If I think my problem is the other person, I am crazy. (Byron Katie)
It has been a really, really long time since I have
gotten angry, very angry. I can’t even remember when the last time was. Well, the
other morning it happened. My heartbeat quickened, my throat tightened and my
cheeks flushed. When I opened my mouth to speak, my voice was firm, cutting,
definite and with a slight overtone of: f__k you. Taking into consideration that
this took place in French class and that whatever I had to say had to be said
in French, it was incredible that I expressed myself with the clarity and
decisiveness that I did. And now I am reaping the benefits of my reaction.
Perhaps it sounds strange that I speak of “benefits” from
getting angry; if you are not plugged into the place where a reaction of any
kind against anything simply points a finger at yourself this may be hard to
understand. I’ll explain.
In the class, we are between five and seven students and
we are there to converse, nothing more. At some point, the conversation drifted
to the subject of languages and a German companion commented that in America,
English was not spoken. I chuckled and said he sounded like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady singing “Why Can’t The
English Teach Their Children How to Speak?” when he says: “In America they
haven’t spoken it for years” referring to the English language. A few minutes
later, the gentleman again said, as if were something quite original, that
Americans did not speak English. At that point, I made my own joke saying that
of course we spoke English and were always quite surprised that the British
spoke it with such a strange accent. But when this man insisted for the third
time, that English was not spoken in America I had the above mentioned reaction
and turning to him, said (in French, mind you): “Excuse me? When I lived in
Mexico and people asked me what I spoke, I did not say Mexican, I said Spanish
even though the Spanish of Mexico is quite different from the Castilian Spanish
spoken in Madrid; when people ask me what we speak in the United States, I say
English, not American. So what is spoken in America is English even if our
pronunciation is different from the British.” At that point the teacher changed
the subject and I was left to study the interesting reaction taking place inside.
One thing I
noticed very pointedly is that my anger had nothing to do with the person who
had pronounced the words; I actually could look at him fondly although what he
had said seemed to have provoked my reaction. This was new: I was not angry at
the person. Before, in my life, when I felt anger it always seemed directed at
the being who had apparently provoked it. Now I understood that it was just his
words that had piqued my mind and even though I was flushed and the heart was going
like an engine out of control, there was absolutely no resentment towards the
man. Therefore it was easy to own my anger and I dropped down into it and
watched as my body slowly returned to normal.
Later, once alone, I could slowly follow the trail of
derogatory remarks dotting both my near and distant past and my reactions to
them. Recently, a man I consider a friend said, as he browsed a table full of
books on loan, that he did not read “chick-lit”. I had to move across the room
for a moment until my seething calmed down enough to be sure of not spitting at
him as my mind immediately tagged him ‘male chauvinist pig’. Some weeks
previously, at a luncheon I attended, a Englishman I had just been introduced
to strangely asked me if –when introduced to Brits- I didn’t think to myself
“Why do those f__king British always
look down their noses at us Americans?” At that moment, my mind took over and flipped
the phrase around.
“Oh, no,” I said, “I think: ‘why do we f__king Americans always
look down our noses at the British?’” Afterwards I could see that he probably
was trying to be amusing and friendly and as is frequently the case –in my own
experience- the bullet came out of the butt of the gun, as we say in Spanish.
If in France I have found myself occasionally defending
my American lineage, in Spain I found myself defending my Mexican background
–which is not even a blood-line. I remember clearly the time a cousin of mine
used the word ‘sudaca’ (a derogatory term used in Spain for people from Central
and South America) and I played innocent.
“What does ‘sudaca’ mean?” I queried, in order to force
her to realize that she had used the term in front of someone who had recently
emigrated from Mexico. She turned bright pink and muttered something about
people from South America. It isn’t surprising that our friendship ended a short
time later: she made a mistake; what I did was pointedly aggressive.
Also, frequently in Spain, I would find people laughing
at a word I used or my way of pronouncing something. They did not consider it
‘proper’ Spanish and insisted that the way it was said in Spain was the correct
way, as if the millions of Spanish speakers in other parts of the world were
all wrong and poorly educated, in spite of the fact that Latin American
literature has produced an enormous amount of very solid works of art and, at
least, two Nobel Laureates in the last century.
So, be it as it may, the crux of the matter is ‘why me’
and ‘why now’? Why does this seem to be happening over and over again and each
time more pointedly? What exactly is the Universe asking me to learn? And,
seeing that I am reacting –sometimes rather violently- what is there inside of me
that parallels that which is happening outside?
No sooner had I posed the question than the answer came.
All my life I had revered everything my father represented and treated
disdainfully most things for which my mother stood. Although this did not apply
to language (which was the way that life had chosen to make it visible to me in
some cases), it did apply to Europe versus America, to masculine over feminine,
to anywhere other than the United States. I could see my whole life being a
movement away from the American mother and towards the Spanish father. How many
times had I denied my American origins, felt ashamed of them, criticized them?
I had gone so far as to give up my American citizenship (for tax reasons) and
then proclaim it was for political, cultural and sociological reasons. When
living in Mexico and later Spain, the fact that someone noticed, under my
almost perfect Spanish, a trace of an American accent was a cause for immediate
shame. I did not want to be identified with the United States, my Mother
country; I did not want to be identified with my mother. But deep down, in the
center of my being, this is me: American and female and the soul that cannot
protest when I do it to myself, -denying my femininity, denying my Americaness-
will awake and attack anyone who dares do it in my presence, mirroring my own
So here is my confession: I am a woman and I am American…
And I also partake of maleness and sexlessness; I am also Spanish and French
(Bearnaise) and German and English and Jewish and –according to my father-
inevitably a bit Moorish (for no one in Andalucía escaped), and I am grateful
because every time someone ticks me off, I awake a bit more to whom I really am…
or should I say: to “what”?