Coming to Amerika

LIsa S. asked me to tell the story. She knew me "back when".... fresh off the proverbial boat....plane in my case, but still. I get all teary whenever I see documentaries about Ellis Island. I never "did the Ellis Island thing"...that was way before my time, of course, but there was that lady, the Statue of Liberty, greeting me at the end of every trans-atlantic flight. Welcoming me to America. Such a foreign place. It certainly seemed so to me on November 2, 1982. The day we came over. And I can't say "Statue of Liberty" without the german "Freiheitsstatue" echoing in the background.

I'd visited, of coure, my parents being Americans, and all. All my grandparents lived in Texas, and I'm afraid that we all considered each other rather foreign, but were too polite to say much about it. The cousins who were close in age played with us, and we temporarily enjoyed such novelties as pop-tarts, fruit loops and constant television programming when we did visit. The weather in America was interminably HOT. At least the parts we visited at the times of year we visited. It was always summer, and always further south than where we lived in Switzerland. It always used to astonish me, looking at an atlas, that Texas was on the same level as northern Africa. That put the weather in persepctive, along with other evils such as poisonous snakes and grass burrs.

So, while I'd been to America a few times before November, 1982, it had always been as a traveler, with one suitcase. Very very temporary. It was never home. But it became that, or shall I say, is becoming that.

Pathetic. 25 years later and it still is not a perfect fit. I'll never BE Kentuckian. In a way, my husband who hails from Iowa is more Kentuckian than I am. I find that unless I have the whole God thing in common with someone, I just can't do a relationship very well at all. I somehow still don't know the rules.

So, the relative suddenness of our arrival in America was a big shock. Things went sour with the ministry work my folks were doing, and it was time to "come home". Except it wasn't coming home for us kids. It was transplant. In some ways we arrived here much like refugees. We left most of what we owned behind and just came. All my parent's life savings was cashed in to make the move.

My folks were the age I am now when we did it, and my oldest is the age I was when I came over. Perhaps that is why it's much on my mind these days. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be uprooted like that at this stage of life. It wasn't truly by choice, although it was technically. The kind of choice a family has when backed into a corner, perhaps, or pushed out a door.

So we left almost everything.

We came over.

Nothing fit.

Clothes were different here. Standards of beauty, hairstyles, all of it. And in the throes of irony I realized that when I'd gotten my long hair cut three months prior, in order to fit in better in Switzerland, I'd doomed myself to not having a popular hair style in the states. That was 1982, and at least in the south, girls were wearing long hair and barrettes with ribbons woven through them, streaming down long, in things like school colors.

The first week in America my face hurt. I spoke English, of course, flawlessly, with an American accent (no regional identifiers, fortunately), but I was not used to speaking it full time, and when I did it made my face hurt. I got used to that. But it was everything else.

The kids in my middle school (started the second half of seventh grade) were so mean to me. At least the mean ones. There were some nice ones, too. I remember a girl named Keisha who was very kind to me. She's african American, and as I'd never been around ANY black people before, I genuinely had a hard time recognizing faces at first. And of course we lived in a black neighborhood in Nashville right off the bat, so I totally did not know what to do with myself at the bus stop. It was all so foreign, and I could not understand the resentment that seemed to be directed at me from that corner. There was lots of that in 1982. I don't feel it nearly as much now-a-days. Perhaps because I'm not in middle school anymore. Perhaps we've all grown up a little bit, as a country. I don't know. (I still live "down town", for what it's worth.)

But nothing fit.

I remember bursting into tears on more than one occasion, those first few months in American middle school. And I remember sobbing. Homesickness. It usually hit me at night. I'd have to keep it at bay on the outer edges of my conciousness. I still do sometimes. Why is that?

My hair was all wrong. My shoes got made fun of, and then when I bought some Nikes (I thought the e was silent) I got the uncool color: bright blue, the color of the blue on the "save now" blogger button. It was scary.

Nothing fit. I couldn't get along with the kids in youth group, either. My parents seemed practically famous at our mega church, being the returning missionaries and all that. But for me it was nothing but culture shock. And the problem was, I didn't know what culture shock was. It had no name. It was just there. Hanging over me like a cloud.

