My first day back in America, I bowed to a cop.
My grandmother and her sisters came to America from Italy as teenagers. They entered the American school system and soon spoke Italian exclusively to each other and a handful of other immigrants to their neighborhood in East Boston. As they aged and the neighborhood changed into a new generation of immigrants, they spoke less and less to other native speakers.
An ex-girlfriend of mine was born in Italy, and eventually met my grandmother and her sister. The conversation between the two was incomprehensible. The language of my great-aunt and grandmother had become so insular over 70 years of isolation that it had formed what I’ve come to call the “Manfradonia Dialect,” a strand of Italian known only to two sisters who have lived down the street from each other for the entirety of their lives.
I think of this story because it is a compelling tale of how the places we live influence us on such basic levels. Having been in Japan for three years, surrounded by a strange mashup of cultural differences – not only within Japan, but within the expat community – has started to give me a somewhat stateless sense of myself.
But I also tell this story because of what it says about memory. My grandmother and aunt had forgotten the original Italian, the original Italy – and so they began to recreate the language and culture from memory, rebuilding a nation and language from scratch. They must remember Naples of 70 years ago as if it’s still there, and when they spoke to each other, they could recreate it, but soon, the maps became compromised, the food idealized, the memory evolving to eat the reality.
I’d been in Japan for two years and five months before booking a Christmas Eve flight home. This is not a long time, but with my personality, that has been roughly 7.5 years of anxiously thinking about America.
There was culture shock. On top of bowing to a cop, there were subtler moments of cultural amnesia.
What do I do with this grocery basket? I guess I’ll leave it on the floor. I need a waiter, I guess I’ll wave him over while shouting “Excuse me.” I’ll go ahead and pay for two $4 beers with a $100 bill, pulled from my stack of ten which I keep in a small cloth purse.
But the shock of adapting to an old set of rules was nothing compared to the shock of adapting to a new set of personality traits. My new fury at the small-mindedness of certain hipsters (converts being the worst kind of zealots). The outrage I felt when overhearing sarcasm deployed against a slice of gourmet pizza.
The Tortellini Pizza Trauma
“Oh great, I REALLY wanted to pay $4 for a slice of pizza that isn’t going to fill me up.”
“Oh good we get to stand in line for an hour waiting for a movie. AWESOME.”
First, some clarification of terms: “Sarcasm” and “Irony” are not the same thing. Irony is a situation in which the stated reality is radically different from the observed reality. Sarcasm is a narrow form of irony used specifically for derision of an object or for individual insults. The two cases above are sarcasm, because they imply that a grievous injustice has been done.
The two complaints are extremely petty and the use of sarcasm carries the air of such victimization that one must assume some fascist has demanded they consume gourmet pizza or see a film in the afternoon. There is a dislocated sense of rage.
Sarcasm and cynicism has its place, and I’m still fond of dry irony skillfully deployed, but something about sarcasm masking outrage at such petty realities really irritated me. It felt extremely aggressive, as if masking a smoldering psychotic rage. I was sort of afraid of what these disappointed patrons of leisure might do next.
I realized – upon returning to Japan – that sarcasm of this sort is one of the first things you surrender in the interest of being understood across language and cultural barriers.
I’ve written about sarcasm before, on my post on Japanese humor. If you were to sarcastically rejoice at the outrage you felt toward the gourmet pizza that you willfully purchased, a Japanese native might assume that, in fact, you were actually delighted by the extravagant cost and thrilled by your persistent hunger.
This is shocking primarily for two reasons. One, I once swore I would never date girls who didn’t listen to the proper records, and two, I perhaps made the oath by radically exaggerating its inverse form. “YEAH I JUST WANT A GIRLFRIEND WITH SHITTY TASTE IN MUSIC.”
Let’s raise a glass to toast the death of that boy. American sarcasm of this type just reads to me now as crass, useless and frustrating, making me feel more like a Japanese tourist than anything.
My personal position on sarcasm is problematic for a few reasons, mostly because there’s a very high likelihood that, should I return to America, I might just decide that this is a perfectly wonderful way to communicate my dissatisfaction about various petty tragedies.
A lot of things change in two and a half years, and the transient habits that I trust to stay with me have proven to be unreliable. The mannerisms, ways of talking, the way my laugh sounds – have all changed, and for a short time at home, sitting in my childhood bedroom, it became confusing to think about which parts of me were the real me, the permanent me, and which parts would be replaced to serve some future need.
Human personalities are disconcertingly malleable, and we have a tendency to be snobby about short-term adaptations. We view them as growth because they make us happier in whatever situation we find ourselves in. But this may be a bit of self-flattery. We may, in fact, not be “growing,” but merely changing ourselves to adapt to short-term circumstances; to make life a little easier to live.
We change to accommodate new friends in ways that might make us unrecognizable to old ones. We speak to our immigrant brethren in a personalized and simplified language that soon becomes incomprehensible to the native tongue.
We hope this makes things better – we hope it makes us better. But perhaps it only makes us different, no better or worse, merely better adapted. And happier.
Maybe this sounds like a let-down. I’m casting doubts on the happy myth of personal growth. But I think that this is also kind of beautiful. We take what we can of the world and work it into the broader composition of our lives. We become new, and we become something that makes us happier than where we began.
You make the most interesting music of your life that you can manage to play.
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