The Americanization of George. A jarring cultural journey from Lebanon to New Jersey

AMERICA is coming between me and my 12-year-old son. Actually, it started earlier, when George was hardly 10. Since then, I have helplessly watched this incursion, often with dismay and alarm. Over two years ago we escaped the horrors of Lebanon, and chose quiet Princeton over the vibrancy of Harvard because we thought, and correctly so, that the relatively more tranquil milieu of the ``Garden State'' would be more supportive and sobering for children traumatized by the havoc of a decade of protracted violence and random terror. George, I said to myself, was as old as the civil war. He deserved better.

But little did I know that he was to face, at such an early age, the more subtle ``terror'' of American peer pressure, tantalizing communications media, and the unsettling dissonance of conflicting norms and expectations.

The family system in Lebanon is, on the whole, intimate, warm, and affectionate. This claim may seem incredible for a country that has been lately reduced to an ugly and accursed metaphor. But a child there grows up in a nurturing atmosphere of extended kinship networks sustained by filial piety and mutual obligations.

The Lebanese, much like adjacent Mediterranean cultures, are very tactile. Touching, kissing, hugging, and the outward display of emotion - regardless of gender - are generously and spontaneously expressed. At least children of George's age indulge in these emotive expressions with little self-consciousness or feelings of shame and guilt. Rather, they are treated as natural and spontaneous appendages to daily human contact and playfulness. Ritualized as they often are, they remain nonetheless tokens of goodwill and camaraderie and serve to allay many of the fears and anxieties of young people.

I feel resentful that George should be disarmed of such harmless but reassuring expressions. So, it seems, does he. Otherwise he wouldn't be so furtive and listless while avoiding or indulging in them.

I first noticed this transformation (or deformation) upon returning from a brief trip a few months after we had settled in Princeton. I recall arriving from the airport one evening after an absence of five or six days. Normally, even after the regular daily return home from work, George would interrupt his play and rush across the driveway to greet me; often, he would literally hurl himself into my open arms. If I happened to be carrying books or a briefcase, he would whisk them away, accompany me to the doorway, and regale me with highlights of his day at school. It was no more than a token gesture of affection and mutual respect. It rendered, nonetheless, the return home a tender encounter fondly anticipated by both.

On that day, however, just as he was about to heed his normal impulse as he rushed across the driveway, he suddenly ``froze'' in mid-passage, looked in the direction of his watchful playmates, and with obvious hesitation and embarrassment, calmly walked over to greet me with a cold handshake and a casual ``Hi, Dad.'' Bit by bit, even this gesture has been abandoned. The most I can expect is a disengaged and distant nod.

Such ``frozen'' moments have recurred and spilled over to other daily encounters with members of the family, and in particular acquaintances from Lebanon. I could see him fret as relatives and friends he has not seen for two years try, in vain, to solicit a hug or a kiss on the forehead. The reluctant denial has been transformed into a boast, that he is now an ``American boy.''

His ``Americanization'' was most forcefully conveyed by a recent incident on the tennis court. George is a versatile, gifted athlete and a superb tennis player for his age. It is a pleasure to witness his natural talents unfold by leaps and bounds. We were struggling in a doubles game against two other, more seasoned partners who normally beat us. After a long and heated game we won the set, partly because of two exquisite shots by George. He was ecstatic. As he rushed across to share his exuberance with me Lebanese style, he ``froze'' once again and treated me to a tamed version of the American ``high five.''

These are benign symptoms of George's Americanization - trivial compared with the some of the messages he is bombarded with. George's sixth- and seventh-grade curriculum, for instance, included class discussion of such disheartening problems as illegitimate birth, teen-age pregnancy, child abuse, and divorce.

Given the public outcry over such problems, the concern of school officials is certainly timely and legitimate. I cannot, though, help feeling that at least George has been needlessly damaged by this exposure to menacing cruelties far removed from his situation at the moment.

Last week as he was preparing a list of the friends he wished to invite to his 12th birthday, I noticed that he did not include any girls. When I inquired why, he answered with no hesitation, ``It is too early. Perhaps when I become a teen-ager.''

There is a painful irony here. Before he has had a chance to become interested in romance, he is already being tutored and forewarned about the pathologies of sex. More disquieting, perhaps, he is being denied the warmth and shelter of his family, with all its familiar intimacies, which could soften the anguish of such crude awakenings. The loss of innocence, if this is what he is going through, has been, as a result, an experience as crude and jarring as America is at times.

Richard Rodriguez, the Mexican-American scholar, in a gripping autobiographical essay he wrote in 1974, argued how, in order for him to become an ``American scholarship boy,'' he was compelled to sever his psychological ties with his family. He described how the solitude, silence, and rationality of the Oxford library was much too jarring a milieu when juxtaposed against the intimacy, gregariousness, and rambunctiousness of his family culture. Losing touch with his past, becoming alien to his family, was to him the inevitable and legitimate price of becoming ``American scholarship boy.''

Is George doomed, I wonder, to suffer the same fate? He has had to be uprooted from his true home and suffer the anguish of exile at a very tender age. Is this to be compounded now by a more baffling and painful form of homelessness? On balance, America has thus far been good to him.

But can he continue to enjoy this exuberance and freedom without breaking away from the reassuring intimacies of his family? He certainly needs both if he is to be the wholesome and lovable kid he has been so far. Am I asking too much? Is this not, after all, one of the redeeming virtues or promises of American pluralism?

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