or be at home.

Bee said...

I forgot to mention: the pictures are great. That first picture is WHACK.

kristina - no penny for them said...

scream - you have wegner chairs in your house?!!!! now i love you even more, if that's possible. honestly, when i finally make it to copenhagen, i'd love you to show me those shops.

and hm, the legal alien thing: my time in london was very special to me. being german feels weird most of the time and it's always been an issue in one way or another. but i really value deeply that my years abroad have given me a deeper understanding of my own identity and that of others.

Cwybrow said...

Chairs matter. ANd I want a red fridge! Aus is boring... grumble grumble.

Josefine said...

I love this post and I agree especially with the part about keeping the "new" culture on an arms length. I've spent four out of the past six years living in countries other than Sweden and I think it's quite interesting to see how when I'm not in Sweden, my Swedish traits become quite obvious, but as soon as I return there the things most obvious are the habits and ways of doing things that I've picked up somewhere else. It's like I'm inevitably stuck in the middle somewhere, not feeling I can identify completely with Swedes or Australians. It's not necessarily a bad thing, I think this in-between-ness also has a way of highlighting what's good in both countries, giving the feeling that somehow I get the best of both worlds. Which, you know, is kinda sweet.

Liz Fulcher, The Fragrant Muse said...

Are those helmet for sale?! I want one! I never cared for the term legal alien. It always sounds like "we'll let you stay, but never forget that you're not really one of us".

Sammi said...

I used to be a legal alien, being a Brit in Spain... how I miss it!

I think I lost a lot of my Englishness living there. I am far more blunt with what I say, I have a more European attitude towards life. I won't stay in a job I feel like is taking over my life, I won't waste time, but I will take my time. I work on Spanish time (I'm usually half an hour late). And the lost Englishness is not something I miss... I miss the Spanishness I feel as if I am losing, though.

rxBambi said...

I LOVE chairs! But hubs wont let me buy them, I just like looking and imaging where they have been, who sat in them, what they would look like in my house. I gotta tell you though I'm having that inadequate feeling again. My dining room chairs were my grandma's. I love them, but I think more so because they were hers, not because they are anything fancy. I'll have to take a picture and you can tell me what you think. I don't know anything about the style, I just like them. Ya know?

rxBambi said...

I LOVE chairs! But hubs wont let me buy them, I just like looking and imaging where they have been, who sat in them, what they would look like in my house. I gotta tell you though I'm having that inadequate feeling again. My dining room chairs were my grandma's. I love them, but I think more so because they were hers, not because they are anything fancy. I'll have to take a picture and you can tell me what you think. I don't know anything about the style, I just like them. Ya know?