Someone once said, there’s no better novel than life. I’ve always thought my parents’ immigration story could make a great romantic novel. The elements are all there: two people from very different backgrounds, a dramatic setting, heightened stakes and circumstances. To oversimplify their passage in an anecdote, won’t do justice to their story, but serves as an introduction to mine, as a first-generation American.
It began when my mother, a talented modern dancer, left her birth city of Stockholm, Sweden for a job in the coastal town of Maameltein, Lebanon. This was back in the early 1970’s when the mountainous country was the jewel of the Middle East.
She lived it up, as any young person in paradise would, until an ear infection had her admitted to a local hospital for surgery. It was there that my father, a young medical student, took a liking to her and made persistent requests for a date. Despite the patient’s grumpy disposition during recovery, she finally agreed and so began their courtship. They fell in love against the backdrop of the Mediterranean and eventually married in the Swedish countryside. Then in April of 1975, the very week my older brother was born, the Lebanese civil war began.
At the time, my parents, just 21 and 25, were separated due to my father finishing his medical degree. They had a daunting decision to make. Where would they live and raise a family? Stockholm? My father would have to learn a new language. Paris? They both did speak French. Or the United States? The latter prospect was most enticing. He would work on his specialization at a Newark hospital, while she would further her dance studies at Julliard. It would be their great adventure in a country quite foreign to them both. It was settled, so my father came first, followed soon after by my mother and brother. Flying passed lady liberty and into the marvelous smog of the New Jersey turnpike, my mom recalls thinking, “My god, what have I done?”
New Jersey wasn’t the prettiest picture in the late 70’s. Coming from the squeaky clean utopia of Sweden and the “jewel” of the Middle East, America’s “armpit” took some getting used to. There was a learning curve culturally, especially that first year. In October, when kids came trick-or-treating, my parents politely told them they had the wrong apartment. Numerous ding-dongs later had them believing they were victims of a prank which caused my father to slam the door on bewildered faces. In November, he brought home a Thanksgiving turkey he’d won at the hospital raffle. My mom backed off from the bird in intimidation, leaving my father to attempt his grandmother’s rooster recipe by heart. After three days of trial and error, and countless soundings of the smoke alarm, the deflated prize was rendered inedible. They also faced prejudice. When looking for a larger living space an elderly landlady took one look at the handsome olive-skinned, dark-haired Lebanese and said, “how do I know I won’t wake up with a brick through my window?” My parents turned the other cheek to such ignorance.
Eventually, the two found a picturesque Jersey suburb (they do exist) to lay down new roots. They struck a balance of assimilating while holding proudly to cultural, as well as, Lutheran and Maronite traditions. This made for some good eats at the holidays. For Christmas we’d have a Swedish smorgasbord, Easter was lamb and Lebanese mezza, and for Thanksgiving, we’d go to the house of my father’s distant cousin whose family we’d adopted as our own. My aunt, a Bronx native, was in charge of making the American spread and the turkey was always cooked to perfection. We’d go around the table to express our thanks and every year my parents would speak about the life they’d created in the United States and the diversity of our family.
I won’t lie; growing up in a multi-cultural environment was at times confusing. I felt different from my classmates. My friends thought the food in our fridge was strange, that my parents’ accents were exotic. They’d envy our excursions to visit family overseas. Remember, this was before the Internet or Skype, when the average American’s perception of Sweden was the place leggy blondes came from and Lebanon was reduced to a six o’clock news clip of war-torn Beirut. Thankfully, the 1990’s did wonders for multicultural awareness and I became even prouder of my roots.
With the new millennia came an evermore complicated world of globalization. September 11th shook Americans to the core, and today, after a slew of the terrorist attacks in Bamako, Beirut, Bagdad, Nigeria and Paris, as refugees pour into Europe, as debates about immigration and border control continue, as gun violence rises, and big-money, bigotry and fear feeds into policy, as asylum seekers face greater obstacles by the day, and all the while, as our polar caps melt, our collective heart is heavy. The 24-hour newsfeed and social media, which gives us the ability to connect in real time with the far reaches of the globe, puts grief and devastation at our fingertips.
Now it’s Thanksgiving, that definitive American holiday, when we are reminded to take stock in what we are thankful for. But we are sitting at a volatile global table. Where do we go from here? I look to my own life. I am thankful to be a first-generation American who relishes the sound of Arabic, the voice of Fairuz, who weakens at the smell of orange flower blossoms, and kanelbullar, who believes in social democracy, in humanitarianism, and the badassery of Pippi Longstocking. I am thankful that because of my background I have deep empathy and appreciation for people, regardless of but equally for their country, creed and religion. I am thankful for my husband, a third –generation Texan and for my two young children, who could give a hoot about cultural identity. I’m thankful for my parents, where they’ve come from, and the journey they took together. They’ve taught me to never put anyone in a box; that we all come from some place, with a point of view, a story and a yearning.