Monthly Archives: January 2011

Talk to me

How much does language really matter? A lot, in some ways – and not at all in others. In the very first months at the international high school I attended, I briefly dated a Colombian boy. Neither of us had much experience, and it was all nervous, trembling excitement combined with hormones and living away from home for the first time. Our adolescent emotions spiked and dropped like crazy, and in the midst of all that confusion I was the last person in the world to know what the hell I actually wanted. He didn’t speak much English yet, and my Spanish was ok, but we thought it was all we needed. The language of love conquers and all that. We would laugh at each other’s accents and found many ways to occupy our time that didn’t involve talking. But of course, that can’t last very long. After about a month I realized we never had real conversations, didn’t actually understand each other as people, and were on completely different pages about what our relationship was going to be like. So with all the aforementioned drama I broke it off and took away what I considered a valuable lesson: I promised myself I’d never try to date someone again who didn’t share my native language.

No matter how fluent you become in another language, I’m convinced that there is a certain level of linguistic intimacy that only native speakers can share. The ability to play with words, toy with infinite shades of meaning that arise from the way you construct a sentence, the vocabulary you choose to adorn it with. It’s the same way you can never truly enjoy a book, I mean sit back and get into it and let your imagination run away, in a foreign language. Banter. Poetry. They also say that different languages express different worldviews; that the way a language molds nebulous thoughts into coherent phrases actually changes the way you think and conceive of reality. Something I’ve noticed in myself is that my personality changes slightly when I move from English to Spanish. In English I’m a little quiet at first, preferring to listen before I express my opinion, often not knowing what to say and wishing I was more eloquent. In Spanish I become more outgoing, bolder, joking and interrupting in the necessary ways to participate in an Argentine conversation. Despite the fact that my vocabulary is of course smaller and my grasp of the language slipperier, I find the confidence to say whatever’s on my mind. Maybe part of this change arises from the worldview theory, but I actually think it’s a combination of two factors: first, a survival strategy for living in language not your own. If you show fear you’re done for. If you stop to think about whether you can use that word, that grammatical construct, you’ve lost the conversation. If you want to say anything you’ve got to say everything you can think of. The second factor is the blissful obliviousness to hints and implications of the non-native speaker. You’re kind of in a happy bubble that makes self-doubt impossible because you don’t even know the meaning of that authentic-sounding word you just threw in there, much less its emotional implications toward whoever you’re talking to.  I sort of like that freedom. But just as much, I hate never being able to say exactly what I wanted to, often having to circle around an idea with overly long descriptions for lack of the right words. It’s not the simple interactions that are the problem, (“I’ll have three meat empanadas, please”) but the profound conversations. Which is why at the age of 18 I swore off trying to have a relationship across the language barrier.

Obviously it didn’t last. But it took me a while to come around, and it’s still a daily struggle, a daily source of worrying that at one point or another, it will just get too hard. I changed my mind because I realized that with the right person, it’s not only possible, but worth it. If you find that spark of connection between two people, whether friends or lovers, not in words but in a manner of being, in a communication of the soul (rare enough already), then the hardest part is over; everything else is an obstacle that can be overcome. And while the overcoming is exhausting, it also keeps things quite interesting. Ironically enough, in such a fast-paced world, speaking another language with someone, or letting them speak to you in yours, slows things down enough to really listen, to really try to understand, to pay attention in many ways to cues that are not only spoken. I used to worry that I couldn’t speak fast and joke with my boyfriend the way he could with his friends, until he told me that on the contrary, with me he loved the incredible tranquility of our slightly slower conversations. The constant challenge makes it more interesting, funnier, crazier – but also much, much more frustrating and prone to misunderstanding when relationships are hard enough as they are. I often wonder if the language that two people speak in leads to a power dynamic between them. It seems logical that whoever gets to speak in their own native language has got the upper hand, right? Or is it the one who’s bilingual, because they have access to more roads of communication? Can you have a truly equal relationship if one of you must constantly live in the other’s world? I can’t even imagine what it would be like for a couple who, not sharing a word in their native languages, conduct their relationship in a third common one, though at this international school I witnessed several such perfectly happy pairs. So as romantic and absurd as it sounds, there must be something that can be shared on a profound level for which no words are necessary, and that sort of deep, unspoken understanding is what couples work their entire lives to achieve, multilingual or not.

But before reaching relationship nirvana, comes a lot of feeling silly and child-like, experimenting with a hundred different ways to communicate, whose successes are as numerous as the failures. With the novio, in our determination to practice the language of the other, we often find ourselves having ridiculous conversations in two languages at once, sometimes without even noticing. But aside from that, we have a language we make love in, a language we fight in, and a language we talk about the weather in. I think we laugh equally in both.

