Growing up under Different Skies
Reflections at the Einstein Forum
The author presented a version of the following at the Einstein Forum in Berlin, June, 2015.
I stand before you with more questions and contradictions than answers. I have chosen to speak of growing up “under different skies” because that was my destiny. What I don’t know is whether such a biographical accident sheds a very different light on growing up or whether it is more of the same with just greater geographical movement than in most young lives.
When I wrote a quarter of a century ago my intellectual autobiography of life between Europe and America, which was published in French, I wanted to entitle it The Hybrid, for in my mind hybrid plants were healthier and stronger than their monogenetic varieties, better equipped to resist the shocks of dangerous or indifferent environments. My publisher would not hear of it for hybrids in her mind were the equivalent of biological bastards, so she imposed upon my book the catchall title of Entre deux mondes, “between two worlds.” Perhaps hybrids do fall between two stools after all. This may indeed be the predicament of those who grow up under different skies, by which I don’t mean different skies in a same country or a one-shot change of skies as a child. What interests me here is growing up with a constant as opposed to sequential switch between skies, with the concomitant tension between different worlds, different ideologies, different cultures, and different languages. Such tensions include banal differences in daily life but also clashing world views. But perhaps the most disruptive of all, if one is engaged in intellectual life as we all here are, is the clash of implicit assumptions linked to given national cultures: they often underpin what are presented as properly detached reflections. Most intellectuals are not even aware of these assumptions that color the very questions they ask, for lack of what I would call a third eye.
Lives lived among very different skies are often perceived by those who have led far more static childhood existences as fabulously interesting, even thrilling. But is this really the case? My aim here is to show that there is a quite a bit of scuro while growing up in such a chiaroscuro setting. The fields may be vast but the depth of field may be hard to come by. For those who might think that such a fate is reserved only for the elites of a happy few, think again. Never have there been so many people either made to or choosing to live between worlds across the planet. The number of refugees and displaced persons has now reached World War II levels; the number of immigrants and economic laborers never ceases to grow. The world, the optimists say, is on the move. Gone are the heavy suitcases of definitive one-way trips. Cheap cell phones for the indentured servants of today and satellite dishes in the balconies of many an immigrant’s apartment, along with low cost flights everywhere, maintain in all of their ambiguity the daily ties to lands of origins easily transformed into lands of new futures. Everywhere in our increasingly interconnected planet there are children who grow up at the crossroads of these splintered lives, straddling divides that determine how they grow up and the kinds of adults they will become. Growing up is difficult everywhere but my hunch is that when one adds different skies to the mix, the task takes on a different dimension: it may slow down or instead accelerate the process, but either way, it will condition it by imposing different stage sets, different lights, and above all different lines in the play of life.
I have a confession to make. I started thinking again about growing up under different skies in the wake of the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks. When the lives of the two Tsarnaev brothers were described in the press, in a strange and highly disturbing manner I felt that I understood them while, of course, being horrified by their acts. They were the product of clashing worlds: familial, cultural, religious, political, even ideological. They grew up in America, trying and failing to make it by the standards of their new country, with a mother who had returned to Chechnya and who incited them with virulent anti-American feelings while urging them to stand up for their fellow humiliated and murdered Muslims. Their return to the homeland of their childhood, their attempts to integrate there, their search for contacts to bolster shifting identities, their ongoing dissatisfaction and frustration often drowned in marijuana — all of these details were not theirs alone. They were shared, minus the murderous violence, by most geographically split persons, including the tense interactions with other family members, the press told us, who became immigrant success stories and would have nothing to do with the brothers and their parents. Two sides of the same coin but at what internal cost?
