by Mia You
Part 1: On Opacity
“In the memory of a woman there is always the memory of several others, as if to be woman and to be memory were one and the same thing.”
-Etel Adnan, Of Cities & Women
I moved to the Netherlands last year, and since then, people often ask how I am adjusting to life in a new country. Is it very different from life in America? My answer usually runs along the same path, although where I decide to stop depends on my intimacy with, or assessment of, my questioner:
“It’s been fine! Daily living isn’t so different here from the U.S. And everyone speaks English, so it’s pretty easy, in that sense . . . ” [STOP 1]
“and Utrecht is a university town, just like Cambridge, where we used to live, so the basics are the same: nice cafes, lots of bookstores . . . ” [STOP 2]
“but it’s strange, because even though everything looks the same, the infrastructure is the same, pop culture is essentially the same, I still feel certain fundamental, latent, almost inarticulable differences . . . ” [STOP 3]
“such as how people move around, how they share spaces. It’s often completely counterintuitive to me, and just going from one end of Utrecht Central Station to the other can exhaust me . . . ” [STOP 4]
“for example, if I’m about to walk into someone, I will stop and let them go first. But what I regard as yielding is seen by others as being slow, confused, stopping the traffic, and so everyone behind me pushes into me or past me, or says something mean . . . ” [STOP 5]
“and so I get angry. I think, ‘These Dutch people are so rude!’ I wonder why, for the Dutch, politeness is seen as a weakness. It confirms everything I find wrong with Dutch culture, how they are so comfortable and entitled, how difference is always a shortcoming, why there are people here who vote for Geert Wilders . . . ” [STOP 6]
“but then again, how would they know I am just trying to be polite? Why do I expect them to be watching me, reading and deciphering me, recognizing my gestures, acknowledging my singularity, when they are just trying to get home after work? Like I am.” [STOP 7]
So I stop.
Think about how you move your body around in a city.
Do you stop to yield, or do you maintain the flow of traffic? When someone walks slowly (or just slower) in front of you, do you pass around them, not to disturb them, or do you say, “Excuse me,” and let them move aside for you? When someone walks closely behind you, do you begin to feel nervous? Do you stop and search for your keys or study some fascinating spot on the wall, waiting to see if they will pass? Do you wonder why, in one section of the city, all the streets converge, are narrow, and circulate in perplexing ways, while in another section the boulevards are wide and straight? Do you wonder why the entire city center was built after the 1950s?
Read the full post on Harriet, The Poetry Foundation’s blog for poetry and related news