Friday, May 22, 2009

Appalling Multiculturalism?

I was excited to attend "Macondo: Imaginary and Real" during the recent Pen World Voices Festival. Writers from Holland, Peru, Hungary, and Spain spoke about home and migration. They discussed Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional homeland Macondo and the Austrian refugee camp Macondo. Since 1956 it has provided a home to displaced people from around the globe.

Josep-Maria Terricabras, a Catalan writer and philosophy professor, had spent time at the University of Münster, Germany as had I, but this is where our similarities ended. He found many aspects of the multicultural society, the idea of multiple identities, appalling. He bemoaned the parallel societies of immigrants that have emerged in many European countries.

I wanted him to experience City College where I teach writing. The "Harvard of the Working Class" is a university for the children of the working poor and the children of immigrants. Most of my students were born in a foreign country or their parents were. There are more than one hundred languages spoken on campus. Last semester my students came from Latin America, the Caribbean, Siberia, Tajikistan, Kosovo, Egypt, China, Korea, Poland, Yemen, Nigeria, Senegal, and Mali. After the initial struggle of learning a new language and adapting to a new culture, most regain their balance and come to embrace the city in their own way. This is evident when they write about their New York experiences. They might live in what Europeans call a parallel society--a predominantly Russian or Mexican neighborhood--because their parents chose to be close to their country men and women, near their places of worship, and stores that sell familiar foods. Most likely they hoped to find out about job opportunities, the American school system and customs from people who could understand their language.

I cannot find any fault in this. I, certainly, do not find it appalling. My students are not going to riot and set cars ablaze as did some of the Muslim youth in the suburbs of Paris. They are too busy working, often at full-time jobs, and studying at the same time.

As long as there is upward mobility in our society, a real possibility to improve one's lot, these immigrants will not stay outsiders. We can love the land of our birth and can love our new homeland at the same time. We can juggle two languages, two ways of being in the world, two different traditions and approaches to life, as long as the dominant society allows us in.

For thousand years, most European countries have built walls to keep the Roma people out. The stranger was perceived as a threat. What if we allow these strangers to augment our experiences in the world by teaching us about their culture? Josep-Maria Terricabras delights in a homogenous society with people that speak his language and understand the history of his people. This appeals to me also. I enjoy my visits to Germany; I take pleasure in hearing the German language all around me. However, I find it sad that hardly any of my friends and relatives have made friends with the many foreigners, children of "Gastarbeiter," and recent transplants from war-torn countries who reside in Germany. While they enjoy mingling with the natives in the Dominican Republic or the Canary Islands on vacation, at home they keep their front doors locked. They envy me for my New York circle of friends. “Just like the United Nations,” they say with longing. Then they return home to shut out that sort of diversity.

This is sad, for nothing is worse than suffocating from an insular view of the world.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Looking at 55

In German double and triple digits are called a Schnapszahl (schnapps number). A Schnapszahl is a lucky number. Barack Obama is the 44th U.S. president. Turning 55 I’m hoping for a lucky year.
Yesterday I found four pennies and two dimes. I interpreted for a German writer at the Pen World Voices festival—something I had never done before. Tomorrow the filming of New York Memories starts. I wrote the script; Rosa von Praunheim will direct. After a hiatus of more than twenty years I will be acting again.
This morning as I sliced bread I almost cut off the top of my left ring finger. For two hours it bled profusely. I’m hoping for Glück im Unglück which is not the same as a blessing in disguise. The Yiddish Massel im Schlamassel comes closer.
I feel lucky that I can still write with my right hand, lucky to sit under a regal London Plane in Bryant Park. The park is a miracle of an urban oasis: Paris-style park chairs, promenades, woody shrubs, bright red triumph tulips surrounded by skyscrapers. A large green lawn where pigeons and sparrows strut with confidence. No need to fly fight over crumbs. The 11, 000 people who use the park on an average spring day leave plenty.
I’m in good company. Goethe’s bust is in front of me; the statue of Gertrude Stein and the Public Library, the most exquisite temple of books, are behind me. I listen to the unique New York soundtrack. The steady hum of car traffic blends harmoniously with birdsong. An occasional siren of an emergency car seems to belong to a futuristic sci-fi movie. The children on the carousel’s horses shriek with delight. I look over to the dark, masculine Bryant Park Hotel with its delicate golden figures and imagine a middle-aged couple from Hanover on the terrace of their room. I imagine how amazed they are by the New York spectacle.
Here in Bryant Park the 19th-century smashes into the 21st. As if Marcel Proust was writing for the Wall Street Journal. I’m opening my notebook. My left finger still throbs with pain, but I move my right hand and start writing. No need to create stories. I just have to find them.
How lucky I am to live in the greatest city in the world.