One of the things that has always puzzled me when our current mavens (Aristos is such a difficult word to type) go on is their obsession with skin color or gender or whom you are attracted to.
When the chips are done, none of that matters. When the chips are down, humans go tribal, and when humans go tribal they couldn’t care less about that kind of thing. When the chips are down, nobody cares if cousin Henry’s mother came from a line that was hereditarilly likely to hold a tan. He’s still cousin Henry. When the chips are down our women are our women and d*mn it, our women stay with us. They might still care if cousin Henry is what Southerners used to call “A little funny” – but only because in our culture that has an implication of un-manliness, and in a threatening situation you wouldn’t want them there to think we’re a soft mark. Only, let cousin Henry be bigger and brawnier, and pound his chest harder than the other warriors, and they’ll go “He’s a little funny, but he beat someone’s head in last week, so shut up. He’s cousin Henry.”
It is only if the stress goes on very long, and if you have no hope of getting out of it, that you start purging your own numbers, but at first shock, you close ranks not by race, not by age, not by gender and not by orientation: you close ranks by culture.
How do I know this?
Well, I was an exchange student from July of the year I turned eighteen (so when I was still seventeen) and up through May of the year I turned nineteen.
Don’t pfui me. There is stress in that situation. There is also a great mingling of nationalities, races and cultures, and a great opportunity to sit and observe. (Yes, you could say I had the first sight and the second thoughts. I was a baby writer. Who do you think Pratchett is really describing when he goes on about witches? At least on the perception part.)
You take a bunch of sixteen to nineteen year olds, at the age of greatest social insecurity, you uproot them completely and you throw them into a vast group (there were 2000 of us from all over the world for the two or three weeks of orientation in NYC) and you make them comingle. Whether you mean to or not, you traumatize them and you pull the rug out from under their feet. (I remember one of my colleagues being asked by some minor reporter what she thought of American boys, and trying to answer “Well, really, to know what they’re like you have to know how well they talk, and I don’t talk well enough myself to judge.” By which she meant the … markers of Portuguese courting which involve status markers through language weren’t there, and she didn’t know which markers to use. That’s a minor example. All the Portuguese were in distress, too, being used to six meals a day and getting only three.)
The first thing I noticed was how little mingling there was outside nationalities, PARTICULARLY with Americans. Keep in mind we were chosen because we wanted to spend a year in the US, away from our families, learning about US culture. We were, in fact, all of us, chosen for xenophilia.
And yet, when you got us in a group that contained some of our “people” we clung to them. More, when there was socializing outside the group it was with similar cultures. First, came the colonies of that nation, no matter how long ago they separated and NO MATTER WHAT THE SKIN COLOR of the people was.
People from Senegal gravitated towards people from France and vice versa. Portuguese hung out with Brazilians (this was before the cold war ended, so we had no students from Mozambique or Angola. I’m sure we do now, and that they gravitate towards Portuguese students.) You’re going to say “well, that’s a linguistic thing” – yes, of course, to an extent, and I do think the reason that the Latin contingent in general was more likely to cling together is that English is taught late and often VERY badly. (I lucked out, and it was pure luck, and had THREE excellent teachers, or I would not be where I am now.)
But it’s not all linguistic. As I noted before, Spanish speakers can’t understand Portuguese at all – and no, I’m not buying the phonemes thing. Sorry. They also refuse to understand WRITTEN Portuguese, while any Portuguese can figure out written Spanish. Besides, continental Portuguese (unlike Brazilian) is a “flat” language. It sounds like a language spoken by deaf people. So it’s not the tones – BUT after the colonies and the same-language countries, group clung to “culturally similar.”
Let me explain – after that big group, they broke us up into groups going to our region, then more again, into groups going into a small area (my area included about ten small cities around Akron OH. Cleveland was another area.) Then periodically – Christmas break, Spring Break – we were shipped elsewhere and got together with other areas, so I got to watch several reshufflings. If the Portuguese-speaking group (or the Spanish speaking group) was too small, they aggregated.
The same happened to other cultural and culturally “similar” groups/ex colonies/etc. Germans and Swedes tended to gravitate together, for instance.
I’m weird here. I tended to gravitate mostly to Americans and then to … whoever was nice. My best friends that year were a British girl and a Japanese girl. But perhaps I’m not so weird – more on that later.
However, during my year in Ohio I loved visiting my family’s best friends, who were Cuban. I loved it because they did things (stupid things, like wash dishes) in the way my family did, which was comforting, in the middle of strangeness.
And sometimes the “feels familiar” goes back very far. Gallicians from Spain hung out with the Portuguese by preference. Yep. All one province under Rome… how long ago? But they’d rather cling to Portuguese – under stress – than to Spaniards. There was something to the gestures and the body language, and the food preferences that brought you together.
Later on, while in Portugal, I found that American expatriates and I clung together despite political, social and other differences, because we were under stress (shuddup) and therefore the other felt comforting. Heck, I liked the way the consul’s home SMELLED because they used American products to clean. And one of my professors and I formed a friendship based entirely on watching the A team, something I’m sure we’d never have watched that religiously, otherwise. But it reminded us of home. (Yes, I’m a messed up chick. Take a number.)
Also after I returned to Portugal I got to watch groups of foreign students coming through, and observe the same stuff. They didn’t really want to hang with Portuguese. They clung to “sibling” culture groups.
Except… Americans. Americans would interact with Portuguese with a will (and sometimes with both feet. That poor American boy whom we made repeat the sentence “I need some batteries” over and over again… And he had no clue why. [For those who don’t speak Portuguese, batteries are pilhas, the lh pronounced palatal and not like the dental l. Most Americans can’t make that sound and therefore mangle words like Silhouette. Well, the poor guy couldn’t. So he kept telling us he needed pilas – think on it, it will come to you. Think slang and some legionaires’ dirty joke] – which when you’re still in your teens is irresistibly funny.)
Anyway, Americans were these gonzo people, trying to interact with everyone. If you assume that Heinlein had turned my upbringing American enough that I was sort of Proto-American, my wanting to mingle as a kid in America was perfectly normal.
The exception to the Americans who went outward, to everyone, was the exquisitely (in retrospect) Patrician chick from California, who looked down her nose at Portuguese, demanded all vegetarian food, and once ate the roses off some poor lady’s garden (for shock value, I imagine, though she might have been that weird.)
Are Americans still like that? I don’t know. It’s been thirty years since I was involved with exchange students. I think they might be more like the crazy chick from CA.
BUT – very important but – I think this is why our mavens are so against assimilation and tend to decide that culture is race and wanting you to change your culture and become American is racist…
You see, the last thing they want is We The People united against them. And since they intend to inflict stress and pain on us, on the way to their Earthly Paradise (where 90% of us will be dead) this is a grave risk. So they intend to keep us in insular little groups according to the countries we or our ancestors came from. They can they play us against each other, and pretend to save us from each other.
Don’t let them.
I’ve never introduced myself as Portuguese-American. I renounced previous allegiances when I naturalized. Yes, of course, my origins are Portuguese, and it shaped a lot of my thought. So it’s not like I hide that I grew up in Portugal.
But when the chips are down, I know who my tribe is.
My name is Sarah A. Hoyt, and I’m an American.