Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tell me thy company, and I will tell thee what thou art.

“True culture is in the mind, the mind,” he said, and tapped his head, “the mind.” “It’s in the heart,” she said, “and in how you do things, and how you do things is because of who you are.” -Everything that Rises Must Converge, Flannery O'Connor
I guess Grandmother just couldn't completely escape the time and place of her birth. True she spoke four languages, helped the needy and was probably one of the only middle-aged female children of Sicilian immigrants marching against Vietnam. And yet she couldn't escape the tendency to make the generalizations of less tolerant times about people of different ethnicities, religions and lifestyles. In her case very weird generalizations.

First of all, any two people of the same gender who spent any time together in public were homosexuals. One time we were riding a tour bus in London. She leaned in toward me and my dad conspiratorially and said, kind of half-covering her mouth but really not, "Those two gentlemen over there are gay."

"Mother," my dad hissed, with a well-practiced hushing kind of whine. She was always very loud, and his way of talking to her still bore traces of an adolescent complaint from many years of these kinds of interactions. "How can you possibly know that?"

"Well one of them's overweight," she said, "and the other one has bad teeth."

Second, although Grandmother's exceptional cultural openness led her to become an honorary member of the Nichi Bei women's society, and meet with the wives of Japanese diplomats once a month for tea, she still assumed all Asians were Japanese. Out of the same worldliness Grandmother spoke three languages besides English and loved to talk to people in their own tongues. Her Spanish was so good, she got us front row seats at Cats, having impressed the Ticketmaster salesperson with her accent and her familiarity with his native village in Spain.

I learned something about people's basic need to connect with each other studying the way the faces of traveling Italians, Spanish speakers and French people would light up as this American woman stopped to give them directions fluently in their languages. This familiar expression of disarming warmth did not extend to the faces of many Chinese and Koreans she mistakenly greeted with the friendly "Konichiwa!" she had learned from her Japanese friends. Being not only sick of generalizations about Asians but also having been invaded by the Japanese, they would usually give her a very strained but polite smile, and a few openly sneered.

Grandmother flew my dad and then me around the world, taking us many times to France and various parts of Italy. One time we were in Milan drinking coffee at an outdoor cafe. A very large group of Asian men wearing suits started to gather a few tables over. By their body language and their dress and their briefcases it was pretty clear they were in town for some kind of business convention. Perhaps you see this coming. Grandmother nodded her head in their direction. "Japanese gays," she said, matter-of-factly, before taking another sip of her espresso.

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