Hopefully, you have enjoyed reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera along with us for our Winter Book Club. If you haven’t taken the plunge and begun reading with us, it is definitely not too late!
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Connecting with Cultures
“Living is being happy: seeing, hearing, touching, drinking, eating, urinating, defecating, diving into the water and gazing at the sky, laughing and crying.”
― Milan Kundera,
As you read, you come across Kundera’s idea that without understanding the sun and stars, one cannot embrace the universe. According to Kundera, people live in an “illusory infinitude” without an all-encompassing understanding of their surroundings.
I felt I experienced this “illusory infinitude” when I moved overseas to the post-Soviet country of Turkmenistan in 2008. Eventually, I moved to Ukraine and Latvia which are also former Soviet countries. As an expatriate, I tried each day to understand my new surroundings as best that I could. This included learning how to make the local dishes, participating in cultural events. Most importantly of all, learning the local languages. Communicating in the native tongues with the locals was as close as I could get to connection to my surroundings.
In my travels abroad, I can tell you there were more extremes in my life than living at home. There were days of laughter with new friends that are ingrained in my memory forever. For example being offered camel’s milk and having to politely drink it out of respect. Or navigating a road trip where there weren’t any signs in English. This meant we had to resort to charades with locals on the side of the road to get directions.
There are also horrifying days of culture shock and loneliness that I forgot as soon as I got on the plane to come home to the United States. I am very thankful that our brains are conditioned to flush out pain. Even through difficult times abroad, I feel Kundera’s words beautifully demonstrate the art of forgetting to find peace. Our brains want to return to an equilibrium of a healthy state of mind. I find it miraculous that our brains continually forget a difficult or negative experience. What is even more amazing is that we can eventually replace them with a fond memory instead.
Finding Balance and Peace
Just as I acquired a taste for Czech cuisine such as dumplings and goulash, I started forgetting the tastes of home. In my case living abroad, I had to forego simple pleasures such as fresh berries, spinach, brown sugar, and shredded cheese. It was shocking to see certain food/beverages when I returned home each summer. I had not seen or thought about these items in a year. There was a surge of happiness as I was able to indulge in items that I was accustomed to. However, even as I was eating my California burrito, I was telling my friends from home about the amazing new food I had discovered abroad. Whether by necessity or adventure, I adapted quickly.
Far more serious was finding a balance in talking to the local people as a Westerner as I moved around the world. Kundera is a writer from the Socialist world and living in France after being excommunicated. I met friends who were also products of the Socialist world where they lived in the same apartment their parents had been relegated to under the Soviet regime. They could tell me horror stories of overt and subtle enslavement. There was a heavy cost to freedom for so many people I met. As an American citizen only knowing complete freedom, this issue was difficult to reconcile in my mind.
Living as an Expatriate
In John Updike’s New York Times article in 1980, he called Kundera’s book “the most original book of the season”. He describes Kundera’s own experience as an expatriate in France as “caught in the middle”. I can connect to this feeling of one foot in and one foot out of your home country and the country you currently reside in. You feel like a stranger in your home, and yet you are still an outsider in your resident country. This is not necessarily negative, but this juggling of cultures is sure to arise feelings that you would normally never deal with if you stay in one place. It is a unique experience for each person who embarks on the expatriate adventure. We all seek to embrace the universe through laughter and forgetting. whether by force like Kundera who was excommunicated from Czechoslovakia, or by choice as I did.
One can never truly forget the past; he can, however, deviate from the norm to formulate a new future. He can laugh, dance, and sing his way to a new beginning—on any level, private or public.- Jenna Lyons
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