Imported Culture

Describe a personal experience that has changed your life.

“Lower your lids!” Gilad, my drama instructor, paced back and forth on the stage, arms folded over his belly, Israeli impatience rising in his voice. His eyes narrowed, scanned me through bushy slits, and he barked new commands.“Let your smile raise your cheekbones… Arch your back just so slightly!”Gilad did not enjoy dealing with the feminine dimension of my monologue. He expected me to radiate inner charm and elegance; in his opinion, these were second nature to all women. Yet my monologue could not continue before I assumed the precise pose and wore the blessed expression of a woman in full awareness of her irresistible charm. Thus, short and big-bellied Gilad flaunted an impressive repertoire of coquettish behaviors; batting his eyelashes, tossing invisible locks of lustrous hair from side to side, swinging his hips like a young girl and clicking his palate with his tongue. I laughed and borrowed all I could from the unfortunate, big-bellied man. After we completed the lesson, Gilad reassumed his masculine authority and assigned me to write a description of the woman I portrayed in my monologue.“A beautiful woman is not beautiful on stage unless she is something more,” he belabored “Don’t filter or edit. Once you gain momentum, your thoughts will continue by the law of inertia.”A monologue depicts culture, not only persona. I wrote on my paper and my eyes wandered to the window next to my desk. Beyond the distant train tracks I could distinguish the hazy waters of Accra, my birth city, now a long-stagnant port. I continued: Who am I? I’m the unapproachable older woman. No, but who am I? I am an Israeli woman. I am beautiful and yes, I am older. Israeli culture flows in the veins of my character and surfaces in her eyes; it requires no mentioning. Two weeks later my borrowed high-heels clacked down the stage in the auditorium of Israel’s Drama School, Reoot. A ray of light quivered before settling on my frame; a pool of darkness rested ahead, breathing heavily. I imagined my judges fussing impatiently, their pens at the ready. I began with my back to the audience, slowly turned around, already in character, and then enunciated beneath a half-teasing, Spanish smile: “I am not afraid of men. I know all about their maneuvers….” Lowering my lids while describing the young man I have seduced, I imagined that my lashes cast palm-tree shadows across my cheeks, which in turn rose with a condescending smile. I imagined that the audience listening to my philandering, looked at my face and saw palm-trees along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the mounds of sand, shaped into castles beneath them. I wished the audience to see Israel reflected in my face, their sun-beaten buildings mirrored in my slanting shape.After all, acting is culture. Who am I? I inquired of myself once again as I raced out of the gate toward the mailbox. Three weeks had gone by since I had lived and breathed the role of the unapproachable older woman. “Dear Michal,“Congratulations —-Congratulations! That one word was enough. I was accepted. I ran toward my house, shrieking and flapping the envelope in the air. My mother stood leaning against the doorway. “Ima!!! Ima!!!” I began in Hebrew and immediately switched to Russian as my face reached her palms. At home we only spoke Russian. “Mama, I did it, next year I will be attending Haifa’s Drama school!”Mother smiled at me with the first of the two smiles she reserved for such occasions. Her smile assured me, I always knew you would make it. I knew her second smile would convince me with equal candor, It’s the most prestigious school in the city, but we just tried to get you in for fun. She pressed me tightly to her chest. Behind her I could hear the echoes of the television, telling of a bomb that had recently exploded in Jerusalem. When mom let go, her eyes sparkled. They say dreams come true if you work hard; yet never add, this happens only for a moment, just to give you a taste. Just as my dreams were born through the clumsy tearing of an envelope, they vanished with one word, with one decisive movement of the lips: America. Tired of the terrorist attacks, my mother determined that we would move there.But Gilad was right: Once you gain momentum, your thoughts will continue by the law of inertia. Dreams carry on, much as we beg to leave them behind at the airport with that metal hairclip that we are asked to remove and hand over because of Israel’s heightened security. They masterfully evade the metal-detectors and seem to trail our émigré journeys without need of a visa. Crossing the Atlantic, I first took notice of my imported dreams when Ms. Pape, my drama teacher for my first year in the American school, called me to her desk and explained that I would not be Jessica, the daughter of Sherlock, but rather Nerissa, the maid. “You have an incorrect pronunciation of many words, among them “peelow” and “cookee.” She smiled at me with the concentrated warmth of a Seattle sun-break. “There are no small roles, only small actors.” Tears stung my eyes as I walked out of class. Without the coat of Hollywood-inspired dreams, I found I was not a thick-skinned young American, but an immigrant, a foreigner with broken English, with no knowledge of the American audience. My mother picked me up from school and we drove along silently.“I will be playing Nerissa, the maid,” I said louder than I intended and began unweaving my braid. I wondered which smile she would pull out this time.“You have wild hair like a gypsy.” She did not resort to the consoling smile she often wore in Israel. “There are no small roles, only small actors.” My voice was stiff, my fingers numbly interlocked in my hair. “Yes, Kundera said so. He must have believed it,” my mother replied absentmindedly. “And you don’t have gypsy hair. Who has ever heard of a Jewish gypsy?”As so happens in life, disappointment gave way to insight. As a foreigner, I resolved to learn and observe. The American children, who were neither gypsy-haired nor Jewish, mingled excitedly during breaks. Acting is culture, I told myself, and brought a notebook to school. I pulled it out of my backpack during breaks and penned my observations.At home, as the sun set on my adopted country and rose over the country of my childhood, I would pick up one of my English books and stumble over the words until bed time. In this manner, my days acquired a particular solitude, filled with dazzling characters and newly-discovered cultures. On such an afternoon, chance dealt me The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera smiling on the back cover. I read the book, but could not find the quote. I took out the notebook of cultural observations. Alongside the descriptions of the blond-haired children I wrote of my life in Israel, of unfulfilled dreams and of never finding the quote. I wrote of trading one set of dreams for another. I wrote that creative energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can change shapes and take different forms, but a person is born with a reservoir of creativity. From then on, it can only be unleashed.

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