I find the terrorist attack of the Tsarnaev brothers highly symbolic. Did they use pressure cookers to commit their murderous acts because they carried their own pressure cookers within? This feeling of being torn between competing worlds may also help explain the choices made by the terrorists coming from the U.K., France or Belgium who have now joined the ranks of ISIS. These are extreme cases where things went terribly wrong, but the malaise they convey affects many more people who fortunately will never resort to external acts of violence, keeping instead, the pain inside. For a few who will live outwardly fashionable “Fast Lane” lives — to refer to Tyler Brûlé’s weekly Financial Times column for the well-heeled and well-traveled happy ones — many more who grow up under different skies will end up confused, hurt, ill at ease, and never quite at home anywhere.
Growing up in such circumstances there is always the question of the “road not taken,” “the language not perfected,” the soul that does not necessarily square with one’s environment — not in sociological terms but at some indefinable metaphysical level — with a malaise that others cannot fathom because they belong to one or the other side of the identity puzzle. The tension is mainly within but it becomes far worse when it is aggravated from the outside. I still remember the young Southeast Asian Briton who told me many years ago that he loved the grey skies and the green fields surrounding his native Birmingham with their perfect rendition in Constable’s paintings. Tragically however, British society would not let him consider these horizons as his own or chose not to believe him when he made these proclamations. He was not allowed to belong, and this feeling hurt more than any blatant discrimination. Or the young Dutch man of Moroccan origin who told me that even though he did not agree with the French decision to prevent girls from wearing hijabs in school, he at least respected France for having set up a commission to discuss the issues, whereas he in the Netherlands could paint himself green and no one would notice because they were uninterested in his presence, happy to have the state throw welfare checks at him without ever taking him into account.
Growing up under different skies has many parallels with the fantasy of adoption. Every child sooner or later wonders whether she was adopted, perhaps as a way to imagine a different life with better parents, or simply to counter even the smallest punishment. Children who have been effectively adopted often spend their entire lives fantasizing over the identity of their biological parents. Recently DNA testing and a growing number of legal recourses to open those sealed envelopes in distant bureaucratic offices attest to this existential need to come to terms, often through great effort and not always with success, with that other imagined reality. Those who grow up under different skies ask themselves the same kind of questions: the parents remain the same but they wonder about the other life they might have had somewhere else; the childhood home that was; the world that could have been. Thomas Wolfe affirmed that one cannot go home again. But what about those who have more than one home to go back to, homes whose contours blur over time? On what peg can they hang, much less anchor, their childhood?
So how does one grow up under different skies? Not everyone will have the same trajectory. It is not the same thing to live under different skies as the child of sojourners, diplomats, refugees, exiles, immigrants, expatriates, wandering hippies, or cosmopolitans. The sojourner has a definite time perspective to her job: hers is a return-ticket move and the child will go back after the parental work period expires. The diplomat’s child whose parents travel to fly the flag never really leaves his country, which remains a beacon and protective shell, not unlike that of a turtle. The refugee family is looking for the basics of life, a place where one is not killed or destroyed by violent injustice. There is no going back and the price to pay in building a new life is enormous, but there is also something reassuring in this lack of choice. Life is here and now. There can be no fantasizing over the cruel lost land. But there can be a much later return with a purpose, as I shall show later. The exile will instead inculcate in her child a sense of purpose based on the fact that the parent was punished for resisting or doing something courageous against a rotten regime. The settling of accounts is embedded in the very DNA of such a move, as is the will to go back to restore a lost world. The immigrant instead is looking for a better life in a different and better world and is propelled by one wish: that the children “make it.” The expatriate moves lightly between worlds in comparative luxury. He has a home to go back to even when he prefers to be footloose. As for the wandering hippie, it is amazing to see how many of the children of these hippies have only one ambition in life: to have a boring, rooted, middle class existence. One final category, the cosmopolitan, completes the list, but I am not sure such a person still exists today. The term implies fluent cultural shifts, deep innate self-confidence, and a belonging to an upper crust that is not just globe-trendy but stands out because of the masses that stay put — and today the masses are no longer static.
