Immigrants often express a shared dilemma: an inner conflict between the need to fit in, to belong to their new country, or at least to survive in it and the fear of losing their own roots. This clash within themselves is a deeply troubling, even painful identity crisis which is not easily or quickly resolved. Indeed, this struggle may persist across generations or even centuries. On the one hand, they long to belong where they live. They want to be a part of the society in which they now work and raise a family. On the other hand, they cannot simply jettison their entire former cultural selves. Culture is a complex tapestry of clothing, food, music, language, architecture and an entire value system informed by such realities as religion and history.
I met an elderly Greek woman in a souvenir shop in Florida who could speak only a few words of English. Her clothing was so typical of her country of birth that one might have assumed she had just come to the United States. However, her grandson told me she had lived in America for more than half a century. He, by the way, could speak hardly any Greek, and admitted with a shrug that the two of them had hardly any real relationship at all.
Hers was the immigrant dilemma. Her family are Americans. Her grandchildren do not think of themselves as Greeks or even in some hyphenated way such as Greek-Americans. Just Americans. She feels out of place. She looks for things that seem familiar. She lives where she lives because she has no choice, but it is strange territory. She still cooks dolmades and moussaka and most of her family eats it but she knows her grandchildren prefer hamburgers and french fries.
The rules, the laws and the land are all unfamiliar. She is stranded in a strange place. She knows she must live there. There is no going back. Yet she also knows this is not how she was brought up.
It has occurred to me lately that many Americans, particularly older Americans who are not technical immigrants, are actually dealing with a version of this immigrant syndrome at an emotional or psychological level. The world they live in has changed. The America they knew as children no longer exists. Its values and standards have shifted around them so violently that they no longer even feel at home in their own country. Time has made them immigrants in their own land.
How to handle it, how to deal with it, is the issue. They can do as did the old Greek lady in that shop in Florida. They can huddle down, refuse to learn the language, retreat from life and become human antiques longing for the land they left behind. Those who do will gradually lose many of their most precious relationships. The generational gap between them and their descendants will widen every year. The cultural gap between them and their neighbors will also widen. They will feel less and less at home with the music, even Christian music. Whole portions of their own native language will become strange and alien to them and they will simply talk less every year or will talk only to those who remember language as it once was. They will be like old Greek ladies who meet every so often on the front walk of the Orthodox Church to complain to each other that their grandchildren don't even speak Greek.
Others will retreat into angry shells. Crustier and less accessible every year they will lash out at the elements of the changed society around them. Unable at first to discern what is bad about the new and what is simply new, they will finally quit trying to see the difference and dismiss all change as bad. They will finally become angry old relics of a land that has slipped away, never to come again.
The bold few, those who refuse to be left behind will take another route. They will embrace the new world in which they live. They will not agree with all of it but they will not fear it or despise it. They will hack through the tough job of learning the new language and humbly laugh at themselves when they get it wrong or when their accent stubbornly refuses to be softened. They will know the names of some of their grandchildren's matinee idols, and who is hot on the pop charts. They will be the "cool old people" that the young people cluster around, who tell stories of the old country but who joyfully seek to see the good that still remains.
I will never be young again. I am neither hip nor hot. I will never again convince young people that I am hip and I haven't been hot in decades, if I ever was. I see changes in America that alarm me. I see values being lost which I thought would always be the non-negotiable ground and foundation of the American world view. Decisions are being made at the governmental level that make me feel like a stranger in new and frightening land.
The only thing is, I refuse to let it all frighten me into retreat. I reserve the right to shake my head in disbelief at the strange new moral terrain. I reserve the right to speak my mind. I reserve the right to see what is wrong and what is being lost. Even so, I am determined to live joyfully, openly and graciously in the new world in which I so often feel so dreadfully out of place.
I refuse to become the silent, sour old woman selling souvenirs of a land that I will never see again. This new world may not be perfect, and may in fact, be out and out looney at times but I will not go gentle into that good night. Cormack McCarthy wrote a book entitled No Country For Old Men. I refuse to accept that. This is where I live. I cannot change that. Many times in this new country, such as it is, I feel like an alien in a strange and daunting new place, but I have to believe I was born for just this time and place. I have set my face like a flint to live in such a way that young people will come to me and seek me out and want to be with me and hear what I have to say and learn from my journey. McCarthy was wrong. This is a great country for old men, at least for those with guts and joy.