Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeysby Ruth Behar
Traveling Heavy is a deeply moving, unconventional memoir by the master storyteller and cultural anthropologist Ruth Behar. Through evocative stories, she portrays her life as an immigrant child and later, as an adult woman who loves to travel but is terrified of boarding a plane. With an open heart, she writes about her Yiddish-Sephardic-Cuban-American/i>
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Traveling Heavy is a deeply moving, unconventional memoir by the master storyteller and cultural anthropologist Ruth Behar. Through evocative stories, she portrays her life as an immigrant child and later, as an adult woman who loves to travel but is terrified of boarding a plane. With an open heart, she writes about her Yiddish-Sephardic-Cuban-American family, as well as the strangers who show her kindness as she makes her way through the world. Compassionate, curious, and unafraid to reveal her failings, Behar embraces the unexpected insights and adventures of travel, whether those be learning that she longed to become a mother after being accused of giving the evil eye to a baby in rural Mexico, or going on a zany pilgrimage to the Behar World Summit in the Spanish town of Béjar.
Behar calls herself an anthropologist who specializes in homesickness. Repeatedly returning to her homeland of Cuba, unwilling to utter her last goodbye, she is obsessed by the question of why we leave home to find home. For those of us who travel heavy with our own baggage, Behar is an indispensable guide, full of grace and hope, in the perpetual search for connection that defines our humanity.
“A heartfelt witness to the changing political and emotional landscape of the Cuban-American experience.” - Kirkus Reviews
“All those intrigued by their ancestral story will be moved by the personal quest and also by how—with the help of computers as well as the kindness of strangers—the lost can find their way home.” - Hazel Rochman, Booklist
"'Travelers are those who go elsewhere because they want to . . . Immigrants are those who go elsewhere because they have to.' Ruth Behar's own story is one of being both the reluctant immigrant and the enthusiastic traveler, and finally, perhaps to appease both legacies, 'an anthropologist who specializes in homesickness.' Behar admits Spanish is her mother tongue, and yet she is a master craftsperson in her father tongue, English. As always, her exquisite stories leave me astonished, amused, exhilarated, illuminated, and forever transformed."—Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
"Traveling Heavy speaks to issues—the impact of religion on social identity, the cultural and linguistic discomforts of immigration, the social tensions found in multicultural and multigenerational families, the texture of relations between parents and children—that define our humanity. What's more, Ruth Behar skillfully weaves these complex issues into a gripping story of personal challenge and growth. Her artful memoir is filled with grace."—Paul Stoller, author of The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey
"Ruth Behar graces us with her provocative and enchanting memoir of travel and self discovery: as a mother, as a writer, as an anthropologist, and as a child of exile and homecomings. Traveling Heavy is a memoir of wonder from one of the leading Latina artists of the U.S.A."—Marjorie Agosin, author of At the Threshold of Memory: New & Selected Poems
"Ruth Behar takes us deep into geographies she has charted, transcending anthropological reportage and finding the poetry that is there not only in the places she has mapped but also in history. She has written an observant and surprisingly compassionate book, full of warmth. I enjoyed reading every page; it is full of wisdom and devastating sincerity."—Nilo Cruz, author of Anna in the Tropics, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
“A moving story of finding oneself through a lifetime of travel, this will be a terrific addition to memoir and Judaica collections.”
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a memoir in between journeys
By Ruth Behar
Duke University PressCopyright © 2013 Ruth Behar
All rights reserved.
the key to the house
I love to travel.
But I'm also terrified of traveling.
As I embark on yet another trip, I carefully enact my various good luck rituals. I check to be sure that my Turkish evil eye bracelet is still around my wrist. If there's turbulence during the flight, I'll rub the turquoise glass beads to keep the plane from falling out of the sky. In a zippered pouch inside my purse, I place a handmade necklace I must have with me at all times to be protected from illness and sudden death. I received it at a Santería ceremony in Cuba, where the hypnotic beat of three batá drums summoned the ancient African deities back to earth. Carrying these talismans, one evocative of my Jewish heritage and the other of my Cuban heritage, I ready myself for travel.
Before I go out the door, I drop my car and office keys on a side table, since they won't be of any use while I'm away. But I say to myself, "Take the key to the house. Don't go anywhere without that key."
The legend is that Sephardic Jews took the keys to their houses when they were expelled from Spain over five hundred years ago. Centuries later, living in other lands, they still had those keys in their possession. Tucking my house key in my suitcase, I honor the sad love for Spain that my exiled ancestors clung to.
