Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My Collection of Suits

I´m back in Rio. It´s amazing to me, what with all the moaning I do about feeling split between my various "homes" and the loneliness that ensues, how easily I can adapt to being in said homes. It´s like there is a suit I slip on as I get off the plane in whatever city is the temporary recipient of my roots. There is a particular language, set of mannerisms, way of dressing, way of feeling and interacting with others that is unique to each place; the switch between one home and another, and how this shapes who I am for a time, is almost seamless. Almost.

One day I am in Maputo, speaking a modified Portuguese that has come to be second-nature. My speech includes new words, colloquialisms of who knows what origin. I say maninge when I mean "a lot" and I automatically omit gerunds from my vocabulary, preferring instead the Portuguese-from-Portugal habit of saying everything in the infinitive. "Estou a chegar," my taxi driver Zeca is always saying. Literally, "I am to be arriving."

In Maputo, when I go to shake somebody´s hand, I have now acquired the custom of placing my left hand on my right elbow. This is the local way, used across Southern Africa. It shows respect. Supposedly it comes from the days when there was still such conflict among tribes that using both hands to greet someone was a way of proving that you didn´t have a weapon clasped in your left hand, hidden away in a fold of clothing. I learned to shake hands like this without really thinking about the process; I simply mirrored what I saw Dona Lídia do, what I saw our building guards to with each other, how I saw old friends greet one another at the beach. I mirrored what I saw, seemingly one of the best strategies for becoming culturally fluent in a new land.

One day we were to give a big presentation at the IFC (International Finance Corporation) for a client we´d been working with for the last 3 months. The client was Portuguese, but had lived in Mozambique for 20 years. He owned a transport company, and we had prepared an expansion plan for his fleet of Marco Polo Volare busses. When greeting the client before our presentation, I shook hands with him in the local manner, left hand softly resting on my right elbow. He immediately noticed and laughed, making some comment about how I´d really become Mozambican. Something about the way he said it made me feel very stupid, as if I´d subtly insulted him by shaking hands that way. It also made me realize that I´d never shake hands with someone in that manner if I were in a meeting in the US or in Brazil. Without getting into a socio-cultural analysis of why the man was slightly put off by my gesture, it made me realize that my Mozambican suit was fully constructed and being put to good use.

A transformation happens when I step onto the South African Airways flight to go from Maputo to Rio. I am careful in what I wear on the plane, not wanting to be singled out as a tourist when arriving in Brasil. I want to do everything possible to lessen my chances of being mugged, ripped off by the taxi driver, or having anyone think of me as less than 100% local. I never wear running shoes on the plane, the favored footwear of many a traveling American. They are a dead giveaway. I am careful to ensure that my shoes are shined, that my nails are manicured, that my belt matches my purse, which obviously must also match my clean shoes. I brush up on my slang Brazilian Portuguese in my head while in the air, trying to hear exactly what the proper carioca accent should sound like for each word. I make sure to expunge from my vocabulary any typically Mozambican phrases or intonations, lest I be identified as a foreigner.

Perhaps the biggest component of my Brazilian suit, aside from the fashionable exterior look and the modified accent, is a heavy dose of paranoia. As soon as I step on that plane, my hand is constantly on my purse. I automatically divvy up my money into separate bundles, never wanting to put all my cash in the same pocket or backpack. I make sure I always have a spare $50 in a hidden place - perhaps a sock - so that if I do get assaulted I´ll at least have money to get a cab or make an emergency phone call after the fact.

When I get off the plane in Rio, it´s as if I never left. I still know all the streets by heart. I still am able to ride the bus without getting too horribly lost. I know the correct change to give the newspaper salesman, and I am still recognized in the bakery in Santa Teresa. I smile at the workman next door, then pleasantly engage in a bargaining session with him as he tells me about the fabulous crystal chandelier he´s acquired from an estate sale and wants me to buy. I go the beach and don´t bring a beach towel, a backpack or a book. I can even drink water straight from the tap without getting the least bit of an upset stomach, that´s how smooth my Brazil suit is.

Then I go to the US. In some ways being in the US, in particular Albuquerque, will always feel more like home than anywhere else. Rightfully so, that´s where I spent uninterrupted the first 15 years of my life. In other ways, however, the US is the place where I have the hardest time putting on the cultural suit. Or rather, pulling it out of the closet, dusting it off, checking for signs of mold and then crossing my fingers to see if I can still get it zipped.

Some things are easy to slip back into. Ordering red or green, beef or bean when I get enchiladas at Pete´s, the local restaurant that is just about the only surviving, much less the only thriving part of Belen, New Mexico. It is natural to drive a car again. I feel comfortable as ever shopping for a shower curtain and a garlic press in Target´s home department. In California parts of life as a temporary resident are quite easy to acquire, too. I take the BART all over the Bay Area. I walk through the seediest parts of the Mission as if I lived in the second story of the yellow Victorian on the corner and walked that stretch of sidewalk, past homeless people and hookers and taquerias, every single day.

