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Posts Tagged ‘immigrant’

Re-visiting your past

In aging, behavior, cities, domestic life, History, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US, world on September 8, 2013 at 1:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the challenges of becoming an expatriate — which I did, leaving Canada in 1988 for the U.S. — is leaving behind much of your personal history: the schools you attended, the playgrounds where you skinned your knees, the parks and ravines you walked through with your family, favorite shops, restaurants, libraries or street corners.

I lived in Toronto ages five to 30, so most of my formative and defining memories lie there: first boyfriend, newspaper job,  apartment.

Toronto viewed south from Bloor

Toronto viewed south from Bloor (Photo credit: Small)

It happens when you live far away, even across the country.

Re-visiting my past remains, however silly or nostalgic, important to me. Some of the memories are painful, and I want to re-make them with a happier overlay, while others are pure joy, like once more taking the ferry across Toronto’s harbor, to the islands there, the sun glittering off the water and the gulls circling overhead.

Bliss!

Another well-traveled path I take, and will do so on our current visit north, is down the terrazzo hallways of my old high school.

I’ve been going back there for years as a guest lecturer on writing, speaking to senior students. I was badly bullied there for a few years when I was a student, so it’s a sweet vengeance to be welcomed back as a successful alum.

It’s odd to be there as an adult, not as the eager, excited, nervous young woman I was then, dying to start university and get on with my writing career.

My name is on a wall, lettered in gold in elegant Gothic script, with all the others who won Ontario scholarships, awarded to those with the highest averages in their graduating year. It’s comforting to see my name there, to feel remembered — even if my classmates’ children have already graduated from those same classrooms.

In May 2013, I returned to the Grand Canyon for a four-day trip, camping alone in a tent. I was excited beyond measure to get back there — my last time was June 1994, and I hiked 12 hours in a day, climbing out exhausted and crusted with the salt of my evaporated sweat.

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim...

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim, Arizona, USA Deutsch: Blick in den Grand Canyon vom Südrand, Arizona, USA Français : vue dans le Grand Canyon du bord sud, Arizona, États-Unis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I wanted to return for another reason, to make that 90-minute drive back to Flagstaff knowing I was coming home to a loving spouse; when I returned from my previous trip, my then-husband walked out for good.

For decades, I’d associated one of the best journeys of my life with one of its most unexpectedly painful moments.

In May 2008, Jose and I traveled to Mexico, back to Cuernavaca, to the apartment building where my mother and I lived when I was 14. I used to walk up the hill to my school, where two tall, narrow windows offered an extraordinary view — one of Popocatapetl, the other Iztaccihuatl, two volcanoes far in the distance.

I used to look out my second-floor window into a field, and assumed it was long since built up and paved over. But it was still a field and our building, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, appeared unchanged as well.

I wanted to wave to my 14-year-old self, with her waist-length blond hair, listening to Creedence on her record player, and say: “It’s going to be OK. Really.”

My mother suffered a breakdown while we were there; the details too arcane for this blog, but it abruptly and permanently ended my time in her custody, making that apartment and the field and the hill the last place that I lived in her care.

Down the road is a small waterfall, its cul-de-sac filled with plant nurseries. I bought three small pottery palomitas there — unglazed doves — that hang on our balcony in the summer, small, happy memories re-created.

20130905123318

And, when Jose and I went to visit his hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, we visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It has a small courtyard with an apricot tree — the one his late mother used to make jam from.

The museum now stands on the land where his late father’s Baptist church, and their home, once stood.

“This used to be my bedroom,” he said, standing before some exquisite and priceless canvas.

I didn’t know quite what to say.

How sad to never be able see your old haunts.

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico d...

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico during the Railroad era in 1882. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s blogger Dara Clear, eloquent as always — who traded his native Ireland for Australia:

Each one of of us is Homer’s Odysseus, journeying, probing, questing but perhaps ultimately compelled to return to Penelope, to that place of safety, familiarity and love. I am not being literal here, I am not saying we are all the male hero archetype who dutifully returns home to the stoic wife after his manly adventures. My suggestion is that on a profound, primal, ancient level, we are all borne on the same unstated dynamic that is best described as the journey and the return.

