Xenophobia

I’ve made a couple changes to the site, but I’m still a little shaky on what I’m doing.  It looks pretty good, I think, all things considered.  Quick shout out to the beautiful and talented Weslyn Miller–my first follower (and mother-in-law…ahem).

So my oldest daughter has to choose an American Icon to research and present as an oral/visual report to her Gifted class.  She wants to do Steve Jobs and roll out the whole black mock-turtleneck and pristine-white powerpoint.  I mention that only because: one, my daughter’s weird but wonderful and reads the highlights on yahoo.com, so she knows he just died, two, looking around at the stuff Steve Jobs was involved in, a couple things that really caught my eye were the computer mouse:

and Pixar:

and three, I thought hey: here’s a completely random way to show my appreciation, write something borderline topical, and figure out how the hell one inserts images into blog posts.  Tah-dah!

This is a long post, mainly because I wanted to include an essay I wrote and really like that has received no love from the journals I’ve sent it to for consideration.  Make sure to read the footnotes–their purpose, style and content are direct rip-offs of the essays of David Foster Wallace.  Please enjoy, comment, and critique!

Xenophobia

I have been to exactly four other countries, and even though one was the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, two and three were jaunts in Belize and Mexico during excursions from our cruise ship, and four is the United States itself (of which I have seen only the eastern part with the exception of a 40 minute layover in Dallas), I feel perfectly capable of explaining the importance of valuing other cultures to my three children.

To be sure, I’ve seen most of the other (important) countries in pictures or movies.  I’ve even read about a few, though the “serious” literature about other countries tends to slouch towards what’s wrong with those cultures rather than what shines.  I can say, for example, that after reading Things Fall Apart that I have little-to-no interest in visiting Nigeria, especially the dirty, sacrifice-y parts, and since most of my contemporary knowledge of Paris, France is knotted up with a breathless rush through The Da Vinci Code[1], I am unreasonably certain that the Louvre is lousy with self-flagellating, albino hit men.

I keep such crucial knowledge in storage when I talk to my kids about other places.  At this point they have seen North Carolina, Florida (Disneyworld, actually—“Disneyworld” is completely and inconceivably different from what is actually “Florida”), Chicago, Illinois (The North Side, though my oldest still asked why so many ‘brown people” wanted our money…), and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee[2].

We are the safest and whitest people I have ever met, except for all of our friends and everyone else in our family[3].

Because we are so safe and white, I felt compelled to shake my family out of its so obviously crippling complacency.  After weeks of meditation and worry, I finally decided to relocate to Venezuela and live among the indigenous Yanomamo.

OK, not really.  I rented the new documentary “Babies” from the Redbox in front of our Kroger’s.

It was terrifying.

To elaborate, the movie itself is not terrifying.  It is almost comically gentle.  There is no overdubbed narration and only intermittent subtitles.  The four camera crews followed four families from San Francisco, Tokyo, Mongolia, and Namibia[4], as their babies progressed from newborn to taking their first-steps (is that a toddler?—I’ve never been sure).  The film cuts in thematically linked, montaged arcs as each child learns gross- and fine-motor function, first words, basic social skills, and the subtle and varied hues of manipulation at which all babies excel.  It’s adorable.

Nor were my children’s reaction to the film terrifying.  Though they were initially nonplussed at the surplus of nudity[5] in Namibia and the lack of parental involvement in Mongolia, they seemed to understand that a kid’s a kid’s a kid.  They took to narrating the action as if it were a Dodgers’ game or they were Tom Bergeron on America’s Funniest Videos.  After their patter became obnoxious (otherwise known as: ten minutes later) we told them to go play and we finished the movie ourselves.

Here is what was terrifying: as we watched the film, both with and without our children, my wife and I felt a degree of awe and disgust that we normally felt only for each other.  The same ethnographic details that my kids shrugged off were met with guffaws and shudders from us.

For example, who the fuck knew that the word “wardrobe” in Namibia was defined as a necklace and a belt?

“It’s like they looked at a normal set of clothes and went right for the accessories,” I quipped.

“Look at all the dirt and shit there,” my wife said.  “You’d have the dustiest bush on the planet.”

Our cultural sensitivity was stretched and strained, tighter and tighter, by the minute.  Communal breastfeeding: “Like a human water fountain.”  The disparity in pets: “Jesus!  All the other families get something, at least a rooster, and that poor Namibian kid just gets to slap flies all day?”  Safety: “Seriously?  You’re just going to wrap that kid up like a cigar and throw him on the back of a motorcycle?  Are these people psychotic?”  Hygiene: “Hole shit honey, while you were in the bathroom the little Namibian kid played with his own tallywhacker and then went for his brother’s tallywacker!  That could get you pounded and arrested here!  And look—he’s just eating shit off the ground!  Actual shit, I think!  Honey!”