What are the questions such youths growing up under different skies must address? To begin with, their family circle becomes far more important than that of a “one sky” youth whose family has stayed put and who can also rely on far larger multi-generational social networks. The issue is further compounded if the parents come from different worlds or hold unto different sets of beliefs or religions: do they inculcate the same cultural and political signals to their children? Whose magnetic North will serve as a reference? Another question is whether the parents are integrated where they live or whether they remain marginal outsiders. Should their children protect them, act as bridges to the outer world, integrate their elders’ tensions or try to forget them? In such contexts, do schools offer an alternative? How does one go about the frighteningly difficult task of making friends, when one has to enter pre-existing cliques? Later in life the issue of finding a mate crops up and with it the question of identity. Whose pedigree does one wish to pursue? Should one continue in the parental tradition, break implicit rules, strike out one one’s own? Is it really a random choice? And when the choice is made are the tensions really transcended or do they lie just below the surface, ready to rise up again at the slightest inner storm? Origins do not evaporate easily, especially when immigrant, refugee, or exile backgrounds are at stake.
So what are the possible solutions for carving one’s life under different skies? The most obvious is the push for integration and assimilation: to espouse fully the world in which you live. It is not as easy as it sounds. In our day and age it is difficult for immigrants to disappear into a potential melting pot: skin color, religious beliefs, and family traditions stick out more formidably, far more so than in the age of those Jews in 19th century Europe who sought to pass, often with the help of plastic surgery on their purportedly “Jewish” noses, or when Blacks tried to whiten their skins. Our Zeitgeist does not preach nor does it expect such an attitude. But the converse is also true: identities do not just remain visible; they have a tendency to linger on, often magnified to a quasi-mythical level.
Others instead can be driven by an equally powerful push toward rebellion. This can make for violent and even terrorist stances in our times but one must not forget that there is nothing new in such outcomes. Think of the anarchists and revolutionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imbued with hatred for societies that would not accept them: for instance, Jews born within the Pale and denied a future in Russia itself.
There is also the push toward a collective identity as a member of an ethnic or religious subgroup now that social identities have virtually disappeared with the end of the united working class. This is the “we” solution. You are defined by your own group and the group is you. This possibility has been particularly popular in societies such as the U.K. or Canada who accepted and even favored (less so today) multiculturalism. But in terms of the individual self and her growing up, such a collective identity can be a trap, for it offers to the world a visible outward persona behind which often hides an empty or torn inner self.
The opposite of such a collective stance is the push toward detachment and solitude. It may create great artists and intellectuals but whether they grow up calmly, much less happily, is another story. Such a push can also produce solitary and often alienated individuals seeking refuge in their own secret gardens — but some gardens are more fertile than others. There are also wastelands where weeds grow and give little solace. Think of the world’s manifold forlorn immigrant or refugee encampments.
Finally there is the push toward a calmer understanding and the pursuit of what can be called selective belonging while appreciating multiple identities. But of all the possible existential solutions this is perhaps the most difficult to attain and, as I will show later, this is actually the “happy ending,” possibly the only mature outcome of growing up under different skies. During the difficult years of late childhood and adolescence when one is trying to grow up, such a stance is virtually impossible to achieve or even to aim for. The self is still much too fragile and far too bombarded by external pressures and contradictions even to envisage it. Imagine an albino having to protect himself from more than one sun.
