Going Native

Several years ago at an elementary-school Christmas play in upstate New York, I sat behind three fourth-graders from the most remote and poorest section of the rural school district. In all likelihood the boys had never seen an actual African-American person except on television and on rare trips to Kingston, 40 miles away. Nonetheless they wore their version of authentic gangsta attire: huge windpants, baggy sweatshirts, baseball caps turned backward. During one confusing scene—something about Santa looking for his elves— one of the boys turned to his friends and said, “Yo, man, whassup? What that mothafucka be saying?”

For these little boys, the identification with inner-city kids ran deeper than a taste for rap music and the urge to make a fashion statement. In their secret hearts, they were the black kids who—had they actually met them—would have ignited their prejudices and their secret fear of flesh-and-blood (as opposed to fantasy) African-Americans. For these isolated white kids, victims of a rural poverty more hidden and less readily acknowledged than its urban counterpart, the African American musicians they saw on MTV were saying something that they felt but could not express for themselves—voicing their alienation, their disenfranchisement, their sense of being exiled to the fringes of a society that would prefer they didn’t exist. Likewise the appealing young men and women in Alan Parker’s film “The Commitments”— poor Northern Irish kids without a lot of career prospects who form a soul band specializing in the greatest hits of Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding—are drawn to the music for reasons that go beyond the music, and the gifted young performers joke about their identification with the poverty, alienation and disenfranchisement of African-Americans.

Something of this sort—but stranger and more complex—is currently going on among the white working class and rural poor who attend regional powwows and decorate their homes with images representing a sort of airbrushed, mythical, Disneyfied version of the Native-American experience. Every summer I visit the same flea market in central Tennessee, and each year there are more stands selling clocks, rugs, paintings and countless household items depicting beautiful Indian maidens and muscular braves in buckskins and feathered headdresses.

Of course cartoonish images of Native Americans have long adorned cultural artifacts ranging from heroic, commemorative historical paintings to the hoods of automobiles to the logos of football teams. But what seems to have changed is that the people most drawn to these symbols have increasingly convinced themselves that they are Native Americans, or close to it. With just a little cultural fantasizing, whites—conveniently ignoring the fact that the land their flea market stands on originally belonged to Native Americans—can see themselves as the authentic, self-sufficient, proud people, close to the land and valiantly defending traditional ways against the incursions of the Other: rich, white, urban, or alternately, immigrant or African-American.

So for the past several years, a small community in New York’s Hudson Valley has been severely divided and damaged by a conflict over whether to retire the Indian that serves as the local high school’s logo. Much of the pressure to get rid of the hideous, racist cartoon has come from the more politically liberal elements of the Onteora school district, which includes families who have moved up from Manhattan and the suburbs, as well as the areas’ few minority and immigrant families. But conservatives—more likely to be older retirees and working people, economically embattled and fearing political disenfranchisement—have fought bitterly to retain the image, which on some level they sincerely believe to be an image of themselves. If the symbol disappears, they feel that a link to their past will be taken away. So what if it’s not their past, exactly? The logo makes them feel part of a larger community with a braver history than their own; they’re the Iroquois nation, just as their kids imagine themselves as the gangstas in the Wu-Tang clan.

“Going native” embraces a myth of what a culture represents and makes it one’s own myth—a handy process when at the moment there isn’t a viable myth to explain our experience or to make us feel better about ourselves. If for example the American dream no longer describes the arc of our personal history or seems like a possible goal, we must seek another fantasy—an altered notion of who we are or who we might become. The desire or the need to go native reminds us of how much about our most basic identity is subject to a certain slippage—particularly in certain individuals who for personal reasons require the equivalent of cosmetic psychic surgery. They need not only to surround themselves with the Other; they need to become the Other.

The trouble arises, of course, when the person or people who have gone native lose sight of the actual lives of the actual group they imagine they are. They fail to acquire any special sympathy for the people with whose culture they identify (why do I doubt that the kids at my school’s Christmas play are going to grow up to be campaigners for civil rights?) and may even resent the group for actually existing and thus spoiling the fantasy of the gone-native. It’s one thing to have a Big Chief air freshener hanging from your dashboard; it’s quite another to believe that the Native Americans are entitled to all the profits from the bingo casino in your county.

For many reasons, going native is frequently unattractive, and our distaste often expresses itself in ways that combine the visceral and the esthetic. Our feelings about the Hare Krishna movement are not unaffected by the fact that pink and orange are unflattering colors for white kids so wan and pale they look nearly transparent. Our image of the gone-native evokes, more often than not, the tubby, middleaged white guy in a sarong in a thatched hut, snacking on some local delicacy cooked by his beautiful child bride.

