Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The United States and me: A torrid love affair. Part II: Reconciliation

In October 2011 we took our yearly trip to Chicago, and it snapped me out of my September blues.  The prior year we’d gone to the US for the first time as a family; Caro had never been there before.  Sammy had come along, but he was still in utero, in big-as-a-house utero at his 6 months of gestation.  That time in 2010 we’d gone in a balmy Chicago September, trying to avoid the sweaty heat of summer, which Caro is not that keen on, having grown up in the cool Andean highlands all her life.  This time, in 2011, we were going a month later, and in the process we’d get to see the start of a Midwestern autumn.  Another change from the prior year (in addition to having a semi-walking son in tow) was that my stepdaughter, Gabri, came along.  She had never had any interest in the US, but we had gotten her a tourist visa the year before along with her mother, just in case.  As we were getting ready for our trip in 2011, she asked us, “Hey, why didn’t you invite me along?”  We’d just assumed she wouldn’t want to go, so I guess we had never asked her.  At any rate, she ended up tagging along, and this was a really special addition to our trip.

As always when I’m to go back to the States after a year away, I was giddy and excited for a week or two beforehand.  In the airport I was in high spirits, and I jaunted into Immigration just as I’d been jaunting everywhere that day, especially pleased to have a notarized permission letter for Gabriela to leave the country, signed by her father.  I thought we’d foreseen every possible administrative roadblock to taking our trip.  But I was soon on the verge of tears, incredulous that they were giving us a hard time because Sam only had a US passport.  You see, my son was born in Colombia, which automatically makes him a Colombian citizen, as his birth certificate indicates.  But by dint of his being the son of a US citizen, he is also entitled to US citizenship, and I had gone through the paperwork earlier that year to obtain his US citizenship certificate and a US passport.  I figured the passport would be good for him to go anywhere in the world. 

But not good enough to get him out of Colombia.  Apparently, as a Colombian national he must present a Colombian passport to leave the country.  The immigration person explained that she couldn’t let Sam out of the country without a Colombian passport.  Normally we might obtain this passport in an office in the airport, but it was a Saturday, and the office didn’t open on Saturdays.  The other option would be to treat Sam as a US national who’d overstayed his 3-month tourist visa, which would entail paying a fine, but this was again handled in an office that didn’t open that day.

I couldn’t believe it.  I was just dumbfounded, thinking that either we wouldn’t be able to take our trip, or I’d have to go without the rest of my family.  And we’d swallow a few thousand dollars, to boot.  I tried to plead, to explain, to not get angry, but mainly I just stood there with a bewildered look on my face as my wife Caro tried to reason with the people. 

After a few excruciating, tense minutes, a supervisor came along and had mercy on us, letting us go as long as we promised to get a passport for Sam as soon as we were back in Colombia.  We promised, and I was again almost in tears of joy.  I know I’m by no means an oppressed migrant or anything, but the half hour of uncertainty as bureaucrats decided the fate of our trip was a reminder of how tough it is sometimes to navigate these multiple cultural interfaces and identities.

The flight was a breeze.  Sam behaved well, and the cabin pressure changes didn’t seem to bother him as they’d always bothered me as a child.  He played a lot with his sister, and I just sat in my seat with a goofy grin on my face for most of the flight.  We’d gotten through the gauntlet, and were now on our way to a good, safe place.

Caro was once again surprised at how congenial the immigration people were in Fort Lauderdale, not at all the image most Latinos have of menacing impersonal US government institutions.  Gabri shared in her mother’s pleasant surprise, and I got a sappy, proud feeling to see the “Welcome to the United States” video they show on a loop, with images of all our best landmarks and traditions and general human warmth.