Of course, one can rebut that each of these stances applies equally well to native-born youths who have only known one sky in their life. Yes, but I would add that such youths lack the added layer of anguish that comes with the path not taken in purely geographic terms. The youth or young adult oscillating between different skies will inevitably attempt at some point to try the other path. But in her case, the trip will have none of the exhilarating and liberating feeling of discovery of someone who goes abroad for the first time. Familiarity breeds distancing and even anguish. There is something astigmatic in the contemplation of one’s other sky. I have in mind all those Americans of Indian origin who Manu Joseph has described in his New York Times columns. They maintained a strong Indian identity in their American world and during the heyday of India’s booming economy had chosen to go back with often cushy jobs, attracted by both the financial opportunities and the call from “home.” It did not take long for them to return to the American homeland they had been previously willing to leave. Penetrating India proved to be impossible, for every encounter jarred their nerves since it made them understand that they did not belong in this place where their deepest values, often unbeknownst to them, were not shared. For those who come from Western pluralist democracies, such attempts at life in the other country can offer a sense of psychic closure. One returns fully able to embrace the most open, and thus the friendliest sky. But what happens when the reverse takes place? When you go back to the country with the greatest tensions and problems, forced to abandon the liberating Western experience — for reasons that range from a denied visa to family pressure — in order to move back inside more confined and even stifling settings? And what happens when the to and fro takes place among Western countries, where to the external gaze the differences are minor, even invisible, or if visible part of the local color?
Freud spoke of the “narcissism of small differences” but, in the case of those growing up among or between different skies, the differences are not small. They take on monumental proportions as symbols of an elusive self. Anthropologists may study and catalogue such differences but those who absorb them from childhood know they have a way of accumulating, even snowballing, into major internal dissonances. And worse still, these dissonances are completely undetectable to those on the outside, as though what one hears are ultrasounds.
There are three areas in which these differences make themselves acutely felt: in the tensions between family and the local environment; in the problem of language; and in the raising of children. Distancing oneself from one’s own parents is an integral part of growing up. But for those with different skies, the process is longer and fraught with greater anguish. For in relativizing the parents one is also relativizing the other sky. Politics and geography thus turn the act of growing up into a different existential choice. This is the ideal terrain for therapists. I can think of no better description of this dilemma than Gary Shteyngart’s autobiography, Little Failure, even though his was “just” a one-way immigrant experience. The Soviet Jewish boy who attended Jewish Schools in Queens and followed his parents dutifully into the Republican Party finally emerges as a left-wing writer married to a WASP and living in a house in bucolic Connecticut — but this is after many a drug experience and countless psychotherapy sessions.
Refugees and a few select immigrants on the other hand often take other trajectories. They want to go back and to make a difference. I recently saw on television Fatuma Dayib, a Somalian refugee of the 1990s who had become a Finnish citizen and was currently studying at Harvard, who was determined to go back to Somalia to run for president of her country even though it might cost her life. In effect she had only one relevant sky in her life: the others were incidental. The same is true of those Chinese sojourners, mainly students, who absorb what they need and want from American universities without letting themselves be influenced (or distracted) by a very different political and cultural environment (say democracy) before going back home to their Chinese sky. As for the ultimate stance of the exile, one need only think of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who lived several decades in Vermont without ever learning English, too absorbed by his Russian sky.
The Problem of Language lies at the core of the many skies predicament. Psychological research has proven that bilingual children have richer and more versatile brains and a greater ability to learn other languages. But they have also shown that one is not the same person in different languages, for words are the tip of the iceberg of cultural references. I remember seeing a video in Stockholm’s Museum of Folk Art in which a woman of Suomi origins, who had moved to Stockholm and pursued a brilliant career there, was filmed describing her life in Swedish on the balcony of her Stockholm house and then repeating the same story in Suomi in front of her family house in Sweden’s great North. The words might have said the same thing but the woman was not the same. Her facial expressions and body language were totally different. The tone of her voice was determined and positive in Swedish and much more languid and melancholy in Suomi. It was as though identical twins had been raised in two different families and in two different languages. Each culture was its own universe. The result for those growing up under different skies is one of partial disassociation and permanent frustration. Not only is there the issue of which language captures one’s inner essence, but there is also the problem of languages not totally mastered. Monolinguists will envy anyone who is bilingual or trilingual in childhood, but ask such a multilingual person about how they feel deep inside and you will be surprised to learn that many of them pine for a 100% mastery of a single language, a language that could accompany them from their toes to the top of their hair, a language that could encompass all of their existential experiences — in brief, the language that is the indispensable tool of poets.
