Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pride and Prejudice in Canada--or is there any?



Every so often, you see a documentary that might as well be about you, not f*cked up at forty, as most of us get, but
F*cked up at 12.

Lester Alfonso came to Canada from the Philippines and that first year shaped who he is today. His film asks the question: if you could go back and speak to your 12-year-old self, what would you say? Alfonso attempts to answer this question by interviewing a dozen people about this pivotal moment in their lives. On the cusp of surging teenage hormones, 12-year-olds often experience emotions with more intensity. Adapting to a new country at this age can be overwhelming and initial impressions sometimes last a lifetime. The stories told recall both pleasure and pain - ranging from the joy of shopping in a store filled with goods to the shame of personal humiliation by a teacher.

Lester Alfonso, filmmaker
By collecting other people's stories and soliciting their words of advice, Alfonso is forced to face some painful memories from his own past. Will this journey finally set him free? Twelve is an utterly unique and visually stylish take on what it means to become Canadian.

I am well past forty, but after seeing Lester Alphonso's film on CBC I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

My parents brought me to Canada earlier than 12, much earlier, but I could identify with the storm and stress of those poor kinds who were thrust into a culture cold, themselves exotic with no english and feeling like Martians.

Interesting, irritating, but almost bringing a yawn here.

I had moved through three cultures and alphabets before coming to Canada at the age of ten. Culture- shocked many times before ten. I felt like a young Hank Snow already, at ten. I been everywhere, man.

I could certainly feel the pain of those kids in the Mr. Alfonso's documentary and relate to their sense of alienation and woe. But, been there, done that. And still, I'm insecure.

But what is admirable about Mr. Alfonso's 12 is that he took what could have been a personal disaster--alienation, drugs, street gangs and instead installed himself into the Canadian film making aristocracy if the NFB could be termed such.

He makes a gentle statement on getting transplanted onto Canadian culture while definitely exotic in appearance and having to learn english, fast. Lose your accent or else.

But I wish I'd never seen his documentary.

It is wrenching. The film is not especially wrenching, but it must be wrenching for any immigrant kid who himself had come into a culture cold, at ten or, for that matter at 12. Especially if he looks like a young Charlie Chan and is not Chinese at all. There is an example in the film of another young Philipino man stomped by Detroi rednecks over being "one of those Japs who make Toyotas."

I think Mr. Alfonso's burdens were greater than mine, though mine were bad enough.

Beatings on the playground for being foreign. Beatings at home for being a Canadian. "Cattlick. What are you doing in a Protestant school? Go to the separate school with the other Cattlicks." Couldn't win for losing.

The unexpected flying scholarship--perfect eyes, perfect IQ--and told at the end I couldn't graduate because I was from that Russkie place. This after I'd gone solo and all.

If I'd only not brought smelly pickles and polish sausage into the cockpit that day for lunch. A lunch is a lunch! How was I to know that garlic wards off not only vampires, but also flying insructors."You got your papers, son?"

I wish I had never seen Lester Alfonso's documentary.

It made me re-live some of the trauma.

But I also remember the triumphs.

Scholarsips, scholarships, scholarships. But always the disappointment at the end. Got your papers?

Graduating from university. But with what seemed to me the Polish mark. C.

"Immigrants aren't stupid," says the boss. "But they might as well be martians And they take our jobs."

The awkard attemps at small talk which come out in crudities. Sometimes obscenities. Nobody laughs. Stick with just plain passing back and forth of information. Talk about specifics only. Don't be a smart alec. Nobody likes a smart-ass. Be an immigrant robot.
It takes so long to get inside. Some never make it, turning to drugs and rock and roll.

I still wish I hadn's seem Mr. Alfonso's documentary.

He came to Canada at a time when there is instant acceptance in a pluralistic society.

Back in l949 it was different. You were a Displaced Person, a D.P. and therefore subhuman. It was the carryover of the previous Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King's dictum:

You have to be like us or go back home. And God help you if you look different from us.

Sometimes I feel that we who had to cut through genuine racial prejudice, State sponsored racial prejudice--were some sort of supporting army for the Lester Alfonsos who were to come.

Pecular case of Crow Jim now.

"You want a job with the CBC? You've got to be kidding.

Johnson? Your name is Johnson?

"You have to be 23 and exotic!"

##

9 comments:

ea monroe said...

Hi, Ivan. Thought I'd come over and give you the Business. ;-)

I'll have to catch the documentary next time it's on, if it's on in our part of the country. Society's trying to be sooooo politically correct but centuries can't be erased no matter how vanilla -- everything seems upside down and inside out these days.

Even with DARs on both sides of the family tree, I get the same treatment. Doesn't matter are any more.

;-) So, in your (in)famous words. Fok em.

Let's get stoned.

~Liz

PS -- JJ Cale has a new album out!

iv an@lcreativewriting.ca said...

Liz,

Try documentary 12 CBC. If you have the right player, you might get it.
Yeah, let's get stoned. That Tusa sound! J.J. Cale is god, and almost as old...Talk about pacing yourself! He's a rocker to about FN 99...Friggin[ near a hudred!

the walking man said...

I am rapidly reaching the catharsis I sought in writing the Detroit cycle I have been on this past week. Although never an immigrant, it certainly has worked out that I am a stranger in my own strange land.

I even read and write the language but still don't fit in.

At some point in the distant future when the sociologists and historians get together and look at this past two hundred years of history what do you suppose they will say to sum it all up eh?

I know what I would say were I looking back through the shrouded window of history..."fuck 'em, bunch of fucking idiots."

ivanl@creativewriting.ca said...

Same thing was happening in H.L. Mencken's Baltimore, and old Heirich Ludwig commented on the topic we have raised qute a bit. Mencken liked nobody very much. Satire on all nationalities, including his own.
I suppose Baltimore in the Twenties is much like Detroit today.
Where is Baltimore now? Anybody checked? Urban decay last I heard.
Urban renewal tried but failing.
Oh Mary's land!

benjibopper said...

relive that angst, Ivan, turn it into a fictionalized memoir, hit the cbc circuit, canada reads and you're a bestseller at 10k copies!

homeless immigrant kid got stomped here last week. i know the guy who did it, nother homeless yoot. weak pounding weaker, some things don't change, much. fuck the monarchy.

ivan@crfeativewriting.ca said...

Benji,

Part of the fictional memoir was realized in my Black Icon.
I did cut it to the bone and threw away 2/3 of the 400-page manuscript, where it dealt with my adult life.
FOK.

Anonymous said...

cold wind screaming...snow falling...soul on fire...diamond studded nite sky...white domes humming their own intimate and mystical energies...northern lights flicker...wandering the expanses of white crystal desolation...desperately seeking comfort in the hearts of the poets and their music... captive of ice,blades, pucks,baseballs...fucked up at twelve...still seeking solace and understanding...riders on the storm...

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

Ah, that Bing Crosby from Hell.

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