After theprior year’s intensive body search of Carolina, who didn’t want to pass throughany machines while she was pregnant (she was bemused at the overly careful,courteous security guard woman who explained with every step, “Okay, I’m goingto touch you with the back of my hand, and if I feel anything, I will turn myhand around and touch you with my fingers”), this year I got randomly marked for an intensive search.  They had me take off my shoes, get patted down, and looked through all my bags, item by item.  All the while the security guys were cheerful and polite, that odd juxtaposition we have in the 21st century USA of sunny customer service and a paranoid militarized State.

As always, I enjoyed the Fort Lauderdale airport for the number of Haitians everywhere, working, travelling, chatting on lunch breaks.  Chicago has a sizeable Haitian populace, but nothing where you hear Haitian Kreyol much on the streets, even in Rogers Park or Evanston, the main enclaves.  In Fort Lauderdale (or at least in the airport) Kreyol is everywhere, and even people that speak to you in English with no accent have nametags that say things like Patrice Laferrier.

My general wide-eyed marveling continued once we were in Chicago.  Our cab driver had a Nigerian name and accent, and I started grilling him the way I always do these days when I am freshly arrived in the States (when you live there, you forget how odd and fascinating it is to have people from different countries all around you).  It turned out he was Yoruba, and he got a kick out of our telling him about certain Afro-Latino religions and asking about the spirits he’d grown up hearing about.

Finally we got to my mother’s house where, after putting Sam to sleep, we stayed up past midnight catching up with my mom and eating homemade cookies.  Once again I found myself back in the house I grew up in, but in a different moment and a different stage in my life.  Gabri needed something from the drugstore, and it was wild to make the same 11pm walk down Waveland to the Walgreens that I’d followed so many times in years past, now with my stepdaughter!

In general it felt weird to have my child on the scene of my childhood.  We would go places, and I’d tell Caro about something that had happened to me in that place when I was fourteen or something, and I realized I was now a father sharing my own childhood, my own geographic origins, with my son.  Better said, I was sharing them with Caro as I talked up a storm, and frankly I felt bad that I wasn’t addressing Sam more as he dozed in his stroller, but I imagine he caught what I was telling about, even when I wasn’t speaking directly to him.  I’d never been in that situation before, at least not in that way.  Sam was hearing from me the stories of a distant time and an unknown place.  Of course I’d talked to him about my past before, but not with the evidence right there in front of us. 

I also realized that every place in the city is a story for me.  Every corner has some memory from years and years spent walking around and doing things with friends and family.  A corner I’d always turned down on the way home from school, an alley I stationed myself in to park cars for Cubs games, a house I went to a party at, a storefront that used to be something else.  On a big chunk of the North Side, no block is just a block to me—they all have memories attached to them.  When I was a kid, I always loved Chicago, but sometimes I felt as if my geographic surroundings were not “valid”, at least not in the US popular imagination.  I didn’t grow up in a ghetto or some other place that had been mythologized and made interesting by popular media, but I didn’t grow up in a bland suburb either, where real, normal white middle class people were supposed to live, according to most movies and songs and TV shows.  Life as a white kid in the urban core was too exceptional, too different from the rest of the US, to be meaningful on a larger scale.  Furthermore Chicago, perhaps more than many other cities, has a collective lore that residents learn as children.  The World’s Fair, Al Capone, John Dillinger, the Daleys, the Haymarket riots, and more recently the destruction of housing projects and gentrification of lots of areas.  As a kid, I sometimes felt that this canon was at once provincial and bourgeois, too big and historical to connect to directly, yet too small and local to be noble or inspiring.

But now as I revisited Chicago after many years living elsewhere I felt even more tied to my place of origin, aware of its influence on me.  The stories I grew up with as a Chicagoan are just the real, local connection to place I always advocate for in my development work, and my own personal stories overlap with the larger contemporary events and even the historical events that led up to them.  I no longer felt as if my idiosyncratic, authentic neighborhood were some anomaly or statistically-insignificant blip in a standardized countrywide landscape of strip malls and big front lawns.  Whether or not it was typical or “normal”, my childhood and the place where it transpired were 100% real and normal for me, and if many people in the late-20th century US didn’t grow up somewhere with a strong local identity, then that was their loss, and not something for me to feel left out of.  Each person’s unique, hyper-local reality is different and interesting.