I happened to grow up in my very early childhood with Italian at home, French at school, and English in the streets. But these neat categories morphed into a far more complex symbiosis when I spoke Italian to my children, French to my husband, and English to the academic world. To this day I know and feel that something essential gets lost in the switching of linguistic gears. There are simply too many inner feelings (I am not talking here about academic writing) one does not formulate for the simple reason that one doesn’t know in which language to formulate them. What happens when you don’t have one delicate madeleine to usher you into your past but outlandish American pink coconut cupcakes, refined French Saint Honorés, and beautiful Italian crostate all at once, each a window into a parallel universe? Perhaps one should write these impressions up in three different languages, but is that really feasible without such an exercise becoming a pedantic linguistic experiment?
Language furthermore takes on deep psychological connotations when entire families move. Do the parents continue to speak their native language to their children? Do they instead switch and choose to speak the new language to them in what remains a foreign idiom, the equivalent of caressing a child with thick gloves on? Languages can also be symbols of suffering or humiliation: the German language Jewish refugees gave up and never spoke among themselves or their German born children; the Sicilian dialect that stood for family warmth but also for poverty and oppression. These unspoken shards leave as many traces as the spoken ones. They condition the lives of children whether consciously or unconsciously when they enter school and confront teachers and classmates who do not carry similar invisible weights. These are not abstract questions while growing up under different skies. They go to the very heart of one’s most intimate self-expression.
Fortunately these linguistic dilemmas evaporate with time. They do not contaminate the next generation. The children of those who grew up under different skies enter life largely freed from this linguistic dilemma. The reason is simple: they are most likely to have been born and to have lived inside a more stable linguistic setting. My children also speak Italian and English but as a plus, not as a conflicted existential angst. In the case of random phrases and words passed down in non-multilingual families, old foreign words might accompany their lives not unlike old sepia-colored photos: tender mementoes bereft of any anguish. Much has been written about the third generation of immigrants, but their desire to find their family’s roots has most often been symbolic and not the product of being torn apart. One returns to discover something one has not lived with. I remember seeing in Tallin, shortly after the end of the Soviet Union, a young American of Estonian origin who had chosen to return “home.” She had opened a soapstone boutique in the high part of the city and she was proud to have lived up to her grandparents’ dream. Her Estonian, she told me, sounded funny and antiquated to those who lived in the city and when I interrogated her she did confess that reality had not quite turned out to be as expected. In brief, she was contemplating returning to America, her true home. Conversely, during one of my stays in Berlin, I had a taxi driver who told me he was from Palestine. When I asked from where, he proudly announced “Safet,” whose Israeli reality, Safed, he knew about since he added immediately: “We pronounce it with a ‘t’.” He had grown up in Lebanon and had never set foot in his Palestine, but his mental sky was solidly attached to that imagined reality.
Growing up under different physical or mental skies brings with it a quasi-inevitable romanticization of the other country, a tendency to downplay the virtues of the country one lives in, in a constant see-sawing of emotions, ending most often with disillusionment. These are feelings that are not really shared by those who grow up in the same country. One can prefer the East or the West Coast of the U.S.A, the Rhineland to Berlin or Northern England to Southern England, but the tension is not the same. One is held by a similar language and by variations within the same culture.
The pronouns imply different relationships. Becoming an adult implies overcoming the adolescent’s rebellious “me” versus an essentially familiar “you.” It is far more difficult to overcome a national or collective “us” versus “them.” In the former case the “I” learns to relativize itself. In the latter it has to find itself out or build itself in the midst of heterogeneous materials.
Adulthood implies successfully negotiating the concentric circles of life with family at the core, friends in the next ring, acquaintances and professional contacts in a third ring, and the larger society in the successive rings. Obviously life is not lived in concentric circles. The more appropriate metaphor would be ripples in a pond, spreading out into ever larger circles. Try instead throwing two stones close to each other in a pond: the ripples will overlap, complex undercurrents will develop, and nature’s geometry will give way to a flattened and seemingly unmanageable chaos — until closure will come with the end of the ripple effect. That is what living under different skies implies.
