Foreigner in a familiar land

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

Published April 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

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.

By Sallie Tisdale

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.

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