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Unmeltables

3 March 2011

I am increasingly aware that I crave creature comforts more than ever before. I googled creature comforts just now to see if it has a concrete definition, and in fact it does: “things that make you comfortable and at ease; ‘all the comforts of home.’” Ah yes, that’s, isn’t it? The comforts of home.

While this does not explain my incessant craving for chili nuts (which I don’t even think they have in the U.S.), it does help to rationalize my other late-night addiction: bad English T.V. I am sure there are all sorts of wonderfully enlightening Norwegian programs on in the evening, which might even help me develop better language skills, but at 10 p.m. I plop on the couch sideways, stretch my legs out, and turn to channel 91: BBC Lifestyle’s “Come Dine with Me.” Each night one of four people hosts the other three for a dinner that he/she has prepared. The other diners rate the food and the hosting skills and at the end of four nights the points are tallied and the winner receives £1000. “The knives (and forks) are out as a group of strangers compete for the title of ultimate dinner party host.” Oh the excitement bound up in that tagline! But I have an admission to make: I am not watching to see who wins; I watch because for one hour, in my very own home, four people are speaking English, casually conversing over dinner about likes and dislikes, laughing at jokes I get. They make me feel comfortable and at ease, even the complainy or arrogant guests I swear to never invite over again.

In Rerouting the Postcolonial, a very timely collection of essays for a world increasingly defined not by nations and homesteads but by migrants and cultural convergences, I came across the word “unmeltables.” It was a word that caught my attention immediately because I have always been wary of descriptions of America as a “melting pot,” or worse yet, a “salad bowl.” The former is simply not true – I do not feel a part of the same steaming bowl of chili con queso as Michele Bachmann, for example. The second term is also problematic: who gets to choose what goes into the salad and what doesn’t? “I’ll have the Mexicans on the side,” or, “Can I get that without the Chinese?” There are all together too many picky eaters in the U.S. Canadians have opted for the metaphor of a mosaic, a term I prefer at least in theory. It might even be said to allow for “unmeltables.”

What is meant by “unmeltables”? The author of the article, Deborah L. Madsen, refers to its use to denote those who physically exist in America, but who, in their hearts, live elsewhere. Mexicans who speak only Spanish, Iranian women who wear burqas, the Chinese who never wander far from Chinatown might be accused of not melting. Their national affiliation still lies with the home country. To some they are “un-American.”

But is melting a choice? And what about not melting? I think back to the mid-nineties when I traveled several times a year between the U.S. and England for grad school. As soon as I boarded the plane and sat in my seat I would consciously begin to change my identity – to feel the U.S. Jena return, or to begin to clothe myself with the British Jena. I was a melter. I had two distinct persona: the first allowed me to feel at home with my family and friends in the U.S., the second allowed me to survive in a culture not quite my own. Somewhere there is also a Costa Rican Jena, a Canadian Jena, and now a Norwegian Jena. As the years go on, however, I feel myself becoming ever more unwilling to melt, as though I must cling fiercely to any remaining bits of Jena I own. (If you have read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, compare me with Saleem: dangerously close to pulverization.)

Madsen warns against imposing the status of “unmeltable” on particular ethnic groups, of viewing people as outsiders or “perpetual foreigners,” but I can’t help but wonder if the unmeltable parts – at least my own – aren’t intentional, a mechanism for self-preservation. While I desperately want to “fit in” in Norway, I am not willing to let go of the parts of me that would enable me to be fully Norwegian. Instead of melting into their culture, I want them to accept me for mine. But that might not be possible, and language is paramount in this.

I embrace the creature comforts of English as the unmeltable part of me, fully aware that the more I surround myself with English, the harder it becomes to learn and speak Norwegian. But I also know that English defines me. The unmeltables defy participation in a national identity, yet they affirm and promote a self identity. It is a rootedness that produces an unrootedness. A way to preserve something we feel we have lost:  a sense of being at home.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Annegreet permalink
    3 March 2011 14:39

    I very much recognize the part about the BBC and their ‘Lifestyle’ series. I am hooked on Come Dine With Me too (especially fun when contestants have a little fall-out). However far more amazing, I am also addicted to those Antique shows they broadcast, like ‘Cash In The Attic’. The programs are so predictable, nothing really happens, but still I am always curious to see what old crap they can find on grandmother’s attic and get it sold at auctions. So they can save for a ‘weekend in the country’. Also addictive are the cooking shows, especially the ones with Gordon Ramsey. Safari remarked the other day that perhaps I should actually try to make some of the food they prepare on those shows, in stead of just watching and lazing on the couch. Hm, a hidden critique to my superb cooking? Anyway, talk about English language, culture etc, I hope you will be able to handle tonight’s The Kings’ Speech!

  2. Anita Habegger permalink
    7 March 2011 17:05

    Oh, Jena – I’m so proud of your abilities in writing, and your willingness to be so open about living abroad. The difference between you and me is you’ve been able to make a good thing out of a difficult situation. Could I? I don’t know.

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