One final issue needs to be mentioned, which is a nearly inevitable consequence of such divided origins: the issue of thwarted pride. Whether consciously or unconsciously in the name of individual or collective origins, those with torn identities feel the need to stand up for the identity they consider the most fragile or the one deemed to be inferior by the “other side.” Such pride is a complex emotion that has little to do with patriotism. It is a defensive stance, a rallying around the totem pole, a way to give dignity to one’s own divided soul. This collective pride is often misplaced, at times politically wrong, and frequently ridiculous. Above all, it greatly slows down the process of growing up, for it lowers a curtain of protective sanctity where clarity and relativism should prevail.
How does one finally grow up given all of these complex circumstances? Can one overcome the weight of different skies? I offer below ways to grow up under different skies. The summary is not exhaustive and must surely reflect my own personal experiences. Here are some tips. Accept complexity while trying to curb its pain, perhaps by seeking other strangers. Minimize the natural adolescent desire to belong by extolling multiple belonging, even if one does not really know how to bring it about. Accept familial choices while transcending them. Create one’s own internal compass: choose one’s own latitude and longitude while remembering that longitude is a fairly recent measurement compiled in the late 18th century in order to counter the alarming rise in shipwrecks. Pick and choose from one’s backgrounds while also retaining an understanding for what is discarded. Cultivate the ability to stand outside one’s self while also learning to jump in. Learn when to be a bridge or a dam in function of each culture’s positive or negative aspects. Cross borders at will while realizing that they won’t disappear, because they correspond to an ingrained human need. Embrace life rather than segmenting it. Above all learn to “move on,” a complex term that applies to anything from broken romantic relationships to frustrated work conditions, but in this case to changing skies: become your own horizon.
Will any of this be easy? No. Daily life in a given country is constricting. There is an implicit and often not so implicit demand that people with complex origins conform. They are expected to prove their loyalty by adopting the identity of their peers. We in the West demand and expect that “our” Muslims condemn the horrors perpetrated elsewhere in Islam’s name. Others will make full-fledged acceptance of Jews conditional to their ceasing to support Israel uncritically. Still others will be expected to abandon this or that custom. In all cases not much consideration will be given to the feeling such persons might have not to betray familial or ancestral principles — even when they appear to us to be constraining or retrograde. Globalization is making such problematic belongings commonplace but this does not mean that they are any easier to overcome. For it is very difficult to grow up as an individual while relinquishing one’s community or communities.
Does this imply that one will become disassociated, wanting to cherish and keep both worlds? I am told that psychiatrists now tell such patients that they must understand that others have only one (limited) reality whereas the patients have more than one. In order to dialogue with the others and relate to the outside world, such patients are told to keep their other inner worlds to themselves. There is only so much others can understand. Do not impose the rest on them.
Can one rely on a fellowship of multiples? Perhaps. When such a camaraderie comes about, it is a welcomed and precious gift. Unfortunately such a camaraderie of “others” is rarely there when one is growing up, for one is unable then to describe the pain of not really belonging, and besides one feels everyone else is so much stronger than one’s own fragile self. Accepting this fact gently is perhaps the sign that one has indeed managed to grow up under different skies. With one consolation: whatever symbolic scars one has acquired do not pass inexorably from one generation to the next and the heavy baggage of complexity grows lighter with time.
I for one have found solace in an old proverb from Normandy, my adopted country abode so distant from my youthful blue Italian and American skies. The Normans call a perfectly blue sky with no clouds, a sky that bodes no change, a “stupid sky.” Perhaps that is the essence of all growing up: to cherish the ongoing movement of life, to embrace clouds, and to welcome the coming storm.