Friday, May 31, 2013

Multitasking and finding my home!

I'm killing two birds with one stone!

Yeah, I know, it's a terrible metaphor (the French version d'une pierre deux coups -- literally "from one stone two hits" -- at least has the advantage of increased vagueness on what you might be hitting with rocks), but however you say it, I've had a bit of success lately doing it.

One of my chronic problems is that I have way more projects that I want to do than I have time to do them, and it doesn't help that I keep taking up additional homey hobbies like balcony gardening, homemade sushi, and organizing my basement.  (Actually that last one is finally pretty much done, yay!!)  So I have to multi-task!

One successful example is the French yoga class that I've been taking for more than three years now.  We actually speak a lot of French at home (and we've increased it recently to keep the kids in practice), but, still, it's helpful to have a weekly opportunity to converse with a group of native-French-speaking ladies my own age.  (And I do mean ladies -- even though the class is not intended to be gender-specific, I've never seen a man attend, not even once...)  And with this side of conversation practice comes, obviously, all of the benefits of an excellent yoga course!

And what's that other language I need conversation practice in?  Oh yeah, German!

I tried taking a German-language yoga class for a while, but, really, how much yoga do I need?  Plus, I constantly felt self-conscious because the teacher explained to the whole class that she was holding the class in High German instead of Swiss German for my sake, and even then I could barely understand what she was saying. This interfered with my ability to focus on doing yoga.

So I hit upon the idea of taking a German conversation practice!  I got the idea from the German camp I attended two summers ago with my family.  The daily intensive course I took there kind of put me off wanting to take any more German language courses (it was the first time the teacher had taught German to adults -- I don't want to go into too many details, but the course left something to be desired).  But the conversation practice at the beginning of each course was excellent.  Extremely helpful.  The teacher gave us just enough topic-finder games to get the conversation ball rolling and then sat back and took notes on all of the mistakes we made.  Afterwards we would go over the various errors and discuss how we could and should have said things better.

The multi-tasking idea I had was that a conversation class in Zürich might double as a kind of group therapy.  As I've complained before, nobody understands my peculiar relationship with my various countries.  Not even fellow expats, really.  But maybe in a group of other people living in Zürich and struggling to get some German practice, some people would feel the same strange sense of being at home with always being a foreigner.

To clarify the problem a bit, it drives me nuts when acquaintances blithely refer to the US as my "home." Here's an actual conversation I once had:

Swiss guy I know: (catching me in the hall, to another guy) Yeah, Carol's American...

New Swiss guy: (to me) Ah, and where's your home?

me: (after thinking about it for a bit)  Here.  In Zürich.

(Swiss people all laugh!)

New Swiss guy: No, I mean in the US!

me: (thinking: WTF?  *sigh*)  I'm from Minneapolis.  It's North-central.

That's how I generally answer when people ask me where I'm from and clearly want to hear a location in the US as an answer.  This happens to me all the time.

When people ask me a more open-ended "Where are you from?" I generally answer "It's a long story..." -- which is a lot more accurate that simply saying "Minneapolis."

The thing is that -- while my family has settled pretty permanently in Minnesota -- we didn't even move to Minnesota until I was ten years old.  I was born in the Chicago area (and I have family roots there), but I have never lived there past babyhood.  I've also lived in New York, Ohio, Utah, and -- adding it all up -- I've actually lived in New Jersey for almost as long as I ever lived in Minnesota (and have family roots there too).  And that's not to mention the fact that I've lived the most recent quarter of my life in Europe, including seven years in France, and I am currently raising my little French family.  Yet I still get people asking me "How often do you go home?" -- when in context they clearly mean "How often do you visit your family in Minnesota?"

Just a few weeks ago, a colleague of my husband mentioned that he'd heard something about Los Angeles and had immediately thought of me.  The conversation topic changed before he could finish his story and explain if there was any reason to actually connect it with me, but I doubt there was.  Behind my polite smile I was thinking, "I have never been to Los Angeles.  I've only visited California at all a handful of times.  Surely you must know someone else who would be a more relevant association when you hear something about LA..."