 

Bootylicious

One of the biggest enigmas for me about Argentina, and surprises when I was fresh of the plane, is the ideal of beauty and body weight. When I traveled to other Latin countries, it seemed clear that body shape wasn’t the strict roadmap to beauty it was in the U.S. – ignoring for a second our raging obesity epidemic – and that alternative bodies – real women have curves? – were a bit more accepted, even celebrated. I remember going with a group of exuberant young Costa Rican girl to the beach one weekend, and marveling at how comfortable they clearly all felt in their bodies, how confidently they moved, despite inhabiting very different shapes and sizes. I was also, as an awkward teenager traumatized from years of witnessing public school teasing, slightly horrified by their casual nicknames for each other: la flaquita (the skinny one), la gordita (the little fatty), and so on. More recently, in Brazil, I still couldn’t get over the fact that the teeny-weeny bikini phenomenon applies just as much to the Giselle Bündchens of the word as to the voluptuously Rubenesque . No one’s bottom gets covered, and everyone moves with such ease and pride. Where was that crippling American body shame? The cringing at sexuality? That healthy self-hatred that keeps us awkward, unsure, and apologetic in our movements? But Argentina is an enigma because (like with many other things), the country vacillates indecisively between the two extremes. The ideal woman there, like in the U.S., seems to be lithe and thin. But they do walk differently, and certainly have that Latin born-with-it ability to dance – on the whole they seem more comfortable in their skins. Of course there’s obesity. But from what I can tell, much like in the U.S., it’s often a matter of social class – different access to types of foods, and different values. Anyway, how the Alto Palermo girls do it in the land of carne, pizza, empanadas, medialunas, and more soda, beer and wine than water is a mystery to me. But a hint might be that I’ve often heard it said that Argentina has one of the highest rates of eating disorders in the world. It’s not too uncommon to see bony, hollow-eyed women on the street. My first roommate in BA, a 22 year old psychology student (ironically) was blond, blue-eyed, extremely thin, and extremely unpleasant – maybe she was hungry. As far as I could tell she subsisted on an exclusive diet of banana milkshakes, coffee, and the occasional milanesa de pollo. She would only prepare a meal if her boyfriend was coming over, and the fridge would only be filled when her mother visited to clean the apartment and make sure her daughter hadn’t succumbed to starvation. She did like dulce de leche. Once I found what I thought was a dried-out pot of dulce de leche hidden away under the cabinet in the bathroom. It was only many months later, and long after I had moved out, that I realized it was her waxing kit, that she would plug in to melt the wax so she could rip the hair off her body. Another thing I’ve heard is that Argentines stay thin because they consist on mate and cigarettes – which makes sense, since they’re both appetite suppressants, but she did neither. She just didn’t eat. A family friend of hers once commented on it to me in a very concerned, dramatic sort of way, but no one seemed to think that it was necessary to do anything, say anything, change anything. And I regularly encountered this type of behavior in other young women. Eating a few bites, then getting up to wash the plate and leave the table before more temptation could set in. I almost feel like I sometimes overate in Argentina because loving food and being willing to show my enjoyment of it was so different from the norm that it became almost a source of personal pride. It’s ironic because eating well AND eating healthy is so easy. Just stop by one of the ubiquitous verdulerias on the way home, fill bags of fresh produce for 20 pesos, and get creative with a feast.  And what about the men? The first time I heard a young Argentine guy explain earnestly that he was on a diet, I laughed out loud. I thought it was a joke, because he wasn’t fat at all – maybe a little flab, here and there, maybe a tiny belly, but nothing serious. He got kind of offended and I realized my mistake. But now even my boyfriend, who doesn’t even have that flab, and balances his voracious eating habits with soccer and a job where he carries heavy stuff, has started to increasingly worry about getting fat, and preventatively eat healthier. Which  I’m all for, but it just goes to show that this weight obsession isn’t just the woman’s turf here. Where do I think it all comes from? I don’t know, many different places. A strong desire to highlight their European side and relive the glory days when Argentina was beginning to be a world power. A Latin taste of having more pride, and more comfort, in their bodies. And a culture centered on appearances, because in such an unstable and unpredictable social, political, and economic climate as Argentina has been for the last half-century or so, the appearance of order and cleanliness means everything. Americans love the rustic, family owned pizzeria full of peeling walls and authentic charm. But Argentines love the bright, spanking new place that opened last week, with shining white floors and mirrored walls and state of the art pizza-cooking technology. Do I dare muse that in fitting with the typical psychological profile of disordered eating, Argentines control in their bodies what they can’t in their lives, on a national scale?

 

Population, Sexual Pleasure, and Better Fathers

With regard to below, this is more what I’m talking about. Gloria Steinem is a writer, activist, and well-known feminist. Here (http://www.grist.org/article/2010-12-23-gloria-steinem-on-population-sexual-pleasure-men-parents) she talks about the ways that gender equality, in  addition to loving and healthy relationships, can not only contribute to social and political justice but also help solve our ongoing environmental crisis. I especially like when she says:

“We need societies that encourage men to be nurturing parents, too. Men who raise children are much less likely to insist on having too many. They also raise children who humanize the gender roles because they know that men can be as nurturing as women — just as women can be as achieving in the world as men. When men are equal parents, women no longer have two jobs, one outside the home and one in it. And men have developed all their human qualities, and no longer are limited to proving “masculinity” by being in control or even violent and conquering. Both men and women raising children — and both women and men using their talents in the world — are crucial to developing our full humanity, and to escaping the gender roles [that] normalize injustice.”

