First, let me write about an incident that occurred about eight years ago, and then analyze my façade. I was teaching a course in Biology at a campus thirty km from where we live. I used to drive to work every day. One day every week, we had a night lab and I would work until 9:30 or 10 PM putting stuff away and cleaning up after the lab etc. On one such night, I walked to the parking lot, a couple of blocks away from the campus. The parking lot was dimly lit and, as usual, I made my way to the car and collapsed in the driver's seat, thinking about the thirty minute drive and wishing I was already home, warmly tucked in bed.
There was no one in the parking lot, just a few cars still left. It was a cold and dark night in the fall. Parking lots are really hazardous places, not just because of people lurking behind the bushes but also for all sorts of things. Large parking lots like this one have rows of narrow concrete blocks to mark the ends of parking spots. These concrete blocks are like the edges of sidewalks. Structures like these make perfect sense, especially during the day, as drivers use them to park tightly in marked spaces and avoid hitting the parked cars in front. However, in the dark, these blocks are amazingly hazardous, as I discovered.
I started the car, backed out and began driving forward. Within a few seconds, the front wheel on the driver's side went over one concrete block and I heard a crunch as the car got stuck right on top of the block. You can imagine how I felt. In fact, this was the thing that made me realize the nature of my façade. Perhaps all of us have a brave exterior which carries us through the day as we fulfill the roles of a parent, a spouse, a friend, a teacher, etc. but, deep down, most people are babies. I certainly found out that I was. What I felt like doing was to wail piteously until someone came to help.
I gunned the engine but, to no avail. The car was really stuck. Finally, I got out of the car to assess the situation. I was circling around the car when I saw a couple of people approaching the parking lot. I ran towards them and asked for help. It was no use because the two people looked at how stuck the car was and suggested I call a tow truck. Then they disappeared into the night. The nearest phone was back in the campus. So, I dragged myself back to the campus to call a tow truck to come and pull the car out.
It was as I entered the campus that I began changing my mind. At the entrance to the main campus building was a security room where I saw a few policemen sitting around doing things, some looking at security TVs. The scenes on the TVs were from different areas in the campus, laboratories, lecture halls, lobbies, cafeteria, and washrooms. It was the scenes around the washrooms flashing across the TVs that made me feel that these guys were probably seriously bored and would not mind coming down to the parking lot and simply pushing my car out. They might even welcome a change from staring at the TVs and puttering around. In any case, it was worth asking for help rather than calling for a tow truck. And here is where I really surprised myself by acting totally dumb. It is something I'll remember for ever. Modulating my voice to make it sound as helpless as possible, I described the car stuck on the concrete block and asked if they could help me. You can insert an image of dumb Bambi eyes here. :-) One young policeman who was dressed in a bulletproof vest came to my rescue. I felt that he seemed to understand my predicament as something that happens often. "OK, let's go," he said.
I thought we would walk to the parking lot but, much to my surprise and delight, he had a cruiser parked right next to the door! We got in and drove to the parking lot. He got out and surveyed the car and asked me for the key, started the car and gunned it really hard. After a few seconds, the car screeched forward and the rear wheel went over the block. "My hero!" I exclaimed to myself. Without abasing myself totally, I thanked him profusely, got into the car, and drove off as he stood in the dark to make sure the car made it out of the parking lot.
When I got home, Tim was still up, waiting. I told him what happened and we looked at the damage while I gushed about my knight in shining bulletproof vest. Tim thought that I made the cop's day by giving him an adventurous thing to do, something that got him out of watching the washrooms and other repeating scenes on security cameras for at least fifteen minutes. "You relieved him from terminal boredom," Tim said. I could not help but feel deeply ashamed for not having been able to get the car unstuck myself.
