I first set foot in America in the summer of 1989. My family and I descended the plane onto the ground at O’Hare in Chicago. The heat hit me like a blast furnace. It was a presence, pressed against my face and body. It was an unwelcome kiss, almost sucking the air out of my lungs. It shimmered, living waves in the distance off the black tarmac.
America smelled “different” too – like it had been baked. Sometimes I joke and say America smells of French fries, like McDonalds. Just a little poetic license.
I’ve lived in St. Louis for over 25 years now, longer than I lived in Scotland. Our aunties, uncles and cousins over there see us as the “American” side of the family.
The truth is, I don’t feel “American”. I’ve never felt truly at home here.
Fast forward to 2017. Time flies, doesn’t it? I am sitting in my neighbors’ apartment. They have a projector that casts their movies and music videos right onto the blank wall beside the television. They’re showing me footage of the good-bye party they held the evening before they left for America. The Indian night is warm and soft. The leaves of the mango tree above their old home flutter softly in the breeze. Their relatives laugh and dance around them in the garden. The men drink too much. They joke and make faces at the camera. My neighbor Ajit smiles at the memories. “That’s my brother” he says, pointing him out for me. “That’s Sita’s mother”.
Is it my own homesickness I feel, as the camera cuts to the morning after? The women hugging, telling each other “Come on now, don’t cry. We’ll see each other soon.”
Of course they don’t feel at home here yet. They are early into their immigrant life. I ask Ajit if they plan to stay permanently. He looks uncertain, “I don’t know with the way things are now …” he trails off. “Besides, the Indian economy is growing. The rupee is strong against the dollar. Things may look different in five, ten years”. He dreams of going home to farm the land his family owns. He likes the idea of self-sustainable living; growing his own fruits and vegetables.
Ajit and Sita have two kids, seven and ten years old. The children miss their family and friends in India, but the life they’ve known for the past few years is in America: yellow school buses, jeans and t-shirts, the morning Pledge of Allegiance, science projects, McDonalds, Minions, and endless hours of Minecraft. They both speak English fluently, only the hint of an accent left.
Me, their “American” neighbor who still thinks she’s European, even keeps a rabbit in the house. Can you believe that? Sita wrinkles her nose a little. It just doesn’t seem right to her.
This morning I, the American neighbor spent two hours spring cleaning the bunny’s cage and thinking about what it means to be an immigrant. A former “friend” on Facebook accused me a few weeks ago of hating America. “Why did you come here? What did you want from this country when you first came?” She demanded to know, as though I must answer to her simply because she, unlike me, was born here.
First of all I wish I had told her that it was none of her business. That I do not need to explain the circumstances that brought me here, or justify the reasons that I stay to anyone. Neither do Ajit and Sita. It reminds me of a t-shirt I saw my co-worker wearing once, “You don’t know my story”. Or as famed vulnerability researcher Brené Brown would say, “You haven’t earned the right to hear my story.”
I am a European-born white immigrant. I must acknowledge my privilege. My right to be here is not challenged because of the color of my skin. Yet those of us who weren’t born here, are now being told by some that we must “prove” we love America in order to remain.
It seems that nobody has told those people how complicated love can be. How love can smell damp as the rain-soaked earth in a country you haven’t visited in years, or sweet like the fallen fruit of a mango tree in a courtyard in Southern India.
How can the love for our new country be without conflict, when the very essence of being a first generation immigrant is a sense of loss and displacement from the life we once knew? This is not a black and white situation. This is about shades of emotion, memory, hopes, dreams and fears. This is about living with uncertainty. A perpetual balancing act between two worlds.
Even our own children will not know or understand that feeling. How to explain that for some of us, the way we love America is mixed with a melancholy nostalgia for a place and time so far away and long ago that it no longer exists? How can we explain that staying may be hard sometimes, but that going back seems impossible?
Ajit and Sita at least, have made the first step to prove they love America. They have done better than me already. Outside their apartment they have posted a small square of striped cloth; an American flag that flutters slightly in the breeze. We live in America now; land of the free, home of the brave. We sip chai together outside in the early Spring sunlight and watch our children play “flip the bottle” on the sidewalk. America, what’s not to love?