Part of our unease stems from the fact that going native has traditionally involved a certain amount of sexual colonialism and imperialist exploitation. It is hard not to feel protective of the very young men whose photos turn up (with captions like “My loyal guide, Fariq”) in the biographies and travel journals of such legendary voyagers as Wilfred Thesiger and T.E. Lawrence, in anthropological studies and in accounts of American expatriate artists—for example in the social circle surrounding the Beats and Paul Bowles in North Africa. In the popular imagination, going native often invokes an element of hands-on, anthropological research. This response is partly what Conrad is trading on in “Heart of Darkness”: the notion of the white man who has left the clean light of day to tunnel deep into the jungly nether regions of sex, death and God knows what else.

Perhaps the most famous cultural figure to have gone native is Paul Gauguin—a beloved figure almost as adored as Van Gogh, or maybe more so. In our own mythology, he’s the big, life-loving, Anthony Quinn character, leaving his chilly, French middle-class life, lighting out for Paradise, from where he dispatches idyllic telegraphs from a world of luminous color, populated by graceful, mysterious, beautiful women perfectly in tune with their surroundings.

His journal,“Noa Noa,” tells a somewhat different story. Arriving in Papeete on an “artistic mission” which the local governor assumed to be espionage, Gauguin was soon dissatisfied with the port city—so full of Europeans!—and resolved to go inland. His Papeete vahini, Titi, had a lot to recommend her: “The amorous passion of a Maori courtesan is something quite different from the passivity of a Parisian cocotte—something very different! There is fire in her blood, which calls forth love as its essential nourishment; which exhales it like fatal perfume.” But she also had an insurmountable flaw, and soon enough he left her because her ancestry, he felt, would prevent her from initiating him in the cultural or sexual mysteries which he fantasized experiencing with a lover of purer extraction: “It was her half-white blood…I felt that she could not teach me any of the things I wished to know, that she had nothing to give of that special happiness which I sought.”

After Gauguin had been in his inland village long enough to get lonely, his neighbors brought him a “large child” on whom “two swelling buds rose on the breasts.” Worried at first that the girl has been forced into marriage by her mother, the artist was reassured “when I saw in the face of the young girl, in her gestures and attitude the distinct signs of independence and pride which are characteristic of her race.” Despite age, cultural and language differences, the artist and his wife, Tehura, fell deeply in love, and she was the last thing he saw as he sailed back to France for a two-year stay, after which he returned to Tahiti, where he would die in 1903. “She had wept through many nights. Now she sat worn-out and sad, but calm, on a stone with her legs hanging down and her strong, lithe feet touching the soiled water…The flower which she had put behind the ear in the morning had fallen wilted upon her knee.”

Such accounts only reinforce our discomfort with the solipsistic romanticization, the racism and exploitation involved in going native, with the narcissistic projection, the frequent inability to see the actual human beings behind (and possibly contradicting) the myth. How, for example, did Gauguin ascertain that his child bride had decided to marry him of her own free will when, at least at the beginning, neither spoke the other’s language? But are there cases which seem to us non-exploitative, in which we intuit that something not merely beneficial but essential transpires for the individual and for the community in which an old identity is traded for a new one?

Since there are, as we now know, transsexuals—men and women who grow up knowing instinctively and beyond persuasion that they have been doomed to inhabit a body with a different gender from their brain and heart—surely there must be transculturals—people who have been born in the wrong society and for whom going native represents the equivalent of a surgical correction.

For a while I believed that about myself. From 1969 to 1970, I spent almost a year in India, from which I returned convinced that I should have been born there. Everything about Indian society—the bad as well as the good—seemed preferable and more sensible than the one I had left, in Cambridge, Mass. The colors were brighter, the people handsomer, the culture richer. I was happier there than I’d ever been—and certainly happier than I’d been in Cambridge in graduate school, living with the college boyfriend I’d married during my senior year at Radcliffe. I was miserable, and after months spent attending one class every morning and watching TV for the remaining hours, I began to think that I was losing my mind. Eventually I asked my husband—a graduate student in math—where he could take his fellowship and still get academic credit. I skimmed the list he brought home and realized that the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Colaba, Bombay, was as far as I could possibly get from Harvard Square.

Ten months later we landed in India. I didn’t sleep for three nights. In the dark when I closed my eyes, my mind replayed choppy silent films from the day: naked sadhus with tridents, covered with ash and feathers; bony cows, like tent poles with skin, freely grazing the vegetable stalls; men in white holding hands, drifting over the dusty maidan; the dust that coated everything, the homeless families living on the sidewalks, at the station, sleeping on string cots, cooking on camp stoves.

Much of what I saw terrified me, yet I was intensely happy, perhaps because my fear was the closest thing I’d felt in months to a genuine emotion, but also because I’d already fallen in love with the excess, the overabundance: too many people, too much to see, too much noise, too many bright colors. It seemed less like overload than replenishment after the sensory-deprivation tank in which I’d been living.

This new world around me was dizzying and chaotic. And I recovered my mental health within a matter of days. I knew what pleased me (the smell of bidi cigarettes, of burning cowshit, of curry, the children’s kohl-rimmed eyes, the brilliant saris and bangles, the little pyramids of spices and lapidary dyes in the market) and what saddened and enraged me (the cruelty of the caste system, the bleating of the lepers, the glassy stare of the beggar-women’s babies, the families living in drainage culverts).

