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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Convenient Self

The only kind of relationship I manage to be in with my adoptive country is a love-hate one.

Yesterday, nearly seven years after I got my American citizenship, I finally applied for an American passport. The postal officer who processed my application asked why it took me so long. It sounded like one of those questions that have right and wrong answers, and the truth is the wrong one. I didn’t become an American citizen on principle but because it was a practical thing to do. While I recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the citizenship ceremony I felt nothing but mortification at my insincerity and at how breezily I justified it. My entire family was there, mouthing the same words, pressing their hands on their hearts, and it seemed as if we were all being swallowed by a giant creature.

I have to admit that this creature is not always malevolent. Here is what I love about this country, and in case I appear overly positive (I have yet to be accused of this particular tresspass, but just in any case…) you must remember that I grew up in a Communist dictatorship that starved its citizens of both bread and thought:

Stuff gets talked about. No matter how extreme your position, there’s a publication you can have your voice heard in. There’s censorship in this country, to be sure, but you don’t disappear or die if you speak against it. Reporters ask tough questions at political press conferences. Books get published on controversial topics and can be bought (some more easily than others, that’s true.) There are hundreds of newspapers of every imaginable stripe. As we speak, a woman and a black man are running for president. As we speak, Pixar is making another smart and stunning-looking animated movie. You can buy a hybrid car at an affordable price. Then there are the oceans and the prairie and the Rocky Mountains, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, redwood trees and Georgia peaches. And the woman in Vermont who makes butter from the milk of her Jersey cows in the old-fashioned way of nineteenth-century farmers; community colleges and grassroots political organizations; recycling; the Civil Rights Movement.

And now for the other side of the coin, the things that infuriate me about this country:

American arrogance (not always unjustified). Consumerism. The fact that very few people speak more than one language. Freeways. Suburbs and strip malls. The price of theater and opera and classical music concert tickets. The platitudes people spout out about multiculturalism. Slavery and its legacy. The fact that the only two things people mention to me about Romania is that it’s the birth place of Dracula and of the gymnast Nadia Comaneci. The compliments I receive for speaking and writing English well, as if English were a secret society that only native speakers can enter. Hollywood and the fashion industry. The self-help and diet industry (though these are not entirely evil). McDonald’s. Animal factory farming.

And now the best part: this country has made it possible for me to live the perfect life, a life I would never have been able to have (and would not have allowed myself to have) in Romania. It has made it possible for me to be unconventional, it’s made room for me outside the wheels and cogs of its money-making machines.

This brings me back to my passport application, which required me to list my occupation. I put none at first. This is the truth, as much as I can see it; I’m in an in-between place, not sure about what my life is or is becoming. But the postal officer said that I couldn’t put down none. “They don’t like that,” he said. “Even stay-at-home moms put down stay-at-home mom, or domestic goddess.” He smiled slyly at me. “Really,” he said. “I actually had a lady who put down domestic goddess as her occupation.” “Okay,” I said, wondering who “they” are, who don’t like American citizens with passports to list none as an occupation. And I wrote down writer.

At any given time, then, you need a definition for yourself. People don’t seem to understand you without one. Writer is a definition that I particularly mind at the moment. But it’s convenient. Much like that of American citizen.


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