Foreigner in a familiar land

Americans are stuck in a vacuum of privacy and personal space.

Topics:

Everywhere, everywhere but here, I walk through a continual, whispering murmur made up of the voices of strangers near me. “Buenos dmas.” “Ni hao.” “Permiso.” Along every street, in cafes and shops. “Buenas noches.” “Gracias.” Along the crowded alleys of open-air markets, in church aisles, on buses: “Grazie.” “S’long.” “Scusi.” So many forms of hello and goodbye. “Namaste.” “Aloha kaua.” “Hasta luego.” Sibilant, slurred, in men’s and women’s voices, in children’s mumbles and grandmotherly burrs, in the country accents of old uncles. “G’day,” “Va bene.” “Boa noite.”

Along the same cobblestone streets, leaning on walls of crumbling, decaying stucco, framed against faded granite, turning a corner of soot-black bricks: girls holding hands, boys holding hands. Women arm in arm, men arm in arm. Sisters and brothers, cousins and friends, mothers and daughters, fathers and toddlers: holding hands, arms around each other’s shoulders, each other’s waists. Kissing cheeks. Hugging. Holding hands, stroking arms, brushing cheeks, touching shoulders. In cheerful recognition, in quiet affection, in tenderness, in ritual. Cousins wrapped together in conversation, brothers in silent comfort, sisters in whispered relief.

One person comes into a room, and the eight people already there half-rise from their chairs in greeting, hold up their hands to be briefly
touched, smile. Say hello, say his name. A while later, he leaves for a few moments to a chorus of farewells. When he returns in a short time,
eight people half-rise, hold up their hands, say hello. One of my guidebooks says of this endless, consuming practice of greeting, “Relationships are more important than time.”

I watch my daughter, just 15 years old, shy, persistent, unique. We are in a foreign country. My daughter was born here, but that doesn’t make it home. She doesn’t remember; it is strange here, she doesn’t know how
to belong. Introduced to my friend who lives here, my startled child is embraced — not only by my friend, but by each woman in the room. They wrap their arms around her, kiss her cheek, whisper in her ear: ritual greetings, advice, encouragement. The two men nearby put their feet together, nod at her in greeting, smile warmly. Later, the eldest woman in the group pulls my daughter over to her, puts her arm tightly about her shoulder, and marches off, without question; I follow several steps behind, watching their heads bowed together as they walk. I am jealous of both of them; I am guilty, for taking her away.



Later, in another room, we are introduced to a circle of women working together around a table. Each says hello to me. Each turns to my daughter, one at a time, and greets her personally in a language she barely understands. Some speak in whole paragraphs full of formality. The words don’t matter; the tone is so clear. The women say welcome. They say gladness. They say how happy they are that she is here. It is like a diplomatic coup, like a treaty, a wedding, a contract, a truce. She is a stranger no more.

Back home, I walk quickly down empty residential blocks in mid-morning, listening to a tape, and drop my eyes when a man turns to follow my progress. I walk through the grocery store, intent on a list for this task and the next one, barely pausing to let an old woman shuffle by. I see her from the side, and never notice her face. I have my reasons — my business, my sorrow, my chores. My concerns. My time.

I drive alone through crowded streets, glancing at the drivers who share my stoplight and then glancing quickly away when they see me looking. The female employees of a grocery chain, chastised for not smiling enough, sue their employer; they claim that smiling at men gives men the wrong impression. So they keep their eyes forward, like mine. Eyes down. Eyes inward. Hands in pockets. Hands in fists. Hands holding keys spread
between the fingers, ready to attack, to strike, scratch, maim.

We learn early not to make eye contact with strangers, not to smile, not to greet. We are taught to mind our business, to be sure strangers mind theirs. We are taught not to invite, not to suggest, not to give a wrong impression. This is minding our manners. Don’t sit so close, we are told, and tell in turn. Don’t lean on me, don’t hang on me, don’t cling, take turns. I only have two hands. We are taught to protect our personal space, to respect that of others, taught not to invade, not to invite. On elevators, buses, subways, in theaters, always a seat or two in between, always space. We instruct our children to say “thank you” and then not to say hello. Do not touch. No touch. Bad touch. Beware. Here be dragons.

I grieved, watching my daughter’s shy reaction in that roomful of loving women — those women willing to reach out to an unknown girl from another country. I wanted her to look up, reach out in turn, be willing as well. But I’m the one who taught her to be careful. I’m the one who taught her to walk quickly with her head slightly averted in a crowd, so as not to catch men’s eyes. I’m the one who taught her to keep her head up, looking past the stranger coming toward her on the street. I taught her by doing it myself. I taught her not to touch, not to stop, not to make conversation. At the same time, I taught her how to talk back when she most needed to do so — in strong words, loudly, insistent, for others to hear. Not to greet, but to repel.

In the melodious voices of a thousand strangers, I hear her silence still. I’ve learned to happily return the murmur, smile at the giggles my bad accent and mistakes create. She is still shy, unsure. I know it is a learned habit, an American way of life, this withdrawal, this personal space. I see her clumsy uncertainty in the softly perfumed, warm arms of these women and know that it is because she is rarely hugged by any woman but me. Even my closest friends, who have known her all her life, rarely hug her, out of respect. Out of caution. Out of habit. She is 15, she is growing up; we respect her privacy, her personal space. We give her so much room.

She still hugs me, brushes my hair, pats my arm. Still lets me hold her hand when she is tired. But these are private matters; the time when we walked through stores holding each other is gone. In each foreign place we’ve gone, I’ve pointed at mothers and daughters strolling arm in arm, hand in hand, and said, “See?” See. See the strangers who greet each other without thought, continually, ritually. “Buenos dmas.” “Ni hao.” “Permiso.” It’s rude not to notice each other. Rude to brush by, eyes down, hands held back. See, I tell her, it is we who are strange. It is Americans who are crazy. See? We are dying from privacy, from our own protection, from the vacuum of all that space.

Today I say hello. I say, “Good morning.” I smile. I make eye contact. I startle people, who are looking down, intent on a list, hands in pockets. A man smiles broadly, turns, and suddenly I think he has taken it as invitation, intends to come closer, to enter my private, lonely space. I drop my eyes, keep walking.

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>