Two worlds, two different spaces
The concept of personal space was non-existent to me as a child.
While strangers were to keep their distance, family crowded one another’s space without a thought. Large families shared a home, a notion rooted in Eastern European tradition and in politics favoring the collective. The self belonged to the collective — the sum of all selves.
That was the Romania of my childhood.
At twenty I moved to California, a place for the space enthusiast.
Home, the most sacred of spaces, was a multigenerational construct, where three generations lived under one roof, often spending from one purse.
I always shared a room with one sister. At times with both. Three sisters sharing space builds character for sure. Endless chatter, screaming matches, grudging silence, we had it all. Music would eventually cut through the silence. Through razor-sharp stares. Music brought us back in each another’s good graces.
I never had a room to call my own, not even a bed. We never used words like my room or my space because they had no applicable definition in our world.
Keeping secrets was a problem. Around age twelve, my grandmother — the family watchdog — caught me kissing a boy. First came the reproach (screaming and finger jabbing in my face). For some time, she held a tight reign of my life, my every movement.
If that taught me anything, it was to better hide my secrets.
My job was to respect my elders and view them as a source of wisdom and knowledge within our family. To do what they said. They were the Tomas elders. We defined ourselves in relation to others as one of the Tomas.
For peace of mind, I found an inward path that led to books. Books offered tranquility and space. I found myself fully immersed in books. Then came the writing. Journal ramblings, lines for the boy I could no longer kiss, stories inspired by romances set during the French Revolution.
When someone inquired about my scribbling — and someone always did — I’d inevitably say it’s nothing or it’s homework.
Every family member retreated inward — to read, reflect, sit among the trees. We all created tiny sanctuaries of our own.
Then back we went, the group at work, passing on and learning traditions. Conducting impromptu family therapy sessions. Fighting about infringed-upon spaces.
The east coast culturally resembles Europe, whereas California is another planet. From beaches to mountains to deserts and vibrant cities, I found mass individualism within a multitude of cultures. I found enough space to drive for hours in the same county. Space filled with crowds and with miles of silence.
California is for lovers of wide-open space, personal and physical.
It helps if you’re young when moving between cultures. At twenty, I was an inbetweener. Young, yet formed. The mind muscle memory had to be constantly exercised, brand-new lessons learned every day.
I had my own room in California. At first, I lived with my cousin (one of the Tomas) who sponsored my move. Individualism, however, comes with expectations. Within a year, I had my apartment with enough space to shut the world away. A new individual, miles away from her group comfort.
College was the first step in a transformation still to be completed. School shone a spotlight on the individual inside me, forcing her out. I no longer had the group to hide behind. I was forced to speak for the benefit of the self, not of the group.
Speaking in an auditorium takes courage for anyone from a public-speaking perspective. It takes having to break oneself apart and rebuild anew for a former collectivist. It takes individualism. Something too big to wrap my head around. I shuddered at my new-found power. At the responsibility.
I feel comfortable in the security of two cultures, able to step across cultural divides and back. One world taught me how to coexist in chaos. One offered the choice to stand on my own.
For nearly thirty years, my feet have been firmly planted in two worlds.
That’s what I told my child’s teacher when she asked about my background. Straddling two worlds can be confusing. Songs, smells, can dump you in the past. Yet, space — to think, to explore — has revealed a self I like. One who mastered public speaking — an activity avoided by individualists, or suffered through with shaky hands and sweating.
The teacher listened transfixed, until one student intruded upon another student’s bubble.
Later that day, I listened to the teacher reinforce the idea of personal space. The bubble, she called it. Popping a friend’s bubble makes a friend cry.
A parent had been called in because his daughter popped another child’s bubble. That made the boy cry.
I sat in the back of the room, the parent volunteer of the week, coloring with the kids. In front of the class, the teacher was explaining the definition of personal space to the father holding his daughter’s hand. The man nodded, looking from teacher to child, ensuring the little girl understood the concept of not popping bubbles.
I thought of the bubbles I’d popped as a child and had popped in return. Those kids, lucky them. They’ll grow up with personal space. Experts at one concept, not missing the old ways, feet firmly planted in one world.
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