Whether through natural cataclysm, pestilence or genocide, the chronicle of history is rife with human dislocation. The Old World offered its uprooted the daunting spectre of the unknown. The new still offers America.
At 18, Dan Nadler of Romania is quietly flourishing in the heady atmosphere of free speech and other discoveries in his government and civics classes at El Rancho High School in Santa Fe Springs, and sensing as well the subtle distance his education is creating between himself and his parents, who still feel the grim constraint of Iron Curtain memories.
Marcelo Filardi, a 25-year-old Brazilian musician, is amazed at how eagerly American pop musicians jump at the chance to make a buck and re-tool their talents to the latest commercial blueprint; he claims that comparable musicians in Brazil are disdainful of get-rich-quick motives--or at least their outward show.
They are two of a number of people interviewed by Calendar who have come to the United States within the past two years and therefore still live in the anxious interregnum between two worlds--the old, with its ancestral universe of landscape, family and friends and the restorative moods of place, and the hard and fast new, whose unfamiliarity is redeemed by the promise of the future.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 625,000 immigrants showed up at our borders in 1986--at least that's the number who registered themselves. Some came to make money or to get an education. Some got out the back door when a new dictator's police force came through the front with guns blazing. Some left dead-ended economies, some sifted out of refugee camps.
What many fail to anticipate in their hoped-for freedom is that America is a culture as well as a polity, and that it can often assault old country values. Few know to expect the deep loneliness of being set apart by language and customs, the confusing voracity of the American tempo, the sheer enervating grind of having to make a living, and the endless traffic of media imagery.
In addition to Dan Nadler and his parents and Marcelo Filardi, we spoke to a Vietnamese refugee family whose American deliverance came through a bottled message that had drifted across the Pacific Ocean for years; an Iranian family twice removed from the pleasurable and orderly customs of the past, first by the Ayatollah Khomeini, then by the struggle to make ends meet in the United States; and a Cuban emigre to whom nothing in American culture is seriously suspect except its (to him) naive complacency toward communism--after 18 years in jail as a political prisoner, he's just happy to be here.
How do they see our culture? Largely as a mirror of a prodigiously exuberant, outgoing, optimistic people, tinged with the portent of moral decay.
A couple of them are leery of the press--what was once a handmaiden of oppression is now impertinently, even dangerously free. All are more or less at sea in the language, whose unfamiliarity and elusiveness seals them off from the full-blown sense of having arrived, of taking part, of being here.
Almost all of them are concerned to one degree or another with the corrosive pressures the American Way puts on family life. They all come from cultures where the support systems of family are virtually sacrosanct. If family was hallowed then, it's all they have now. Shahin Mohajer was raised in Iran's tradition of sexual protectiveness toward women. Just what is she to make of her 6-year-old daughter's report that a strange boy came up to her at school and said "I love you. I want to kiss you."?
Ruben and Elena Nadler arrived in the United States in April, 1986, with their then-17-year-old son, Dan, and now live in a two-bedroom apartment on Telegraph Road in Santa Fe Springs. He has a Romainian university degree in electronic engineering, and works as an electronic engineer in Los Angeles. In Romania, she worked as a draftsperson in architectural design; she's now employed at a nearby Foster Freeze. Both are 43 and have the demeanor of stout burghers settling into lives of stolid respectability. He sometimes pats his burgeoning pot self-reproachfully.
Their apartment is comfortably appointed. Elena is popular at work, and some of her co-workers have donated furniture, which by no means resembles hand-me-downs. Sofa, dining room set, lamps, cabinet and polished black wooden chairs are touched off by richly colored oil paintings brought from home, and Elena's collection of cloisonne. In a corner by the sliding patio windows is Dan's cluttered work desk. In conversation, if an unfamiliar word comes up, he moves to his desk, grabs a pad and writes the word down.