We squeezed in a lot of sightseeing and other local musts.  The Lincoln Park Zoo, Byron's Hot Dogs, various deep dish and stuffed pizzas, the Pick Me Up café (I’m realizing as I write this list that a big part of what I do when I visit the States is stuff myself with junk food).  We visited Lane Tech, where I went to high school, we went to my family’s house in Wisconsin to canoe and jump in leaf piles, we ate at Culver's, then Sour Patch Kids and Cheetos at a gas station, we went to an outlet mall in Kenosha or Racine, visited my aunt in a retirement home, shopped at a small town grocery store, split wood, invited friends over for parties, went to the Art Institute, rode the CTA, took walks in my neighborhood (including the lovely Alta Vista Terrace), bought consumerist stuff like computers and cameras that are pricier in Colombia.  Again, it was odd to do these things from my childhood and bachelorhood, but now with a child of my own.  Especially to drive to Wisconsin from Chicago, as if I did this drive all the time (which I guess I have, just not in the past six years).  Sam seemed right at home though, not at all put off by the new surroundings nor hearing everyone speaking in English.  He loved meeting my extended family, and he had no trouble sleeping with the El train running by my house all night.  The only difficult adjustment for him might have been a lack of fiber.  In Colombia we eat a lot of fruit and drink a lot of juice.  Even our staple foods, like potatoes and plantain and cassava, have a certain amount of fiber in them.  So coming to the States, where common fruits like apples aren’t that fibrous, and staples like bread and pasta have had all the fiber stripped out, was hard on his digestive system.  That said, I think we got off easy, considering all the drastic changes we were exposing him to.

Gabri was great throughout the trip.  She helped out a lot with Sam, even sleeping alone with him a few nights (these were the first times Sam had slept in another room from us since he was born, I believe).  She and I went to a high-end camera store on the semi-industrial Near West Side, where we were attended by a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable camera expert, who gave us just what we needed, at a good price.  It seems he initially assumed Gabri was my girlfriend or wife, and advised me to “take good care of her”.  This was a bit embarrassing, but Gabri dealt with everything well, even through the language barrier.  (That said, in retrospect I don’t think Gabri made much of an effort to speak English on this trip.  She understands it pretty well after years living with me, and I have the impression that she can string together sentences decently, but she’s so shy about it that I really can’t be sure of anything in terms of her English skills).  Gabri’s helping my mom take care of Sam one night even allowed Caro and me to go on a little date to an Indian restaurant on Devon.  We got out pretty late, so the place we ended up eating at was determined more by its being open at that hour than by the promise of high culinary quality.  The year prior we’d eaten at a higher-end Indian place (where Caro was tickled to be attended in Spanish by a Guatemalan busboy), and frankly this year the restaurant had a distinctly Mafioso feel to it (and we’re pretty good at detecting this, living as we do in a country full of Mafia fronts), but the food was decent and we enjoyed the time alone together.

Another highlight was getting some pants that fit.  I am not a big clothes guy, and every year I go through a cycle where I’m sick of my old clothes that don’t fit (too short, too tight, too big, etc.) and want to replace them all, but then I balk at the idea of spending money on clothes.  On this visit we went to both Marshall’s and a few thrift stores, and I was very happy to get some pants that actually fit me.  Of course within a few months I realized that they didn’t really fit so well, or I’d lost or gained weight to the point where they no longer did, and the cycle started all over.  But at the time I was very happy, and felt much more dignified to be living life in well-fitting pants (which for me, as a child of the urban 1990s, means comfortably loose pants).
Normally when I am in the US to visit, I am initially reticent for the first few days and feel out of place.  I suppose it’s natural; I’m used to living in one place, so going to another place is going to entail a change in what I’m used to as far as customs and such.  And the fact that the “new” culture where I feel initially awkward is my own birthplace, with all the associations (both good and bad) and emotional charges that that implies, makes me feel especially weird and abnormal, because I should be more at home here than anywhere.  At any rate, for the past eight years or so that I’ve been living out of country, every time I go to Chicago I feel a bit  depressed and out of place for the first few days (even frustrated or angry at the problems in our country), and thereafter I feel happy and at home.  Likewise, when it’s time to leave again, I feel bad and somewhat maladapted when I first return to my place of residence.  This too soon passes.