Other things aren´t so seamless. I find it increasingly hard to relate to many of the people I used to be close to. I feel overwhelmed by what constitutes normal day-to-day life for a lot of Americans. I don´t care about Paris Hilton going to jail or the great prices in the new carbon-copy-suburban-hell housing develoment that was just inaugurated east of the highway. I am tempted to judge, then realize that I´m in no position to be up on a high horse, that living in a country where I am surrounded by poverty doesn´t make me any saint, doesn´t give me any divine perspective or prerrogative that other, ordinary Americans don´t have. Yes, I have traveled. Yes, I have chosen a path less frequently trod. But I am no better than my geographically challenged fellow citizen, and I am certainly not free of the very vices I so often criticize in my writings. This is often a fact I must remind myself of multiple times per day. My tendency for arrogance does not make me happy.

Sometimes in the seemingly endless slip-on / slip-off of my cultural suits I forget to stop and consider what - or rather, who - is actually holding up the figurative fabric. Occasionally I get a glimpse at how sensitive I am about my own cultural identity, about belonging to a country that I often don´t feel is mine, about living in countries to which I will never truly belong, no matter how carefully I stitch my suit and patch any holes.

I had such a moment while in Locke, California last month with my mom and her husband. We were exploring the old downtown of this historic Chinese settlement along the Sacramento River and went into an art gallery that was offering a wine tasting. The woman behind the counter, trying to make some smalltalk, asked where we were all from. My mom introduced herself and her husband as being from Walnut Creek, then said, gesturing to me, "and she is from Mozambique." Would you believe I freaked out and corrected my mom on the spot, saying, "I´m not from Mozambique, I just live there." Not because I objected in the least to being associated with citizens of Mozambique, but because I didn´t want to seem like I was posing as something I´m not. The point is, I´m hypersensitive about having an identity that consists wholly of hiding my deep down, red-white-and-blue born American roots and trying to pass as someone else.

The line between being true to my international experiences and relying too much on them for an identity is surprisingly fine. My ex-boyfriend, who I don´t reference often here because we had some major problems and I don´t want to air dirty laundry on the internet, made me aware of how much I can depend on the international component of my life to define myself as a person. He made me aware of this in a not-so-nice manner, inferring that I relied on my global experiences to feel special, and that if you took away my travel record and my language abilities, he suspected that my reaction would be to wither up and die.

As can be imagined, I developed somewhat of a complex after the series of fights revolving around how I present myself, and became pretty socially inept at parties and other instances of smalltalk for some time afterwards. I´d constantly think "Do I say I studied in Brazil? Or do I omit it? Do I say I´ve been to Tahiti? Or do I let the converation about Polynesian islands pass without a word?" The simple question "So, what do you do?" became the one I´d dread the most, a close second being "So where are you from?" For a while there, I wished desperately that I had been born and raised in Minneapolis and had worked in insurance my entire life just to avoid the awful, conflicted feelings these questions brought up for me.

My international experiences are a part of me, and I used to share these things with pleasure and without over-analyzing before meeting my ex-boyfriend. I´ve partially recovered the ability to do so now, just with one foot perpetually behind, always afraid that I´m trotting out the exotic parts of my life to impress, to get a reaction, to feel special, to remind myself that I´m not like the rest of them.

It´s an unbelievable relief that I´m about to marry a Brazilian who doesn´t care one way or another if I say I´m from the US or if, to avoid having the same conversation about how I learned Portuguese for the 1,000th time, I make a false claim and say I´m from Rio. To Ricardo, it´s not a big deal. He doesn´t see me as a poser or someone with serious identity issues. He just sees Ali, no matter what country we are in or what language we are speaking. There is something incredibly heartening to see that Rico has identified essential, unwavering parts of my personality that don´t change with the suit. I supposed I know they are there, too, the fundamental attributes that make me who I am; they just become hard to see sometimes what with all the overlying layers.


moira said...

I'm half British, half Mozambican, and have lived in 5 different countries while growing up, so I can relate to the confusion! Its weird but I sometimes find that I feel myself most in places that are not Mozambique and not England,as I don't have to try and act Mozambican or try and act British to fit in, I can just be myself without any pressure to conform.I think overall though, I'm happy that I've had such a varied upbringing..even though it has its bad points,like the little voice inside me which tells me I should move (houses, towns..countries) every couple of years. I think I'm stuck with that!

Mike Hu said...

That's a fine piece of writing.

Original, authentic and insightful -- not easy to come by these days, and that's why it stands out -- like a breath of fresh air.

The unfortunate trend of "professional" writing is to have nothing original, authentic and insightful to say -- but merely to repeat what has already been said countless times before -- to show that one is "up with the crowd."

This difference in the writing style )fluency) is becoming clearer with each passing day -- as kind of a new standard for writing that is worthwhile reading.

Ali la Loca said...

~Moira - I can imagine that you do relate to this identity confusion. I agree, sometimes it is much easier in a neutral 3rd country. I also have that little voice that says to pick up and move every couple of years. I think I´m going to break a record by living in Maputo, though it´s not hard to do with my track record. :)

~Mike - Thank you. I had no idea that all this would pour out when I sat down to write last night, but I´m certainly glad it did.

catron said...

