The twisted world of Culture & Language by Metrice Harris-Weedman

The twisted world of Culture LanguageMy husband and I are about to celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary after being romantically linked for over 30 years. WOW! How truly strange to think we are here in THIS moment living THIS life as expats, existing in a time and space reserved for a club of truly unique individuals.

I could never have imagined this reality any more than I could imagine living life on the moon.

 

I remember the academic debates I once had about the influences of nature/ nurture and how, at the time, the "correct" response seemed obvious until... Until something as simple as how one walks, talks, laughs, or even holds a fork and knife is indicative of one’s culture. I now see the world through a kaleidoscope of Nature, Nurture, and Culture.

 

When my future husband entered my French class, he was the epitome of ‘different’; his English was fractured; his hair defied gravity; and his selection of clothes was unlike anything my fellow high school peers had ever seen. The new kid in the class presented himself as French. He was born and raised in Germany but did not have German citizenship, nor was he fluent in French! When he introduced me to his mother, they spoke in rapid fire German. I remember commenting on the strangeness of being French but always speaking German with his heavily French-accented mother (later, they would shift to English but French was never the language they shared with one another). I was deftly put in my place and reminded I could make those comments as much as I wanted on the day I became fluent in another language (as they had already done). Later, I would learn bilingualism was not viewed as something positive during my husband’s infancy but something to avoid in order to prevent children from being "confused". His pediatrician at the time encouraged his parents to focus on one language (in this case, the language of the country where they resided).

 

Though we became adults together, I didn’t truly "know" him until we moved to Germany and France. Previously, he could afford to flaunt the traditions and customs of my home turf because they didn’t have the same meaning to him. Devoid of cultural context and weight, English words could be used with a certain carefree impunity. Culturally, he has remained in some sort of nebulous zone neither he nor I have been able to pin down.

 

We moved to Germany shortly after the birth of our first child. The boy with whom I had matured into adulthood and later married was completely unknown to me. Once he was back in Germany, his days of jaywalking were over; he was a model driver, consistently observing speed limits; he waited at the crosswalks until he was given permission to cross; and addressed his work colleagues quite formally. I sensed within him a collusion with the established hierarchical order of things I didn’t understand. I discovered I was now the rebel and could afford the luxury of picking and choosing what aspects of German culture I would adhere to or use my "diplomatic immunity" card. People around me, including my husband, not only talked differently, but they walked, drove, and engaged with each other in ways I had previously not encountered. I remember frequently turning to my husband, as he had previously turned to me, with hopes he could not only translate the spoken words but also the behaviors. In those moments, I discovered the limits of his own cultural identity (indeed, if he actually had one) and the bounds of his ability to guide me within a culture he didn’t always understand himself. The lapses came in unexpected moments. When asked if he could share his holiday traditions or lead us in a rousing round of "Laternenfest", he had very little to contribute. While he had attended schools with German students, he came home to a French mother who had left many of her own traditions behind. The results made for a very fluid cultural reality. While he can change between languages at the speed of lightning and is highly adaptable to his surroundings, don’t ever ask him to be in charge of Christmas decorations or the Easter Egg hunt.

 

Perhaps, in me, he found all those traditions and sense of "place" he didn’t even realize he was missing. Certainly, in him, I found his worldliness and ability to be "at home" wherever life deposited him, both romantic and practical.

 

Every now and again, when a word slips out that doesn’t quite sit right in tone, diction, or utilization, I realize our entire relationship has been based on speaking a language that isn’t his first language. My time in Germany, brief though it was, taught me there are things I simply will not understand unless my German comes up to snuff. Heck, now that we are in France, speaking a language foreign to both of us, the gaps are even more apparent. Our children, like their father, have entered a culturally fluid world. While we have certainly, incorporated traditions from all three cultures, just like our vocabulary in each language, there are telltale signs something is missing.

 

Being Internationals, in part, means giving up some aspect of ourselves and our ever evolving cultural understanding of what it means to be citizens of one place versus another.

 

We can’t always be in two or three places at the same time while experiencing cultural shifts as they occur live. Perhaps we get continued practice at the often tooted virtue of living in the here and now; however, something gives to accommodate space for all that we gain.