Of course I know perfectly well that my stay-at-home husband, David, will open the door on my return. (In fact, he always drops me off and picks me up at the airport.) When we were young, David and I went everywhere together, but now that we're older I'm the one who travels. He stays behind in Michigan, cuidando la casa, as they like to say in Mexico, minding the house. Even with the assurance that David awaits me on my return, I fear that if I don't bring my key a catastrophe will happen that will prevent me from coming home.
I may rack up miles flying far and wide, but travel isn't something I can treat casually. My departures are always filled with a looming sense of finality. Minutes before take-off, Mami calls, wishing me well in such a choked voice it seems she's uttering a last goodbye. "Please call me when you land, Ruti, don't forget," she says. By the time we hang up, I'm trembling. Then I turn around and call my son, Gabriel, in New York and make him totally nervous. "Bye, honey. Love you, honey," I say, as if I won't ever see him again.
Then it's time to power off. There's nothing left to do but hold my breath as the flight attendant shuts the door of the plane. I'm immediately overcome by a sense of tender solidarity, bringing me to the edge of tears, as I glance at my fellow travelers: the businessman who helped me squeeze my bulging suitcase into the overhead bin, the tired mother clutching her crying baby, the tattooed young man clasping his headphones, waiting to be up in the air so he can listen to his music, the lovers holding hands like schoolchildren, all of us united in the belief that it's not our day to die.
Yes, I'm a pretty neurotic nomad.
What's funny is that in spite of traveling heavy with my doubts and worries, just give me the flimsiest pretext to get on a plane and go somewhere, and I'll rush to pack my suitcase. Not that packing is easy for me. Faced with the quandary of what to bring and what to leave, I suffer deciding what's got to stay behind. Is it too melodramatic to say that packing is a rehearsal for death, when you can't take anything with you? Traveling, you can take only a couple of things, and this gets you used to letting go of the material world. It sweetens the coming of the inevitable departure. You abandon the weightiness of your existence so you can be light on your feet as you move about in a new place, meet new people.
I go to other places for the same reasons most everyone does: to seek out a change of scenery and feel a sense of enchantment, to learn about the lives of strangers, and to give myself a chance to be someone I can't be at home. We leave behind the creature comforts and familiarity of home in order to explore alternate worlds, alternate selves.
Travelers are those who go elsewhere because they want to, because they can afford to displace themselves. Immigrants are those who go elsewhere because they have to. If they don't displace themselves they'll suffer: their very existence is at risk. They pick up and leave, sometimes at a moment's notice. The journey is wrenching, often dangerous, a loss of the known world, a change of scenery that creates estrangement, an uneasy dwelling among strangers, having to become a different person against one's will.
I'm now a traveler, a professional traveler. Until I went to college, I had no idea there was a profession called cultural anthropology, in which it's my job to spend extended periods of time residing elsewhere, doing fieldwork to understand how people in other places find meaning in their lives. From the first moment, I was seduced by the prospect of being such a traveler. And so I set off on this odd career, and everywhere I went I found a semblance of home. The kindness of strangers was a great gift. I would not be who I am without it.
So now I'm a traveler, but I always remember I started out in life being an immigrant. We left Cuba when I was four and a half and my brother, Mori, was just a toddler. There's an old black-and-white picture of the two of us, with Mami and Papi, taken upon our arrival in New York. We're wearing our best travel clothes and squinting into the sun and our future. We look bedraggled, shabby, a little shy, and grateful. Our posture is lopsided. We're unsure of ourselves.
Caro, the woman who was my nanny long ago in Cuba, says I was happily oblivious when we left the island. "You thought you were going on a holiday, you didn't realize you were leaving," she tells me. Perhaps a child is incapable of mourning the loss of a homeland. I've been accused sometimes (though never by fellow Cubans) of having left too young to assert my right to claim a bond to Cuba. What I know for sure is that I found it painfully difficult to adjust to life in the United States. To this day, no matter where I go, I carry the memory of the girl who felt utterly foreign, helpless, speechless, a misfit, the girl who wanted to dissolve into the cracks in the walls.
I don't recall the moment in my childhood when I was uprooted, taken from the place where I belonged. My subconscious gave me amnesia so I'd have to keep traveling to find the girl who lost her home and didn't cry because she didn't know what she was losing.
Call me an anthropologist who specializes in homesickness. Going to other places is how I make my living. I'm forever packing and unpacking a suitcase. I should know how to travel light. But I travel heavy. I carry too much.
Among anthropologists it's a mortal sin to write about oneself. We're taught to be scribes, to tell other people's stories. Here I've gone and written personally, too personally. But being an obedient student at heart, I've done so with trepidation. This is the memoir I snuck in, between journeys.
learning english with shotaro
I have spoken English for almost fifty years and still haven't forgotten that English isn't my first language. Even now I hesitate as I lay down this first sentence. Does it sound right in English? Is it stilted? Is it correct to say "I have" and "haven't" and "isn't" in the same sentence? I honestly don't—do not—know.