The weirdest one was this one time in the train, though.  It started because my kids were chattering to each other in English, as they always do.  (Damn kids, always talking to each other in their perfectly American accents -- they keep blowing my cover!)  Anyway, some lady overhead them and asked me where they were from.  I answered "France."  Totally true, BTW, but that's not what the lady wanted to hear.  So after a bit of exchange, I admitted that I'm from the US.  The lady then launched into the longest story you can imagine about how she'd once been an au pair in Texas, and all about the kids she'd taken care of and what they're up to today and all of her attempts to reconnect with them on Facebook, and what she's doing herself these days (she mentioned several times that she's a lawyer), and all the places she'd visited when she was an au pair, etc.  It went on for literally twenty minutes with me making the most minimal polite responses of the "that's nice" variety.  My husband, who had his back to her, was making when-is-this-going-to-wrap-up? kinda faces, and my kids were clearly wondering the same thing.  I was busy wondering: Do all of the Americans you meet get treated to this story?  We're not exactly rare, you know...

I don't have a problem with telling people I'm American.  The problem is that that's not the whole answer to the question "Where are you from?" -- and the people asking the question aren't even interested in hearing the whole answer.  It would be so much more pleasant for everyone involved if people would stop expecting that the question should have a simple answer for me.  That's why it's my dream to one day speak German so well that people won't be struck by the impression "Isn't it cute that she's trying to speak German!" and immediately ask me where I'm from.  Like it was in France.

Of course I expect that I will always be more foreign here than I was in France because the Swiss don't really have the same idea that one can become Swiss -- unlike the French and the Americans where (for the most part) if you adopt the language and culture, you're in.  (Note:  I actually have dual citizenship with France.  I also have a great-great-grandmother from Switzerland, if that counts for anything...)

But that's OK.  And after 12+ years in Europe, I'm practically as much a foreigner in the US when I go back there as I am a foreigner here in Switzerland, and that's OK too.  I now have three cultures where I'm both an insider and an outsider, and my kids are in the same boat.  That's just our life.

And that's the second task I was kind of hoping to get out of my conversation practice -- to connect with fellow insider-outsiders about all of that.  Kind of a tall order, I know.

Mostly I've had to accept that my expectation was unrealistic.  The conversation practice course has been extremely helpful to me, especially in terms of motivating me to formulate my thoughts in German on a daily basis and practice communicating in German in real time.  (I'm now at the point where I can carry on an elaborate conversation in German for more than an hour without any serious difficulty (as long as the other person would rather speak to me German than English or French), as I discovered in a random daily situation earlier today.)

Still, I think the course is a little too structured for my taste.  The teacher asks the students a fixed set of questions, and -- while the questions are fairly open-ended -- each student is only allowed to respond for a short time, in order to ensure that everyone gets enough opportunity to speak.  We're also not really encouraged to respond to what other students say or to ask them follow-up questions, for the same reason -- not to cut into another student's time interacting with the teacher.

But now that I think about it, I think I liked the style of the conversation practice back at German camp better, where the teacher gave us free reign to chat with the other students and discussed the corrections with us after the fact.  I'm attending a top German language school in the area, and it's clear that they put some serious effort into constructing plenty of questions and vocabulary lists and role-playing scenarios.  Yet sometimes less is more.  It's great to have all this stuff on hand for when the conversation is at a lull.  But it would be more interesting if they would give us the vocabulary list and let us try to have a normal conversation.  We're all grown-ups and can be reasonably expected to give others a turn to speak.  It makes sense for the teacher to intervene when someone is having difficulty getting to speak and/or when the conversation dies, but otherwise set it in motion and don't fix it until it's broken.  It's not necessary to have the teacher initiate every exchange.

For a recent class, I thought of a funny anecdote on that session's topic, and I imagined how to recount the whole story in German.  As you can see, the motivation itself was helpful even though I knew I almost certainly wouldn't have the opportunity to recount my anecdote in class (and I was right).

Due to scheduling constraints, I have to take a few weeks off from my conversation training, and yet -- crazily enough -- during my last session I almost got what I was hoping for.  Our group that week had a good rapport, and the teacher mostly let the conversation wander.  It wasn't as free-form as I would have liked, but more fun than usual.

