the LAND of BEGINNING AGAIN*
Eleanor Thoe Lisney
time to time BENT attracts the interest of readers I like to think
of as "friends and family," people who find intellectual or emotional
resonance here despite the fact that they are not part of BENT's
few months ago a bunch of e-mails arrived from women readers,
straight and lesbian. Some were positive, while a couple were
memorable for their huffy "you're excluding us" tone. I took pains
to explain why I felt BENT's specificity was essential to its
purpose. I also explained that although we are a men's webzine
we had and would continue to publish pieces by and about women.
I invited the unhappy women readers to become occasional contributors.
of the fray emerged a few women who remain interested in what's
going on at BENT, one of whom we are pleased to present here.
I hope the following piece reminds readers of all kinds that BENT
welcomes a multitude of viewpoints.
SOI have arrived in the
Most of my American friends would
nod their heads wisely when I told them I was off to the States.
They told me that accessibility would be so much better. They gave
me their little spiels about the ADA and how everything had to be
accessible by law. And it is true that accessibility is the main
reason why I chose to come to the U.S. to study. I thought that
I would be reasonably independent and be able to cope on my own,
something I would not be able to do in Rome or even in Paris.
I should explain that I lived
in Strasbourg, France for the good part of the past eleven years.
I was the typical expatriate wife of an intergovernmental European
bureaucrat/civil servant and the good mother of two wonderful children.
But that kind of lotus-eating existence was beginning to feel claustrophobic.
Being non-white and disabled in a semi-diplomatic environment made
me feel like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. The fact
that all my friends had jobs and were busy became another alienating
factor. It is difficult enough to get a job when you're disabled,
but being non-white in Alsace (whose citizens voted over 25% National
Front in the last election) and not being fluent in French were
additional job-market handicaps.
I had grown unhappy in my marriage,
too, and as if bestowing a final bad omen Strasbourg began work
on a new tramway, making me feel trapped by all the roads that were
being dug up. So for my own sanity I thought I ought to leaveleave
a relationship that had lost its intimacy, leave a city that had
begun to feel like a prison.
Once I had decided on a field
of study (library and information science), the University of Texas,
Austin seemed ideal, since I wanted somewhere warm and my sister
lives not so far away in Dallas. But immediately I ran into uncertainty.
Somehow I had assumed that the university would provide me suitable
housing or at least help me find accommodations, but I was told
that I would have to take my place with everybody else on a waiting
list even if there were barrier-free apartments available. I
had not asked for priority but I did expect a little help and concern,
not a defensive and almost hostile response.
In addition to the university's
unexpected reaction to my needs, I find myself sustaining a general
kind of culture shock. Yes, things are much more accessible here,
but attitudes are different enough to be very confusing. I can get
on buses, for example but I miss the easy rapport that I found with
public servants in Europe, where I had learned to refuse help gently
when I did not need it. Here I've had to learn to ask for help.
There is a steep incline going up to my school, for example. Without
my electric wheelchair, wheeling myself up the grade is strenuous,
but I'm told than an offer of help might be seen as an affront to
my independence and an infringement on my privacy. It's a difference
that's taking some getting used to.
I do appreciate the fact that
I can manage to get by in daily life on my own. I can get on the
bus to do my grocery shopping or go downtown if I should want to,
but like anywhere else in the world, being able to get there is
one thing while doing it is another. Here, I have no support system.
It takes time to build friendships and for a while my resettlement
took up most of my energy. The whole emotional wrench of being away
from all that is dear and familiar is tough. Being disabled in a
foreign country compounds the whole process of getting settled in.
It was disorientating to figure out all the nuts and bolts of daily
life that I had taken for granted-simple things such as the telephone
number of directory enquiries, or finding where to buy a hammer.
The implications of being disabled
in the USA still bemuse me at times. Folks are surprised to learn
that I do not drive, that I do not intend to drive, even though
I hold a British driving license. They fail to understand my enthusiasm
for accessible public transport. Yes, that kind of accessibility
is fine, they say, but wouldn't it be better if I drove? Wouldn't
driving a car make me more independent? I feel as if I would be
met with blank stares if I explained my ecological concerns about
automobiles. Should my disability needs negate those concerns? Are
political and ethical positions values I cannot afford to have as
a disabled woman in the United States?
I worry about other things I can
or cannot afford in this country, like healthcare. This a real concern,
since the likelihood of post-polio syndrome hangs over me like the
proverbial sword of Damocles. Moving from country to country makes
these things unnerving: I am covered by my husband's insurance in
France, but I cannot expect it to go on indefinitely, while I have
an American friend in France who says she is a medical insurance
exile from the States!
In France, I felt like I had best
healthcare in the world. When I came down with chronic fatigue just
over a year ago, the doctors could find nothing wrong with me, even
after running what seemed like a thousand tests. Finally they send
mefor a "cure" in the south of France, with mineral baths,
hydrotherapy, and massage. It did me a lot of good. I can't imagine
that kind of care here.
Can it be that Europe is looking
better because of distance? Perhaps it is a question of timing.
Strasbourg is, as I found when I went home for Christmas, very pleasantly
accessible now. The new tramway is convenient and the sidewalks
have been ramped. I was struck by the funny contrast here in Austin,
where the sidewalks seem to have Alzheimer'sa perfect ramp
to get up onto the sidewalk but no ramp to get down at the far end!
I know better than ever before
that no place is perfect. Adaptation is necessary wherever you go.
I grew up in Malaysia, where getting around in a wheelchair can
be a nightmare. I would not even begin to tell you the accessibility
barriers I found when visiting China. Here in America the pace of
life is so fast that sometimes I feel like an old Citroen on the
German autobahn, but despite everything I am enjoying my new life
here. I like the liberty of being able to pop into the cinema on
my own and being able to plan travel without worrying about bathroom
facilities. Being on your own can be lonesome, but, for me, the
independence is worth the price.
leaflet in the San Antonio Public Library informs me that Texas
is called "The Land of Beginning Again."
© 2001 Eleanor Thoe Lisney
Thoe Lisney is learning about America by living in Texas.