Clarin on being single

An interesting article appeared yesterday in Clarin, one of Argentina’s biggest newspapers (http://www.clarin.com/sociedad/tendencias/single-moda-mitad-portenos-pareja_0_401359927.html). The headline dramatically announced that “being single is in” and that “half the residents of Buenos Aires don’t have a partner.” It goes on to say that being single is a choice more and more people make, a trend across all ages that’s no longer stigmatized as it used to be. What’s interesting is that although the article claims to be talking about singleness as a pattern in society, what she’s really talking about are single women. It’s clear in every point, every expert’s opinion cited, every example. Because after all, single men who refuse to settle down, who enjoy women but preserve their independence, have been around for a long time. These “bachelors,” these “studs,” behave in a way that society considers normal, admirable, and understandable. So they’re hardly the ones making the news. What’s confounding enough to merit the front page on a national newspapers is that women, who are supposed to be emotional, loving, and unfulfilled without a man and a family, are shunning what everyone (read: men) thought was their natural purpose in life. How can a woman be single and be happy, they ask! What could have caused this strange phenomenon?!

What’s weird to me is that even though the article is written by a woman, even though it purports to enlighten us on this new trend that it constantly reassures is seen more positively than in the past (do we need that reassurance?), it still can’t escape reinforcing all of those assumptions and judgments about single women that fuel the fact that this is news in the first place. The picture it paints of singleness is contradictory– by assuring us it’s not a disability, it’s making it seem like one; by conjuring the image of moldy food in the fridge and being the odd one out at dinner parties, it’s not really selling us on the idea. Furthermore, the article goes on to call those who bear the label of single with pride “fundamentalists,” making them seem like some kind of angry, crazed, bra-burning sort of cult. What it also makes the single-choosers seem like are women who for whatever reason, probably their personal defects, wouldn’t be in a great relationship anyway – as it says, they would have to share a bed with someone with touching and settle, at great personal expense, for whoever was “left in the used-goods market.” Seriously??

The little “history of relationships” given goes something like this: before the women’s liberation movement, submission and domination were the structures that reigned women’s relationships, and to be able to stand it, they came up with the damaging concept of the soul mate. The search for one’s “half-orange,” as they call it in Spanish, and the presumably unhappy marriage that followed, signified the price that had to be paid to find our other half and thus be a complete person. But when women started seeing marriage and childbirth as more a choice than an obligtion, they had no reason to desperately search for a partner. Men freak out when they realize they’ve lost the power they once had, and don’t know what to do with these intelligent, independent women who mke profound emotional demands on them – so they lie to cover their fear and then they flee. A wonderfully creative explanation for the Argentinean man who lies, plays games, cheats, and disappears – make it the woman’s fault. Also, what happened to love in all this? Love, respect, fulfillment by sharing your life with someone despite all the difficulties –don’t quite seem to have a role in this depressing version of the tale. Nor do people who truly feel happier alone, NOT because they couldn’t find anyone or won’t settle for damaged goods, but because as they go through life they find that’s what actully does give them the most fulfillment. And why does being alone equate not having  romantic relationship?? That ignores the many other types of families that people form, whether related by blood or not, who share their lives with loved ones and despite not having a long-term, romantic partner, are certinly not alone.

Some of the article’s points, about how people wait longer to get married and women are no longer willing to sacrifice their dreams, goals, and identities to form a relationship and a family, are good ones. But what’s lacking is soome balance, some recognition that the vast majority of people find that their desires and experiences are not at one of the two extremes (romantic, butterfly, give-up-everything love at the one end, versus a pragmatic, individualistic choice to be single at the other), but rather lie somewhere in the vast continuum between. But the article presents, and then condemns in its own way, both extremes. It shouldn’t have to be a choice, as they say it is, between “the old mandate of looking for someone who completes and guides you” and the new supposed technique of looking for someone “with whom you can make a good  corporation.” Why not look for both? I really think that often we have far more power to create our own destiny than we allow ourselves to believe. What’s wrong with idealizing what you want? At best, your high expectations will lead you to it. At worst, you’ll realize that you made a mistke, that that wasn’t quite what you wanted, and you’ll learn from the experience –isn’t that what dating is all about? I think that being alone and being with someone are actually mutually beneficial possibilities. To be alone for a long time makes you stronger, self-sufficient, more confident in yourself. It teaches you what you need and what makes you happy outside  relationship. Your life is your own and it’s an incredible chance to make of it what you will. Then when you’re with someone, you add, not replace. You add love and support to everything else about you, and they enrich one another. You can open a part of yourself to another without needing them to fill a hole, because you know you’re ok as an individual. You can have butterflies and business, because you know you deserve it.