It's strange and possibly absurd that I should feel this way. I speak English perfectly well. I wrote my Ph.D. thesis in English. I think, dream, and live much of my life in the English language. "You're from Cuba?" people say, surprised. "But you don't have an accent." No, I don't have an accent. I don't say "shit" when I want to say "sheet," as my mother does, though as a teenager I tried hard to imitate a British accent because I considered it more refined than the English I heard around me as I was growing up in New York. I spoke to my parents only in Spanish, as I do even today, because Spanish is the language in which they're most comfortable.
Mami and Papi definitely have accents, thick Cuban accents, when they speak English, and I continue to correct their pronunciation and grammatical errors, as I did as a child. English was the public language, the language of power, competition, and progress—also the language of solitude, the language in which I was totally on my own, without my parents to help me. Now I speak an English that can't be recognized as being from anywhere specific. Years ago, my brother, Mori, put it exactly right. What I have, he told me, is a "college accent." It's the English of a person who went to school, studied hard, and got good grades because she feared if she didn't, she'd be sent back to the dumb class.
No one can tell by looking at me or hearing me speak that another language burns inside me, an invisible but unquenchable flame. No one can tell I came to the English language the way a woman in another era came to her husband in an arranged marriage, trying to make the best of a relationship someone else chose for her and hoping one day she'd fall in love. I'm still waiting.... I depend on English. I'm grateful I speak English. I wouldn't be a professor, a scholar, a traveler, a writer if I didn't know English. But I'm not in love with English.
My mother tongue is Spanish. This is the language I spoke as a little girl in Cuba. I'm told I spoke that little girl's Spanish with a lot of spunk. They tell me I was a nonstop talker, una cotorrita (a little parrot). But after we arrived in the United States, I grew shy, silent, sullen. I have no memory of myself as a little girl speaking Spanish in Cuba. That's likely why every time I'm in Cuba and encounter a little girl letting Spanish roll off her tongue so naturally, so effortlessly, I want to yell, "That was me!" That was me, once upon a time—before I became self-conscious about which lengua, which tongue, I was speaking.
When we left Cuba after the Revolution and went to Israel, I'm told I became fluent in Hebrew. I might have already known a few words because in Havana I attended kindergarten at the Centro Israelita, a bilingual Spanish-Yiddish day school founded by Jewish immigrants who settled in Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s. But Hebrew didn't stick in our family. Leaving Israel for New York after a year, we never spoke it at home. Hebrew became the language of the liturgy, of our infrequent prayers, on the High Holy Days and Passover; it ceased to be a vernacular tongue for us. Spanish became our home language, and I spoke it with Abuelo and Abuela, my Ladino-speaking grandparents from Turkey, and also with Baba and Zayde, my Yiddish-speaking grandparents from Poland and Russia.
Just before I turned six, I was dropped into a first-grade classroom at p.s. 117 in Queens. I was expected to survive without being able to utter a word of English. This was in 1962, before bilingual programs and English as a Second Language were introduced into the public school system. You learned English by osmosis, ear training, lip reading, like a baby, without any special instruction and not a drop of mercy. Or you failed to learn English and joined the dumb class, where you stayed forever.
In that first-grade classroom, I vividly recall the teacher, Mrs. Sarota, writing a math problem on the blackboard. Knowing the answer, I raised my hand. Mrs. Sarota smiled and nodded, lifted her eyebrows. She waited, chalk in hand. I opened my mouth. No words came out. I knew the answer, but didn't know how to say it in English. I sat there. "Ruth," the teacher said, "do you know the answer or not?" I wasn't accustomed to hearing my name spoken in English. It sounded harsh. Ugly. In my family, I'm called Ruti, and the two syllables are said slowly, languorously.
"Well, Ruth?" The teacher spoke my name like an insult. I tried sign language, writing the answer in the air with my fingers. Soon the other children were giggling and pointing at me, as though I were a monkey escaped from the zoo. Ashamed, I lowered my head and pretended to disappear. I retreated into silence for the rest of the school year.
