Monday, 4 June 2018

Thoughts in Progress

I went to see a Polish movie recently at the ICA. It was called “Beyond Words” and at first sight it dealt with an issue close to my heart: a father-and-son relationship. Yet, as I thought about the feature and peeled the layers off it after I left the Institute of Contemporary Arts, I realised that there was an overarching theme: immigrants and how they see their host country. And how their host country sees them, which is just as important. Mirrors do talk back.

Michael is a successful Polish-born lawyer. Yet for all his perfect-sounding German that makes him blend in easily in 21st-century Berlin, he is still looking for a real identity. This identity conundrum is further complicated when a man, claiming to be his father, turns up out of the blue. The two of them spend some days together trying to work out trust-related issues. Michael’s father, a Polish bohemian with very unorthodox ideas about life in general, brings chaos into his son’s otherwise orderly life. Whilst at the beginning we see resistance from Michael to this onslaught, little by little he begins to relent and finally surrenders to the only link he has to his native Poland. At the same time there is another narrative going on. One which is just as important as the father-son puzzle.  This subplot involves Michael and his employer and friend, German-born Franz. Asked by the latter to defend an African poet applying for asylum, Michael refuses on the grounds that the case is a lost one. In reality, it is Michael’s prejudices against the African man that stop him from taking his case on. In an ironic and sad twist, Franz reveals a hitherto hidden side of him. He doesn’t see Michael as an equal. Just like Michael doesn’t see the African man as an equal.

The film made me question my “Cubanness”. After 20-plus years in the UK, how much of Cuba is there still in me and how much of Britain has filtered through and settled in? As soon as I got home I scanned my new place for signs of “Cubanness”. Other than music and books, all I could find was a Cuban flag on the side of a jar of Cuban honey, kindly gifted to me by my friend D. For some strange reason I also suddenly recalled some lines from Paul Muldoon’s poem “Cuba”, in which he never mentions my country, but does allude to Kennedy, “nearly an Irishman/So he’s not much better than ourselves”.

This question of identity and belonging, to me, was the main theme in “Beyond Words”. The (almost) demand on an immigrant to conform to a pre-established concept of authenticity. This concept can be laid down either by the immigrant themselves, or the host country, or both, following a centuries-old unwritten agreement whereby we do not deviate from our pre-assigned roles. Yet, what happens when we do? This is exactly what makes Michael’s father run away from his son when the latter cracks a well-known Polish joke. The words are Polish and so is the wisecrack but the man telling them… what is he? Michael’s father is not the only person estranged from something or someone. Michael himself is estranged from his culture. I don’t think I have reached that point yet, nor do I think I ever will, but certain attitudes do set me apart from what would normally be labelled “Cuban culture”. And yet, isn’t there an incongruity in that very term? For what is culture but an ever-shifting, always-forward-looking phenomenon? Am I to be only salsa, sun and sand? Who decided that?

Later on as I fell asleep the last image that flashed in my mind was that of a pebble thrown with intent and purpose by a child across a lake. The stone left a choreography of uniformly-shaped outward-fanning ripples.

Who are you? Who am I?

© 2018

23 comments:

  1. A nice piece about things about which most of us don't have to think. It may affect anyone who moves to some degree although most of us don't change cultures so radically. We moved 13 years ago from a place where we had lived for >30 years, but it almost seems foreign to me now. Thanks for the post.

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  2. What an interesting post. With the exception of my university years (which were still spent in the American south), I've always lived in the same general area.

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  3. When you go and stay for many years, things sure can seep away without you noticing it indeed.

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  4. This is an interesting post. I don't have to think about that, since I was born here and raised in an English culture. But if I did have to live abroad, having observed other English people who do, I'd say that expats probably cling to an outdated version of their own country's culture. And imagining myself living in Germany (for instance - I choose it because in fact I did live there for a few years as a child) I think I would end up wanting to be German because actually the Britain I remembered would have moved on while I'd been away. This might - if you think about it. It might seem a bit sad, but I like to feel that barriers can be broken down and people can change once their environment changes. This ability to adapt is what has always taken the world forwards.