So, that's what it was like coming to America. A 1976 white Convertivle Caddy, ET phone home that Christmas, everywhere. All the food had addictive amounts of sugar in it, and it was impossible to walk anywhere. It's so different here. People don't shake hands when they greet each other. Life feels more isolated. More disposable stuff. Everything is new and not built to last and even the roads and buildings somehow look like plastic. McDonald's. Everything is a franchise and there are no unique communities, it feels like. At least not on the surface of things.

At least I spoke the language. That made it easier. Or did it? If I'd have been an ESL student, everyone would have been able to tell how clueless I was about everything else.

Coming to Amerika.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing that story. It reads like a memoir... maybe you should consider starting one.
Philippa said…
This is very helpful to me Alana. Thank you for sharing it.

I have a friend who is American but, like you, was raised by missionary parents in Spain. They returned State-side when he was in high school (I think).

Though he has been here for almost 7 years or so, he struggles with the idiosyncrasies of the language. I can't tell you how many times I've had to explain phrases like, "Till the cows come home" and the like. He is exceptionally bright and is fluent in three languages.

We often have had conversations about how he feels like he "doesn't fit," is uncomfortable with the personalities of Americans, and how homesick he is for Spain. When he returned "home" for a visit, he came back to the States disappointed because life was not the same "back home."

Yesterday he left for China. He has signed a one year contract to teach English to pre-schoolers at a school with friends of his parents.

He told me that perhaps he will feel like he "fits" over there. I already miss him.

Again, thanks for sharing this and teaching me something about my friends...
Mimi said…
I'm sorry nothing fit. Hugs to you.

I agree with Michelle, you have the gift of words.
Meg said…
Alana, when I was 22, I married a man who was doing military service in Germany. He spoke fluent German, I learned it over there, and in the three years I lived there, Germany came to be Home for me. Then we had to come back here. I still don't refer to that as "coming home," and we came back to the States in 1972. And so help me Hannah, it took me 20 years to feel *somewhat* at home in this country. I'd still rather live in Europe. And, in retrospect, so would he.
elizabeth said…
i agree... enjoyed reading this... you captured it very well...

i think that middle school is a very confusing time... grade 7 for me was terrible!!!

it is hard when we are living through things, like culture shock, and we dont know what it is, just that we are living under it...

hard too when we are kids and cannot articulate what is going on and can be, in a way, neglected by the mere fact that no one knows what is going on internally...

thanks for sharing...
Tamara said…
I had no clue you are a Third Culture kid. Is that the right term when you're not in a Third World country as a MK? I don't know.

I'm very interested in the idea of expats and leaving and returning since this is all what I'm planning to do with my kid. My life's goals now include uprooting my kid and transplanting her in some other country and culture, and possibly in various ones throughout the years that follow.

One thing I'm most interested in is what you feel your parents could have done to make it easier.

As a teacher, I'm interested in what a teacher could do to make it easier.

What do I need to know, to understand?

Thank you!
John Nicholas said…
What a tender and personal story you share. Thanks. Be grateful that you have at least "been somewhere" Having spent just about your whole life in the same County is a little odd too.
Elizabeth said…
What a fascinating and amazing account !
You should definitely write more; you have a great way with words !
Elizabeth at The Garden Window
Anonymous said…
It's Lisa S., the one who inspired this post...I think junior high school years are the toughest in that kids are the most critical and everyone has their own identity crises...but I never would have known that you weren't American-born, or that you were going through these feelings you described. You always came off as a very intelligent, well-adjusted kid. Unfamiliar to Nashville, but in your element. I'm glad I got to hear this story!
nichole3 said…
I've been going through your archives this morning. I really admire you for putting your children first and homeschooling them. Homeschooling was not a known thing when mine were growing up. I'm 55 now. It seems like in the past 10 years---more and more families are doing this. Your children will never forget that you gave a huge part of your life for their benefit. I love this "Coming To Amerika" blog also. Were your parents Orthodox when they started a ministry? You look very Greek, so I was wondering. Are you a convert like I am to the Orthodox Faith? My husband is also from Iowa. I was born in Detroit but my mother moved us to Kentucky after her divorce. She is a native of Kentucky. Anyway, I'm enjoying your blogs.

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