Sunday, October 25, 2009

Here's to the Other.

I've been thinking about Janet a lot lately. She's in South America. As I write, I'm not sure where. Maybe Argentina. Maybe Uruguay. I'm wondering what the weather's like and what she's seeing and how she's probably doing her gracious best to make herself understood in Spanish. Janet's like that. She's most definitely not the kind of American tourist to shout more loudly and slowly in English in the certainty that eventually that foreigner (in whose country she's standing) will understand.

Every year, maybe once, maybe twice, Rick and Janet go some place far away. They venture away from the comfort and sameness of home to seek out something different. Because they want to. Because ironically, it feels good. I think Janet would feel less comfortable, in fact, if they didn't do it. Because she knows, we all know, that despite what we think and tend to feel: it is different out there. Really different. And if you take any one of us and plop us down — voilà! — in a different cultural and geopolitical context, it is we who are different. In the bat of an eye, the crossing of a border, the uncomfortable minute stationed in front of the airport immigration officer, we become that frightening thing—the other.

I've lived in Italy for 11 years now (a number I can hardly believe, and which is certain to grow), and even as I become more integrated into the life here, I feel increasingly "other." I'm not sure why this is. I think it has to do with the surprising and undeniable depth of our cultural roots and also with the fact that human "time" is different than we think it is. We tend to talk about time flying, and yet in human, psychological terms, time can move quite slowly indeed. My eleven years in a foreign country are nothing. They're just the beginning of going deeper into this particular experiment. And, as time passes, I have that much more time to realize how different I really am.

The result is that I feel "at home" often with other people who are "different" too. I have something very important in common with our part-time Philippine house-keeper/nanny that I do not have in common with my own Italian husband. In this context, we are both foreigners. Her name is Pamela, and we love her, and she has most definitely lived through hardships that have never brushed up against my comparatively serene existence. But we both know what it's like to be the other in this intensely Milanese context. She knows distance. She knows separation. She knows having difficulty being understood. She knows bureaucratic battle. She knows being outside instead of inside.

But you don't have to be on a trip or living in a foreign country to feel or be other.

I was born in the American South to parents who, because of a specific mixture of education, nature and nurture, were disdainful of it. We lived there, but there was always a feeling that there was something not quite right about it. The result? I felt "other" in my hometown, my high school, most everywhere. But it wasn't a bad feeling. It was a feeling of strength and security. I liked it.

And the truth is this. Even if you never go anywhere, there are times in your life when you are outside the inner circle. You are the "other." In relationships, the other person is, by definition, the other. A man is other to a woman. A lesbian lover is other to the woman she calls partner. An employee is other than his boss. Sometimes just acknowledging this otherness helps ease tension. You can't change it, maybe you shouldn't, so what you can do is observe it and reflect on it, and understand that you are just as "other" as anyone else. Always fitting in, always being like everyone else—well, that would be downright debilitating, I would think. The fear of crossing a line, not being accepted, not seeing yourself reflected everywhere would be stifling. Stepping outside the accepted definition of yourself is a bracing experience, and in our lives, despite our geographical locations, we have to do it to survive and thrive.

I'm not always perfectly comfortable, and my life is by no means free of frustration. But I feel comfortable being the different one. And to tell you the truth, I feel lucky to wear this mantle.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

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