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  5. Poignant and moving.
    Belonging is such a fraught area.

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  6. Fascinating post. I often wonder what it was like from my grandmother when she moved to the US from Italy. I didn't learn until long after she died that my grandmother had never wanted to come to America, that she only did so at my grandfather's insistence and that she never really liked being in the U.S.

    My childhood memory of her is that of a kindly old lady with an accent, but lately I'm thinking more of the young woman who had to leave the place where she was born and live in a place that was never really home for her.

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  7. Very thought provoking but as someone who is a fifth generation Australian with a mostly Anglo-Saxon background, I will never fully understand. But I can try.

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  8. You raise some hard philosophical points here. No one should have to endure felling left out and less than because of culture. At the same time I feel an effort should be made to also assimilate into a new country if one is going to live there. One can hold onto and enjoy one's culture too. It must be difficult.

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  9. I think you have retained a vibrant sense of your culture, even in your blog name.

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  10. Interesting post! I have wondered for the first time when i see abroad people talking in English. They have their own way of speaking:)

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  11. Interesting thoughts. My Mum came from near Königsberg, but at a very young age. So I´m rather through and through German. Which makes my friends in Autralia - even those who are usually chronically late - always being punctual around me. As my Father used to say, better be 10 minutes early than 5 minutes late - it sticks to me and always will.

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  12. This does sound like an interesting movie. Thanks for sharing it along with your reflections based on your experiences.

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  13. interesting post.
    the question of identity is seldom satisfactorily answered.

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  14. My roots are here in the UK, I was born here and have lived in the same area all my life. I have often wondered how I would get on if I moved elsewhere and had to learn a foreign language. Should I travel? Should I learn to speak another language? Or should I stay where I am and hope that I am a welcoming personage to all?

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  15. What an interesting post. Identity is so complex and potentially rich. I wonder if we dilute it, and thereby weaken it, if we try to pigeonhole ourselves as British or Cuban or ... anything. One of the glories of multiculturalism is this melting-pot of identities - but I do see that some people find that uncomfortable. (I have a mixed-race grandson who sometimes wonders where he fits, so I get that!)

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  16. So interesting to read ... I wonder if it'll be a film picked up by our film society - though I'm in Canada for next year's run ... I'll be back for the 2019/20 season. I was asked yesterday ... where did I belong ... in the end I said Cornwall - though I've never lived there ... but definitely England. It's wonderful having travelled and lived in another country for a number of years ... but I was happy to be home - now I'm away again. I understand people better having experienced some travelling and moving around - cheers Hilary

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  17. Hmm...identity is such an ambiguous thing, isn't it?
    It is something I have never quite understood.
    In spite of having been born here in the UK and having lived here all my life, I still have (at times) identity issues.
    It is really difficult to translate into words...but I sometimes feel "out of place"...as if I am a stranger in a strange land...as if I don't really belong.
    So I do understand what you're saying here...and I wholly sympathize. I can't even begin to imagine how I'd get along if I emigrated to another country...when I feel this way living in my own!
    Wouldn't life be so much simpler if we were all just one Nationality...yes, Simple...but boring through lack of diversity though!!

    Many thanks for another really thought-provoking post.
    You certainly get me thinking! :))

    Greetings from Hampshire.

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  18. What a thought provoking film.
    Greetings from North Carolina.

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  19. I can see why this film would resonate with you and I suspect my British husband has similar feelings about living an expat life in the USA. His accent has faded somewhat but he makes up for it by cooking Sunday roasts and watching a lot of British football and cricket. Bowdoin College hired him to teach Japanese Politics, but now he also teaches British Politics. I'll recommend this film to him.

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  20. A thought provoking film, and post!

    All the best Jan

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  21. Yes, it would make me think too.

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  22. Interesting story, or rather about the relationship. Some of these Polish movies are really good, but don't do well in the commercial market.

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