Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Linguistic Differences

My brother Frank, who visited recently, has far more conservative political views than I do. I try to stay away from political discussions with him, because he's not simply conservative, but vehement about it, and I suspect some of the things he says are meant, to use his own phrase, "to stir the pot". On his recent visit we got to talking about passports, and he mentioned that he doesn't have one. I suggested it would be handy to have one, and then added (stirring the pot myself) "in case you ever want to go to Arizona". 

"Don't get me started," he said. Wise advice, come to think of it, but I persisted. Okay, his visit had been a little too quiet. "Someone could mistake me for Canadian. Canadians make up the fourth largest group of illegal aliens in this country."

"Yes, but they speak the language and fit in with our culture, " said my brother, who has obviously never heard of Quebec.  In other words, they aren't scary brown people.

My brother's  views on immigration are not remarkable, and neither are my own. Good people can be found on either side of the debate. The only thing that makes my brother's views remarkable is that we have the same grandparents, and those grandparents were immigrants who didn't "speak the language", either. To the U.S. citizens of their day, who came from Northern European stock, my grandparents were not descendants of the people who ruled the known world while theirs were painting themselves blue. No, to them, my grandparents were the scary brown people.

I didn't point this out to Frank because I belatedly decided to heed his advice not to get him started.

I've written before about not being able to talk with my grandparents. When I first met my ex-husband's family, it was startling to me that he could actually have whole conversations with his grandmother. In paragraphs. Without having to haul in a parental translator. His grandmother, like my ex, was of blue-eyed, fair-skinned, Scotch-Irish with a little Welsh thrown in ancestry, and spoke English with an Alabama accent. I don't know about my husband's grandmother, because she was gone by the time I met him, although she had lived into her 90's. 

My maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather both actually spoke a fair amount of English, but not enough to hold long conversations with, and their accents were definitely Italian, not Alabama. My parents usually spoke to their parents in Italian. (I have no idea how many of those conversations went "If you'd teach those kids Italian, you wouldn't have to translate for me all the time.") My dad didn't start speaking English until he started elementary school. I'm sure he began learning English years before, they just never spoke it in his home. I remember him telling me that, and telling me about the prejudice his family encountered.

As for adapting to the culture of the US, I never noticed my brother turning down the lasagna my mom always served as a first course to our holiday dinners, including Thanksgiving. We all looked forward to the lasagna more than the turkey.

I don't know if my grandparents would have had the courage to come to this country if there hadn't been a Little Italy, an enclave of people who spoke their language and observed their customs and could help them make the transition to a new world. I know I'm grateful to them that they did. I know my brother wouldn't have had the chance to work on the moon landing, even in the minor capacity in which he did, if my grandparents had stayed in Italy. I don't know if Frank ever wonders what his life would be like if his grandparents hadn't brought their Italian-speaking scary brown selves over here to face people who think like him. 

But I do, and when we pass around the Thanksgiving lasagna, it's one of the many things I'm thankful for.

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