After that class it hit me that I'm simply signed up for the wrong class.  There are probably plenty of people who like to have such a structured conversation practice, but that's not what I'm looking for.  Fortunately there are loads of German language groups in classes and groups in Zürich.  Maybe I can find one in my neighborhood and kill three birds with one stone by also making friends with neighbors and connecting better with my community...

Wish me luck!!

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Rethinking Economics 4: The other reason why the government is always wrong...

In part 1, I discussed the fact that Americans tend to approach questions of public-vs-private sector by asking "which one is right and which one is wrong?"  (Spoiler alert: they generally agree that the private sector is the one that's right.)  (And if you don't believe my claim that 'many people take it as an unquestioned article of faith that "we need to cut the government smaller." Regardless of what the problem is, that's always the solution' -- read this post that came up in my subscriptions reader since then.  Even though it was posted on April 1, I don't think it was meant as a joke.)

In part 2, I argued that that's the wrong question, and that maybe we should think outside that box, and in part 3, I talked about how the American phobia of the public sector is largely due to psychological baggage from the Cold War. But I don't think that's the only cause of the modern American mistrust of government.  My brother John explained an additional reason as follows:

The ideology got cemented in our current political alignment in the US because of racism.  In the post WW2 era, with Brown vs. Board of Education, the courts began to rule that black Americans were actually people.  The government then began to dismantle Jim Crow segregation.  In time, everything that was a public accommodation became non-discriminatory in name at least.

The conservative response was to retreat from public institutions into private institutions that were still legally able to discriminate against black people.  So Chief Justice Rehnquist got his start writing charters that allowed suburbs to bar black people from buying property in the suburb --- hence suburbification, white flight, white flight from public institutions, conservative dismissal of public institutions, conservative creation of private counterfeit institutions, and ultimately conservative distrust of and desire to dismantle public institutions are all derived from reactionary conservative racism.

Since the 1968 2-party realignment, the GOP has been the dominant party because of its embrace of a neo- (softer/PC) racism.  That’s the core of the party to this day.  88% of the people who voted for Romney are white, and they include all of the country’s racists.  Every person who voted for Romney is frankly guilty of voting based on racial and other personal animus (such as moral indignation against empowered women who use birth control) --- even though almost all of them have hidden their true motives from themselves.

I agree with John's analysis.  Another place where this aspect becomes obvious is in the gay marriage debate.  It is astonishing how many Americans sincerely argue that the solution is simply to "get the government out of the marriage business."

I'm not surprised that Americans would come up with this.  The logic is attractive:  (a) The government is inherently incompetent and ruins everything it touches, (b) we have a conflict involving marriage, (c) the government is involved in marriage, ==> therefore, the problem is the government!  Of course!

But it's odd to stick with this idea because if you think about it for a couple of minutes, you see that "getting the government out of marriage" -- in addition to failing to solve the problem at hand -- also creates a host of new problems regarding what to do about all the things (inheritance, medical decisions, immigration, etc.) that were hitherto handled by having a generally-agreed-upon third party (the government) provide official, legal recognition of kinship relations.  But at least it take these problems out of the hands of the government with its pesky "equal protection under the law" (even for people you don't like!)

And, as John pointed out, hostility specifically towards black people plays a huge role in people's attitudes towards the government.  Specifically, Romney couldn't entirely take back his statement about "the 47%" because keeping the undeserving from receiving any government largess was one of his party's main selling points -- a higher priority than actually getting out and getting positive things done.  And, ironically enough, it was a big selling point specifically for the people in the 47% of non-tax-payers (and people living on government entitlements) because what they're often concerned about isn't government largess per se -- they're worried about the wrong people getting it:

"Let me get this straight," I say to David. "You've been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?" 
"Well," he says, "there's a lot of people on welfare who don't deserve it. Too many people are living off the government."

Why is this such a passionate issue for some people?  I don't know, but maybe you can get an idea from some of the election-night tweets about how Obama and his fellow "niggers" hate to work and just want to live off welfare....