By second grade I was in the dumb class and felt I deserved to be there. Although the school claimed not to make any distinctions, as kids we knew that, for each grade, there was a dumb class made up of children who'd flunked the previous year. To be in the dumb class in second grade was a sure sign you'd gotten off to a lousy start in life. Things had to be pretty bad for a kid to flunk first grade. The teacher, whose name I've forgotten, acted as if we were not merely dumb but deaf as well; she repeated things and hovered over us, watching as we wrote in our notebooks, ready to pounce on our mistakes. Some of the kids in the class were slow learners, but a few were more impaired, like Grace, who had a large head and wore shoes several sizes too large and was so friendly you knew something had to be wrong with her. In those days, the dumb class was also where they put the foreign kids until they could prove to the world they were actually smart and had just needed to learn English—or until they revealed that deep down they really were dumb.
Shotaro, a boy from Japan, was also in the dumb class because he spoke a language that wasn't English. As the only two foreign kids, Shotaro and I became close friends. His bangs were crooked and he was a head shorter than I, so I felt protective of him. We looked at picture books together and read to each other and played tag and hopscotch during recess. Shotaro was the only boy from school I invited to my birthday party in second grade. (Mori and my cousin Danny were there too, but they didn't count.) He came outfitted like a little man, in a gray suit, white shirt, and maroon tie. I wore one of my old handmade Cuban dresses that barely fit me but which I still adored. Not long after, all the dresses from Cuba disappeared from my closet; my mother gave them to my cousin Linda. It pained me to see her wearing them.
One of the pictures I most recall from those years, which I've since lost, is the Polaroid of a cluster of girls around an M&M-studded cake, with Shotaro and me in the middle of the group, beaming from the sheer joy of standing next to each other (But I did find a picture in which I'm wearing a crown, Grace appears on my left, and Shotaro stands on the edge, sporting a party hat.) I think Shotaro and I learned to speak English only because of our urgent need to communicate with one another, though there existed an understanding between us, mysterious and deep, that went beyond words.
We both did well and got good at English. By the end of the school year we were sprung from the dumb class and assigned to a regular third-grade class. But Shotaro and I didn't continue together in third grade. His family decided to return to Japan, whereas it had become clear to my family that there wasn't going to be any return to Cuba.
I was sad to see Shotaro go. He gave me a going-away present that I still store at my parents' house with other keepsakes from my childhood. It is a pair of miniature wooden male and female dolls, outfitted in matching kimonos and nested together in a silk brocade box. Maybe the dolls were intended to represent the two of us, a girl and a boy, who grew into the English language together, during a year spent in the dumb class. Neither of us spoke the other's language, so English was our common tongue—English and a faith that we weren't dumb, that what we were was dispossessed, dislocated.
The first boy to put his tongue in my mouth was Puerto Rican. The tip of his tongue touched my tongue, then his entire tongue twirled around so forcefully I was afraid I'd choke. Stunned, I hardly had time to react. On the beach, in Miami, we nearly collapsed onto the sand from the effort, but he managed to catch me in his arms before we both fell. The sun was low in the sky. The ocean had fallen silent. His tongue tasted of smooth sand, mint, and blooming young manhood.
I was twelve; he was just two or three years older, but I thought of him as much, much older. And definitely more "experienced." Boys, I was being instructed by my mother, would always know more about such things than girls. As I helped Mami prepare dinner every night in our crowded kitchen in New York, our eyes tearing from the fried onions that went into the black beans and every other dish she cooked, she'd issue her stern warnings. Boys had to know more because they were boys. Developing into men, they'd need to have sex, la cosa del hombre required it, no sé si entiendes, mi niña, but they can't hold themselves back—if they don't have it, they'll go crazy, they'll explode, so don't tempt a man, because he can't stop himself. It's la cosa, their thing, their cosa is like that—it's not their fault, they have to have it, so say no. Say no. Remember, say no before things go too far. Trata de entender, mi niña. No te dejes. Di que no. Don't let them convince you. They don't have anything to lose. La que pierde es siempre la mujer. No te olvides de eso. Wait. Wait until you find un hombre bueno, un hombre que te quiera de verdad, un hombre who doesn't want you just for that. Ten cuidado, okay? Be careful.
Excerpted from TRAVELING HEAVY by Ruth Behar. Copyright © 2013 by Ruth Behar. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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“All those intrigued by their ancestral story will be moved by the personal quest and also by how—with the help of computers as well as the kindness of strangers—the lost can find their way home.”
Meet the Author
Ruth Behar was born in Havana, Cuba. She and her family moved to New York City when she was five. In the years since, she has become an internationally acclaimed writer and the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. She is the author of many books, including An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba; The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart; and Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In addition to her work as an anthropologist, Behar is a poet, a fiction writer, and a documentary filmmaker. She wrote, directed, and produced Adio Kerida (Goodbye Dear Love), a film that has been shown at film festivals around the world. Behar has been honored with many prizes, including a MacArthur "Genius" Award.
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