We set out on our voyages understanding, or maybe just suspecting, that the journey and its concomitant adventures and challenges, will not be indefinite. There will be an end. There will be a settling. And there will be a return. The return becomes whatever the traveler determines to be home. And home is the place of belonging.

Home can also be the opposite of that, highlighting the sense of not belonging, the sense of otherness. Home then, embodies a strange paradox in that it can be understood as both happy assimilation into place and tribe as well as being one’s concept of defiance, individuality and difference.

From this interpretation we can see how identity is closely connected to home. Are we a product of, or a reaction to where we are from? And what happens if you are dispossessed of a birthright as indelible as belonging? How do you keep your identity if you have no place to which you can return?

And here is Chris Colin’s story from Afar, (a terrific American travel magazine), about going back to West Texas:

There is—I don’t think this would offend anyone—nothing here. The main drag runs past the county courthouse, the old jail, Silverton’s two eateries, and the gas station, which holds a freezer that doubles as the town’s grocery store. The rest of Silverton is shuttered businesses and silent residential streets. The edges of town bleed into the farms and wastelands of Briscoe County…

Silverton may be thimble-size, but the thimble contains multitudes. Nearly every human is kin, for starters. On Main Street one afternoon, Tom waved to an old lady sitting on a front porch, then decided to circle back around and park. It was his mother. We stood on the porch and discussed the tornado that ripped down the street years ago, 21 people killed…

During my week in Texas, my days were spent roaming 21st-century Silverton with my great-uncles. By night I lost myself in its late 19th- and early 20th-century history. I grew up hearing of this microscopic town as a mythically happy and industrious place. My great-grandmother Bethel lived to 98 and told us stories about weekend-long dances, epic horseback rides to school, and the joy of putting on her Sunday best just to stroll Main Street.

Do you ever re-visit places from your childhood or past?

How does it feel when you go back?

Back again, 24 years later

In aging, behavior, books, business, culture, domestic life, immigration, journalism, life, urban life, US, women, work on June 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

The women are still lean, in Tevas and cargo pants. The men wear beards and drive pick-up trucks. The kids are plentiful.

I used to live up here, far from a big city. Muddy Subarus everywhere. Ads at the local cinema for a tattoo parlor. I knew Route 89 like the back of my hand.

I came to live in New Hampshire, in a small town, in the summer of 1988, with no prior experience of rural or small town life. I’d always lived in large cities: London, Paris, Montreal, Toronto. The absolute silence of our street was astonishing.

I followed the American man I would marry in 1992 — and who would walk out of our apartment, and our marriage, barely two years later.

The woman who lived here 24 years ago was terrified.

She — I — had left behind her country, friends, family, a thriving career. My whole identity. Anyone who moves to a new country “for love” better have a Teflon soul, a full bank account of her own and the stamina for re-invention.

I remember exactly how I felt as I crossed the border into the U.S. from Canada to move here — like a raindrop falling into an ocean. The United States has a population 10 times that of Canada. Surely I would simply disappear, never to be heard from, or of, again.

How would I ever re-build my career? New friendships? A sense of belonging? Who would I be(c0me)?

And so I used to look at all the women here — almost every one of them mothers or pregnant — apparently so secure in their identity and their marriages, roaming in packs.

I didn’t want children, and everyone here did, eagerly. I’ve never, anywhere — not even far, far away in foreign countries — felt so alien, isolated and disconnected. There were no jobs for which I was qualified. I knew not a soul. My boyfriend, then a medical resident, was always gone, returning home exhausted and grouchy.

That we were unmarried, even then un-affianced, seemed to make everyone deeply nervous. What was it, 1933?

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been.

I did love our apartment, the entire ground floor of a big old house. I did a lot of sailing. I spent every Friday at the local auction house and learned a lot about antiques.  Eager for more, I drove 90 minutes each way to Massachusetts to take a class in it there. For amusement, alone, I drove the back roads of Vermont and New Hampshire. I drew. I even drove every Monday back to Montreal to teach journalism.

But, after 18 months of my best efforts, I was desperate to flee, to re-claim a life that made some sense to me, socially, professionally and intellectually. So we moved to New York, just in time for the (then) worst recession in journalism in decades. After six relentless months of job-hunting and with no contacts to help me, I found a magazine editing job that required my French and Spanish skills. I’d never edited a magazine before.