On the trip in 2011 I didn’t go through this process as drastically as on other occasions.  Unfortunately though, at one point early in our trip I helped my mother for a party she was organizing with some friends, and it fell during my maladapted time.  It also happened that there were a fair number of people my age at the party, and they were now living as young professionals in Chicago.  Given my predisposition to melancholy at that moment, I started thinking to myself that I was somehow inadequate, not as classy as they were.  They had grown up in Chicago, just as I had, and had even gone to some public schools, as I had.  But I guess that because they ran in different social circles, and many went to Catholic high school, I invented this whole story in my mind that we were separated by some big cultural divide.  This was of course pure nonsense, but it was compounded by the fact that I was serving everyone during the party, so I felt even more as if I were somehow of an underclass.  In my grey mood, I even fixated on how relatively short I am in the US.  I have become accustomed, in an adolescence at a high school full of short immigrants’ kids, and later on in my adulthood in other, shorter countries, to being the tallest guy around, and that bolsters my self-confidence, make me feel special.  But once back in the Midwestern United States, I’m just of average height, at least among white males my age.  It’s like Superman going back to Krypton and being just a regular Joe.

Anyway, all this silly drama never manifested itself except inside my neurotic mind and in my whining to my wife.  Soon thereafter we had a nice evening dinner with my cousin, and I felt at home again, in a place where I belonged (and at peace with my not-so-exceptional height).

By the end of our trip I was sad to leave the US.  I reflected that just one week isn’t enough time for me to visit home; I need longer to bask and let things sink in, and then come to terms with my leaving again.  Furthermore, at that time it was looking as if we’d soon be returning to live in the States, so I had spent much of the trip dreaming and getting excited about possible projects, businesses, gardens to plant.  Now I would have to put all those on hold once again and return to my regular life in Colombia.

On this trip I’d tried to get my mother’s attic in order.  This has been my bedroom since I was eight or so, and now it has all my assorted papers and books and memorabilia.  Since I’ve lived abroad I’ve attempted to slowly get this space organized, chipping away at piles of things to put them in boxes or the crawlspace or the garbage can.  Yet again on this trip, I didn’t get done as much as I would have liked to, and so I had to leave some piles untouched.  I pondered melancholy that most of what I left would not move from its place for a year or so, as it hadn’t moved in the prior year until we came to visit.  Since our prior visit we’d had a baby, new jobs, deaths, new living arrangements, yet in a corner of North Side Chicago, in my mom’s attic, those papers and books had remained still and stoic through it all.  Who could know what the next year would bring, as my attic piles remained stolid and indifferent?

Despite my sadness at leaving Chicago, I was very happy that Gabri and Sam had gotten to see my hometown (and Caro to visit once again).  We’d done a lot of typical regional things, and I for one enjoyed the nippy fall weather (Sam, on the other hand, was furious whenever the freezing wind would stir up and whip his face).  I was wistful on the plane (at least the time I was conscious after our 2am wakeup), and I expected a few days of mopeyness as I readjusted to life in Colombia.  But to my surprise, when we had landed and my father-in-law picked us up, I became happy to be back in Bogota as I watched the cityscape pass by our car window.  I snapped back into my everyday mode and looked forward to pending tasks at work.  I had found peace once again with my homeland after years of on-and-off disillusionment, but I was also content with my adopted home in the Andes.

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