Dance, Medicine, Love and War — An Immigrant Story
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 starkly 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 performing in the coastal town of Maameltein, Lebanon. This was back in the early 1970’s when the mountainous country was vaunted as 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 an interest in her and made persistent requests for a date. Despite the patient's grumpy disposition during recovery, she finally agreed to see a movie and so began their courtship. The two fell in love against the backdrop of Mount Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, and married soon after in the Swedish countryside. Then in early April of 1975, the very week my older brother was born, the Lebanese Civil War began.
At the time, my parents, just twenty-one and twenty-five, were separated due to my father finishing his medical degree and my mother taking advantage of the stellar health benefits in Sweden. They had a daunting decision to make. Where would they settle 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 hospital in Newark, New Jersey; she would further her dance studies at Julliard. It would be their great adventure together, in a country quite foreign to them both. It was settled. My father came first to secure an apartment and was followed soon after by his wife and infant son. 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 in costume 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 prompted 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, whose culinary skills at that point were limited to boiling eggs, 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 religious 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. Over the years, we gathered around a growing Thanksgiving table where our Lebanese, Swedish, Armenian, Jewish, Puerto Rican, and American family broke bread — that's the beauty of New Jersey, for you.
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 FaceTime, 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. It wasn't until the late nineties, when I went to college in Vermont, that I again experienced some discomfort of being somehow the "other". Driving my Jersey-plated car around Burlington, I frequently came up against the popular bumper sticker "Don't Jersey Vermont" in my face.
More recently, I've experienced hostility about my beliefs and choices from people online. After writing a personal essay on talking to my daughter about climate change, I was called "irresponsible" and a "brainwashed, liberal jackass". Just a few months ago, after my home was featured in a regional publication, I was called a "flatlander" by a local (yes, this is meant to be an insult), who blamed my moving to Vermont for his higher taxes. I so badly wanted to inform this chap that though yes, I was born on flatland, my father was born in the mountains of the Middle East. I wonder how that might have sat with him. I love my state of residence and the people in it, but tire of the occasional Vermonter wagging a finger at transplants. I get it, I don't want to Jersey Vermont, either, but unless you are of the Abenaki tribe, someone in your not-too-distance ancestral heritage came to Vermont (and the United States, for that matter) looking for the same things my parents sought, the same things I sought in moving here: opportunity, a better life, greater freedom.
I can't help but think about where we are now, in a post 9/11, post 11/9 American society. The 24-hour hemorrhaging of news and social media puts the noise and suffering of the world at our fingertips. Fears, phobias and -isms of the ugliest variety are vying for legitimacy; hate crimes are on the rise; threats of walls, registries and mass deportation are becoming more likely; scores of refugees are fleeing war-torn countries, seeking asylum in Europe, Canada, the U.S. and yes, even here in Vermont. And while we fight our fight, our polar caps are melting. Is it just my bleeding heart that feels so heavy?
Tomorrow is 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 was raised on good bagels and better pizza, 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 and love their home in the forest. I’m thankful for my parents, where they come from, and the journey they took together. They’ve taught me never to put anyone in a box; that we all come from some place, with a point of view, a story and a yearning.