It was after the “bath time montage” that I realized just how comfortably and squeamishly sheltered we truly were[6].  The scene starts with the American baby enjoying a shower with her father, then moves to the Japanese child in the tub and the Mongolian kid in what looks to be a washbasin or wide-rimmed bucket.  So far, so good.  I’ve never washed my kid in a bucket, but I would, and to be honest, I’ve never actually taken a shower with any of my children, because I am terrified that they will grab and hold onto my penis and I’ll have to scream at them and render them afraid of sex and intimacy forever (like I am, I guess).  I have simply turned on the shower and held them under it when we don’t have time for a proper bath, so I was down with the need for economy and thrift.

Now we move to Namibia, and to the darker recesses of my human heart.  I’ve read (or at least glanced at through one of those earnest New Yorker UNICEF ads) that third-world indigenous cultures in Africa struggle to conjure up two gallons of potable[7] water a day, which is essentially the equivalent of two toilet flushes or one vigorous teeth-brushing.  So I get that baths are tricky, and by that standard, I’ve got to say that the Namibian kids looked pretty goddamned sparkly, possibly owing to their mom constantly rubbing what looks to be a clay or ochre deal all over them.  She had, earlier (or later?) in the film given her children haircuts with a ten-inch blade better suited for skinning deer or stabbing into the nearest horror-movie starlet, so my anticipation mounted as I speculated about how she was going to clean her kids.

OK—here’s the deal: she took her children, held their faces to her mouth, and licked/sucked them until they were sufficiently clean, all the while spitting out all of the bugs/dirt/grit/lice/shit that collected on them during their hard days of swatting flies, playing with rocks, and nursing.  When she went for their eyebrows/lashes/balls, I couldn’t think of anything except the part in The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy when the evil general sucks a poor schmo’s eyes from their sockets and lets them swing on his cheeks until they dry out and turn into mucous-y prunes, held to the empty holes in his head by the withered ganglia.  She didn’t do that, but she could’ve.

“She’s not going to suck their eyeballs out like that book you read,” my wife said.

“I know.”

“You were thinking it, though,” she said.

“I know.”

“They don’t have any water.  She’s improvising,” my wife said.

“I know.”

“It’s kind of disgusting and I think I want to turn it off, now,” she said.

“I know.”

And that kind of ended it.  We looked at each other and felt like we should either donate a hundred dollars to Live Aid (is that still possible?  What is it now?  RIPPLE?) or send a mosquito net or maybe just take a shower.  I realized that the squirmy disgust I felt outweighed my sense of duty, which made me feel shitty, but most of all I felt shitty about having a sense of duty in the first place.  I’m the first person to call my parents on their isolationist and nationalist claptrap at Thanksgiving, the first to bring up the whole “Global Community” paradigm, but when faced with it I shudder like a child watching his dog lick up their own shit.  And the honest-to-god truth is that the Namibian family was fine.  It worked.  They seemed happy, and my judgments and compassion did not mean anything to them, and yet I felt it should.

In the same way that the most strident proponents of multiculturalism seem never to live around anyone of different race/class/sexual orientation, and leave the actual understanding and bridge-building and it-takes-a-villaging to other people, I suppose that watching Babies made me realize, or remember perhaps, something I always knew to be true.  My compassion, like everyone’s, is inversely proportional to my own comfort.  I like my meat wrapped and ready at the store, I like hot showers, and I like playing MarioKart, and if any of those things were taken away, like if the zombies finally rise, I almost certain that I will completely lose my shit.

But I want to care, and I want my kids to care, yet I am comically unprepared to show them how.  I realized that this movie, ostensibly about what connects us, had in fact made me feel different from other people[8].

But all of that is really stuff that everyone already knows.  We wrap layers and layers of bubble-wrap around what we hold dear, then we feel guilty when we see other people with less bubble-wrap.  But should we?  To admit that we have people we love, and give them stuff to show we love them, and that we love ourselves, and give ourselves stuff to show we love ourselves, and that that makes us feel safe, makes us seem like we’re all a bunch of selfish, materialistic, unrepentant Dick Cheneys running around shooting our friends in the face with buckshot and then making them apologize for getting shot in the face.  But to bolster our neediness with platitudes, fundraisers, and NPR donations is really just largesse, no different than when, in medieval times, you treated guests to the best you had to show them that there’s always more where that came from.

Is compassion and civil responsibility just covert bragging?  Or do we have a responsibility?

Is rubbing my kids’ faces in the plight of the poor and needy and different really going to make them better people, and who am I to think that it would?

Three days after the Babies debacle, President Obama made his (now?) annual “Back to School” speech.  In my neck of the woods these occasions have been met with your basic, Tea-Party-centric dissension.  My sister-in-law actually kept her kid at home last year so he wouldn’t watch it, worried that he was being inundated by the liberal and (unspoken) black[9]/Muslim agenda.  The teachers have to give all students the option to leave the room and sit in the cafeteria if they choose not to watch the speech.