Ahh the suits. I believe that you truly have the ability to step into those other worlds...I always remember when we were shopping in Rio and the woman in the store looked first at me and then at you and said, "I don't think you are Brazilian, but you are definitely a carioca!" Damn the sotaque! It is always a giveaway!
This idea of multiple suits, multiple lives, discarding and choosing is very present in your writing. I also wonder sometimes if it would be easier just to stay put and not always be forced to choose who to be with and where. Now I have pulled Sam into the confusion with me!

Mike Hu said...

Let the stream of consciousness flow.

Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

Dear Ali,

What a brilliant, contemplative post. In your self-analysis and in Rico's acceptance of your spirit, it is clear that you are not defined by a region or culture, but by the person YOU are and what YOU bring to each experience, each locale, each opportunity to learn something new. Brilliant my dear, just brilliant. xx, JP

Jemima said...

Fascinating and beautifully written. Of course.

We have 'international day' in school tomorrow and I've no idea how to represent my heritage or if there's any point.

Ellen said...

Ali- you are friends with my sister, Jenna. i liked your post alot! and i relate to the part about sharing experiences at parties, i feel that too. it reminded me about what someone said at the park the other day- about being white (or 'western' in culture)on the inside- but why do we have to only be one ethnic/culture group on the inside? and why would that automatically be the culuture associated with your race? i know lots of immigrants (winnipeg is one of the north american landing pads)i ask them where they are from and can get from 3-4 different countries each time i ask. before i ramble too much- just wanted to shout my appreciation.

stacie said...

I love your writing! I have spent the last hour reading some background posts and love the way your jewelry is progressing. Wonder why writing and jewelry seem to go together? I am going to link you...

Shades of Blue said...

Sim, claro. Maningue so se diz em Mocambique. :-)

Masd said...

It's a great post telling so much about your identity. I am amazed at how much efforts have you put in coming to terms with diverse components of your personality and feel at ease with what you are.

Jo Ann v. said...

Oh Ali!
In my case, I'm still too French to my fellow Angolans. I lived in 5 countries, and the only thing that keeps me together is the French style because no matter where I was, I was connected to the French!
You know, sometimes I say to myself that I failed big time being an ordinary girl, so I better work on the extraordinary girl that I am! Or else, I'll cut myself open!

RaCandel said...

do you remember me?
Isabela's brother...


--jenna said...


the haitian mystery is solved. look on blog for the short story!

how's rio? is rico back with you now?

as usual, love your writing!!!

Bilal said...

i love your blog!
how did you find mine?

Ali la Loca said...

~Catron - I know what you mean about wondering if it's not easier to simply stay put for a while. At least Rico is a fellow wanderer at heart as well...

~Mike - Yes, I am trying to do more free-flow writing these days, just sitting and letting the ideas go without predetermined direction.

~Jane Poe - Thank you. This means a lot to hear, even if from a virtual friend.

~Jemima - So how did you end up representing your heritage? I am curious!

~Ellen - I used to think a lot about the idea of being a certain culture on the inside and another on the outside, especially when I was living and working with African-American communities. I've enjoyed discovering your blog, too.

~Stacie - Thanks. I love your jewelry and look forward to checking out your site more in-depth.

~Shades of Blue - Another one is "bue", but I think they say that in Angola, too.

~Masd - Thank you. I hope you are doing well with your own decision-making.

~Jo Ann - Girl, this hit home. I love what you say about being an extraordinary woman. And I must say, of all the countries to have adapted a style from, France isn't a bad option at all! :)

~RCandel - Of course I remember. Falei com sua irma outro dia, foi muito legal. Beijos.

~Jenna - I can't wait to see how the mystery ends!

~Bilal - Thanks. Honestly I can't remember how I came across your blog. My guess is that it was either by surfing through my friend Safiya's links, or via some South African list of blogs. Anyhow, I'm glad I found you. :)

African Kelli said...

So beautifully written Ali. Anyone who has ever lived abroad can understand a bit of what you are trying to explain. Bravo!

laundrygirl said...

This is beautifully written.
I liked hearing about the ways you adjust to the environments you are in. In a tiny way (small, micro, really small way) I can relate as I do a mental and physical shift from suburbia to city life as I travel back and forth - changing up clothing and knowing that I need a shift in attitude in order to navigate. I was sad to read about your insecurities with sharing thanks to your ex's unkind words. Having met you I can say, I don't see you using your international lifestyle as a coat of superiority AT ALL. If anything I see you using your skills, talents and ability to assimilate as an asset.
What I love the most about this post is that it reveals you - this beautiful, authentic person. I am glad to know you!

paris parfait said...

What a lovely, thoughtful piece, Ali, which describes so well the dichotomies of living in several cultures and trying to feel at home wherever you are.

Ali la Loca said...

~African Kelli - Thanks, I was guessing you might understand what with all your travels and adventures.

~Laundrygirl - This is great coming from you, especially since we've met in person!

~Paris Parfait - I think this is probably what I write about in my head 80% of the time. I still don't feel I've managed to nail a description, but it's coming closer...