Years later, I still remember this incident as something that reveals the façade of my personality. I have lived in North America for 24 years, I have worked, raised children and done many things, seemingly normally. Yet, there are many things such as driving, to mention one, which I do because I have to. Nothing in my growing up in India prepared me for the experience of driving here. I do it on the energy that comes from something like an adrenalin rush. Sheer airy feeling. Although I have managed to be a good driver, I have absolutely no confidence in difficult situations. In a word, driving here will not get into my blood. It will never be a part of me and probably this is why I wasn't able to rev the engine hard enough to get the car over the concrete block. Even in banal situations like skidding on icy streets, I feel helpless.
Talking of the façade, I imagine that most people feel the same way, at least about some things. I am pretty sure that the "façade factor" is greater among immigrants, especially those who migrated as adults and who had to learn all sorts of unfamiliar things, a new language, new ways of doing things etc.
Still considering the idea of the "façade factor"..........., I just finished reading two books titled Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by an Iranian woman, Marjane Satrapi. This is a graphic autobiography, rendered in the form of comics. The books were among the Christmas presents and all six of us (Tim's parents, Tim, I, and the boys) finished both the books in a couple of days. No one could put the books down once they started and everyone had to wait his or her turn. The books are in the genre of Maus and Barefoot Gen.
In Persepolis and Persepolis 2, the comics style, readable, seemingly light-hearted and amusing, belies the brutality of life in Iran during the revolution and thereafter. Things really hit the reader in the stomach. But since I want you all to read the books yourselves, I won't say any more; just be sure to read the interview with Marjane Satrapi. Well, on the lighter side, there is the "façade factor" in places as the young woman does many unfamiliar things while recognizing just how different they are from the kind of life she led in Iran. Yet, in real life, Satrapi has managed to achieve a lot. Therein lies another reality; her talent as an artist and a writer are central to her personality. In the end, it is these "central qualities" which enabled her to triumph over absurd cruelty. It is reassuring to note that we all do such a thing in our own individual ways. My teaching for instance, is not a façade, it is really a central, skeletal thing.
[Another interview with Marjane Satrapi is available online... and she has a new book out that is described in the interview.]
Hmmmmmmmm..... I feel that this kind of writing is like a monologue. Sometimes I think I am standing in front of a mirror and talking to myself. It would be nice to get a response. So, I'll make an open-ended stop here and ask you all to say something, anything, and we can carry on a dialogue or a trialogue or a multilogue.
At the very least, let us know how you all are. Have a great 2005!
Oh! Sweet! Here is a reply.
This book brings up another aspect of the "façade factor," namely the way in which immigrants take part in life as it is afforded them in their adopted country. In Satrapi's case, she participates in the rituals of European youth culture in the late 1980s, seemingly no different from the other young people around her other than in being "exotic," someone from the land of the Arabian Nights. This is much like the situation of some of the younger ESL students whom Meher has taught whose acquisition of English proceeds so rapidly because of their involvement with other young people for whom English is a first language. Her own façade, that Meher has tried to describe lightheartedly above, is much the same.
Much of the time, the children and I are hard put to distinguish Meher from other mothers and wives who were born here and may have never set foot outside Canada. But this is a façade, at least in part, and this brings up the phenomenon that she began describing to me years ago as "background music," the constant awareness of other realities, elsewhere, or from other times, that are forever present in the back of her mind. This background music seems as if it cripples some immigrants, especially the older ones, resulting in the anomie surrounding "there I was somebody, but here I am nothing."
Other immigrants, however, seem to be strengthened by this background music. In Satrapi's case, she is able finally to abandon her shallow and potentially self-destructive European life and return to Iran where she can finish growing up, supported by her family but also confronting as best she can the absurdities and cruelty of Iran's Islamic Revolution. Ultimately she leaves Iran again, but this time as an adult in whom her earlier European experiences are integrated with her upbringing and coming of age in Iran.
Both Meher and I see Meher's teaching, and the successes of some of her students, as being much the same, namely the result of having integrated the opportunities provided by the new country with who they really are, persons from some other place entirely where they have been loved, and have learned, but also from which they have had to escape for one reason or another.
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