I was too ironic, too much of a snob to wear a sari, which makes European women look so awkward and awful. But I did pick up a trace of an Indian accent and the ability to shake my head no to mean yes, a language of intonation and gesture that made it easier to communicate with my neighbors in Bombay. I wore embroidered Indian shirts and let the sun darken my face until I could pass for Indian, especially among people who didn’t know any better. Traveling back to the United States, I stopped in London and was secretly pleased (when, for example, my unfamiliarity with the British monetary system inspired some racist mumbling from a woman in a tobacco shop) to be taken for a different sort of foreigner than I actually was.

When I returned to America, I imagined that I would stay just long enough to get my life in order, long enough to arrange for a speedy turnaround, after which I would go back to my real country —India. But of course things didn’t work out that way. Life, as they say, intervened. Seven years passed before I returned, as a tourist— and knew that was what I was.

In my case going native represented the equivalent of a reversible operation. Some of the effects on me were permanent. I had learned the obvious lesson that things were different elsewhere, that disparate cultures could view the world in entirely dissimilar ways. And I like to think that, for me, the experience helped to enlarge the tiny little prison of the self to which we are mostly confined.

But there are instances of going native that are more final, lifechanging and irreversible, capable of curing a sense of dislocation, the unhappy conviction of having been born in the wrong place. Surely for some individuals, going native constructs or reconstructs the person who should have been born in the adopted home.

Probably the most striking example is that of Lafcadio Hearn. Born in 1850 in Greece to a local woman and an Irish Protestant surgeon in the British army, Hearn was brought as a child to Dublin, where he was abandoned by his parents and raised by a great-aunt. His physical appearance—he was extremely short and nearly blind from a childhood accident—contributed to his sense of alienation, homelessness and exile. After sojourns in Ohio and New Orleans, where he worked as a reporter, and an early marriage to a half-black woman named Alethea Foley, Hearn left for Japan in 1890. There he found a succession of jobs as an English instructor, a journalist, a translator and finally as a teacher at Tokyo and Waseda universities.

Soon after arriving in Japan, he wrote to a friend, “I only wish I could be reincarnated in some little Japanese baby, so that I could see and feel the world as beautifully as a Japanese brain does.” And from the beginning, he felt that he had come home, that (after a lifetime of believing that he was doomed to peripatetic solitude) he finally comprehended and was capable of being accepted by the world around him. He described a sort of existential déjà vu—a sense of being surrounded by “strange Gods. I seem to have known and loved them before somewhere.”

Not long after his arrival, Hearn entered into an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman, with whom he had four children. He became a Japanese citizen and assumed a Japanese name. He took financial responsibility for his wife’s extended family and evolved into a beloved and revered patriarch—a position in society which could hardly have been more different from his lonely, marginal existence in England and the United States.

In Japan Hearn discovered not only his subject (his best books are redactions of Japanese folk tales) but also a literary esthetic; he abandoned his formerly elaborate prose style and pursued “perfect simplicity.” His most basic values shifted to reflect those of his adopted culture: “I have nine lives depending on my work—wife, wife’s mother, wife’s father, wife’s adopted mother, wife’s father’s father, and then servants, and a Buddhist student…You can’t let a little world grow up around you, to depend on you, and then break it all up—not if you are a respectable person. And I indulge in the luxury of ‘filial piety’—a virtue of which the good and evil results are known only to us Orientals.” He looked back with wonder and more than a little horror on his “old self as of something which ought not to have been allowed to exist on the face of the earth— and yet, in my present self, I sometimes feel ghostly reminders that the old self was very real indeed.” And he succumbed—with deep pleasure and gratitude—to the rewards and domestic satisfactions of his life as a Japanese husband and father: “I should find living away from all Europeans rather hard, if it were not for the little world I have made around me…at home I enter into my little smiling world of old ways and thoughts and courtesies…It has become Me.”

So what are we to make of this case in which going native is not a process of self-obliteration but of self-discovery, not a matter of colonialism and sexual or cultural exploitation but of genuine appreciation of—and contribution to—a society that proves in every way more congenial than the world that has been left behind? First it is a salutary reminder that our responses to the questions of assimilation and diversity (how much we should contribute to and take away from the melting pot) are as various, unpredictable and endlessly mysterious as every other aspect of human behavior. And finally it is a warning against easy judgments and facile formulations on the subject of cultural politics, and about the ways each of us stitches together an identity from the scraps we are able to collect from the world just outside—and far beyond—our doorstep.

About the Author

Francine Prose

Francine Prose's highly acclaimed works of fiction include Blue Angel, Bigfoot Dreams, Household Saints, Hunters and Gatherers, Primitive People, and Guided Tours of Hell: Novellas. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, GQ, and Paris Review.

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