My oldest daughter sat in the cafeteria.

We were mortified.

We had broken her.  Our carefully constructed Faberge egg of liberal responsibility had been shattered by her astute dissection of our inherent xenophobia, and our reward for our shallow and untruthful pieties was a skinhead daughter.  She would start wearing Doc Martins with red laces.  She would start listening to David Allen Coe and start watching Glenn Beck.

When we broached the subject with her, she seemed shocked that we gave a shit.  She explained that her friend was told not to watch the speech and she was the only one to raise her hand when the teacher asked if anyone chose to opt out.  My daughter felt that sitting in the cafeteria by yourself was a crap deal, so she went to keep her company.

So there were two kids in the cafeteria instead of one.  I asked if she was interested in what the black President had to say, and she rolled her eyes at me.

“Didn’t he give that same speech last year?”

She chose the other person.  It’s a small step.

I totally intend on taking credit for it.


[1]            “Serious” literature, as previously noted.

[2]            Not to be confused with Gatlinburg, which I hate.  Gatlinburg’s aspirations for a refined and respected social acceptance are in direct-opposite proportion to its meager grasp of basic human bullshit-detection.  It is, and always will be, “Hillbilly Vegas”, and yet its eagerness to fulfill its duty as a historically significant entertainment and vacation destination seems sweaty, overeager, and self-indulgent.  It’s like walking through a cold war between wannabe cowboys and renaissance festival outcasts.  And all of them are eating taffy.  Pigeon Forge, on the other hand, has no such aspirations.  It exists purely for the no-holds-barred enjoyment of lower-middle class, red-state rednecks, and therein lies its glory.  You can poke a bear on a chain, eat fudge until you’re sick, and puke the fudge all over Dollywood while riding a contraption that looks like nothing so much as a Trebuchet with a seatbelt.  Pigeon Forge fucking rocks.

[3]            My wife, who has visited far more countries and states than I, will probably disagree.  She’s lying.  Despite being one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know, her experience with non-dominant cultures starts and ends with scoring free beer off of a Mexican crewmember of the catamaran we snorkeled from in Cozumel.

[4]            It embarrasses me that I include the cities for two of the families and countries for the other two, even though the locations of all four families were clearly and specifically denoted, and especially since the two city-families live in places that are obviously considered, by the film and the world, to be technologically advanced and very much on the world’s social radar, which therefore makes me look like an entitled and uninformed jackass, which of course, I am.  I tell myself that the family from Namibia probably doesn’t know where Cincinnati, Ohio is, so why should I feel so fucking pampered and sheltered and willfully ignorant when they can’t even find North America on a map (probably, maybe) but that argument rings hollow, somehow.

[5]            We explained that such nudity, which is to say “non-white, non-dominant culture nudity,” was perfectly fine to watch.  Comparable to nudes at The Chicago Art Museum, even, therefore rendering the Namibian mothers and children objects and invoking the long-treasured and oft-used “National Geographic” defense in which one argues that boobs were cool and even educational to ogle if they belonged to cultures that commonly went without shirts.  My mother called them “tribal titties.”  It surprises me, raised as I was, that I did not become a white-supremacist.

[6]            I’d like to say a few words about the way the movie is actually put together, in a half-assed and probably misguided (as well as easily disprovable) effort to defend my wife and myself.  They cut the four families almost as if they were setting up and delivering the punch line to a joke.  There were times when the film seemed directed by Jacques Tati.  They would show the family from the U.S., then Tokyo, then Mongolia, and finally—boffo!—Namibia (unless the Mongolian family’s lack of conscience about basic child-safety happened to be on display, then they were the obvious headliner).  It’s clear that the filmmakers were completely uninterested in the families from Japan and the U.S.—they were only there as a control group or, at most, to subtly satirize our urban, child-obsessed, overprotective, and consumerist culture.  However, the filmmakers were truly fascinated and, it has to be said, equally repelled by the rural, non-dominant cultures, and it’s crystal clear several times in the film.

[7]            I love the word “potable”, probably because it is used on Jeopardy.  I never knew what it meant, though, because I don’t really pay attention to the questions on Jeopardy.  I always thought, up until about last Thursday probably, that it meant “easy to carry,” which, of course, is the word “portable.”  I mention this only to cement my reputation as an idiot and deflect any criticism that I am in any way an ignorant racist.  I’m not ignorant, just stupid.

[8]            Or: other people

[9]            I feel like I should make the font smaller for that word.  When we talk about Obama in Boehner-country (i.e. Southwest Ohio), no matter who you voted for, we never say he’s a black president.  We say he’s a black President.  Oddly enough, nobody refers to him as just “The President.”  We say “black,” very much like we say “cancer,” or “alcoholic,” or “Chlamydia.”

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Filed under Film, Kids, Xenophobia

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