The Happy American

by 11:35 AM 0 comments
I spent most of my adolescence thinking that I wasn't really American. Sure, my passport says USA, and I was definitely born in Florida. But the bright-eyed, chipper, pudgy face of America didn't resonate with me. I was anxious and moody. When I read books about Eastern European Jews in the shtetl, I thought, that's me! Or German nihilism, or French existentialism. Basically, anything that involved discontent that couldn't be solved with a shopping spree. I was positive I had been mis-placed by God, and I was waiting for the day when I would escape to Europe and pout among my brethren.

I love this line from Steppenwolf:

"This music was at least sincere, unashamedly primitive and childishly happy...The American, who with all his strength seems so boyishly fresh and childlike to us Europeans." 

I didn't feel sincere, fresh, or childlike. I had an old, tired soul. I was European, damn it!

I had the gleamings of a wake-up call from this fantasy when I was complaining to a relative about my high school classmates. 'You know, the kids in my government class don't think deeply about political science, it's so reflexive with them. And I'm reading the Brothers Karamazov, and I think I would be much happier in 19th Century Russia, because people back then had these really meaningful conversations, and they were always thinking about philosophy, and struggling with the nature of humanity. So I think I'm in the wrong time and place, and I'm planning on moving to Russia at my earliest convenience.' NOTE: THIS IS PROBABLY ALMOST A DIRECT QUOTE OF MYSELF AT THE TIME. And my relative responded, "Marina, people didn't really talk like that then, or ever. The author just wants to synthesize his own thoughts, and he's putting them into different character's mouths."

That knocked the wind out of my Europe-bound sails. Seriously, it's funny to me now, but that was one of the largest paradigm shifts of my life. I kept re-playing those words in my mind for months and months. On the one hand, the knowledge was satisfying: I wasn't missing out on the amazing philosophical journey that was 19th Century Russian life. On the other hand, my dream was unattainable. But then...I still thought everything would be better in France.

So in college, I promptly enrolled in French 101. I studied with an enthusiasm that made up for my lack of aptitude for the language. I loved it. I spent two years hacking through grammar, and finally, the Summer after my Sophomore year, I was on the French riviera. 

I was prepared for this to be like a French new wave film. Basically, I thought it was still the 1960s in France, and I expected everyone to be scribbling frantically into notebooks over an espresso, unless they were on the beach barefoot and strumming on a guitar. 

Reality set in quickly. My host mother had lived through the 1960s, but retained none of it's cool malaise. Her favorite topics of conversation were: 1. The price of yogurt, 2. The "Arab problem", and 3. The Russian nouveau riche.

It turns out that French people are not on a different plane of existence than Americans are. They go to the mall, they eat processed food, and they watch TV. Okay, maybe not as much as we do, but still. They're also more openly racist than we are, not just my host mom, I met a lot of people who shocked me by speaking the way that she did.

This trip was during the George W Bush years, and I was acting as an ambassador for him. Why are you all so stupid? Your president is a stupid man! the kebab makers and bartenders would ask me. It didn't matter that, as I often explained, I didn't vote for him, and neither did almost half of the country.

Despite my frustration with American politics, it was during this trip that I realized I am deeply American. I love laughing, and talking loudly. I love to get excited about things. I love dancing in bars and optimism. I love air-conditioning and elevators. It took me leaving America to understand what our culture is, and to realize that it is a part of me.

So, while I may not stand out as the most patriotic and blue-blooded American, my heart is here. I love America. I especially love complaining about America, which is truly an American tradition. Most of all, I love thinking that things will get better with a "childlike" optimism. Every election cycle brings new hope. I think we're going to be the best country ever!

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.

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