Coming back now, I sat in the sunshine at the farmer’s market, listening to a band play bluegrass and eating a slice of wood-fired- oven-made pizza. I stared at all those mothers with their babies and their swollen bellies — and felt at ease.

I’d gone to New York. I’d achieved my dreams, surviving three recessions; in 2008, 24,000 fellow journalists lost their jobs nationwide.

Achieving my dreams would have been impossible here, then. There was, in practical terms, no Internet or cellphones. Social media barely existed. And no one had ever heard of me or read my by-line.

Nor had I yet paid my American dues — attending all those meetings and panels and conferences, getting to know editors, serving on volunteer boards, showing up, landing a few good jobs, getting fired, getting other jobs, getting laid off. Finding an agent, and then another one, and then another. Selling two well-reviewed books. Mentoring other writers.

It felt sweet to sit in the sunshine here, now, content in having done what I’d hoped to and which looked impossible, here, nestled deep within these green hills.

I no longer have to prove myself to anyone here.

Especially myself.

How Pancho Villa Brought Me A Boyfriend

In History, immigration on April 15, 2010 at 10:22 pm
Ahi viene Pancho Villa!

Image by OliverAlex via Flickr

His grandfather, Pedro Aguilar, was not a Pancho Villa supporter. After the Mexican revolution — and three assassination attempts — he left the northern Mexico city of Torreon and moved in 1907 to Topeka, Kansas where he went to work on the railroad. Worried someone might track him down, he changed his surname to Lopez. There he founded the Lopez Chile Powder Company and had nine children; my sweetie’s Dad, Miguel, was the second oldest.

Pedro helped to establish Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on November 4, 1914, a still-thriving church created to serve the Mexican community in Topeka.

My partner’s Dad, a Baptist minister, raised his family in New Mexico, and my partner eventually moved to New York City, to work in journalism, as did I, moving from my native Canada first to rural New Hampshire then to a suburb of New York. He and I met, of course, when I was writing a story about on-line dating and I had to post my profile on a site I didn’t know or use, where he found me — two workaholic journos, lovers of French food and skiing and travel.

On April 16, 1945, Pedro became a U.S. citizen. His chile company, which also made taco sauce, chorizo, Mexican chocolate and peppers in brine, was long ago sold, but we have, and cherish, some of his gold and red and turquoise food labels and a photo of him.

Gracias, Pedro!

Here’s a funny story about Pancho Villa’s trigger finger — for sale — from this week’s Wall Street Journal.

21 Years In A Foreign Land — This One

In culture, world on October 21, 2009 at 8:04 am
several small American flags

Image via Wikipedia

I received my green card in 1988, and wrote an essay about it that ran October 22, 1988, in The Globe and Mail. I reprint it lower down in this post; I’m posting it today since tomorrow is J-Day’s final instalment, an interview with non-fiction authors Ulrich Boser and Kelsey Timmerman.

For those who choose to come to the U.S. — certainly after finishing all their schooling, i.e. mass socialization and creation of much of your social capital —  it’s an adjustment we rarely discuss with native or naturalized Americans. (The very word “naturallized” is one, sorry to say, that makes me bristle.) And the word “immigrant” is one often automatically affixed here to negative modifiers like “struggling” or “illegal” or “undocumented.” Yet millions of educated, ambitious, multilingual, professionally accomplished people choose to move to the U.S. not only to flee oppression or fear or starvation, but to better our opportunities, explore a new culture, learn firstand what it means to be American, to live inside a nation and political culture that so often dominates the world stage. Canadians, especially, have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. Our newsstands are filled with 80 percent American material and, growing up in Toronto, we knew the names of Tonawanda and Cheektowaga, Buffalo suburbs whose newscasts we saw. Yet, certainly before the Internet, that traffic was relentlessly one-way. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal closed up their correspondents’ offices in Toronto ages ago and, unless (why?) you’re deeply curious about that land of 30 million to the north, Canada remains little-known to many Americans.
I’m not sure there is any other border so culturally osmotic as the 49th. parallel, yet where culture, values and politics move only in one direction; ask any Canadian the capital of the U.S., and I’m sure they know the answer. I once worked with a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Rhodes finalist — do they get much more credentialled? — who did not know ours. It doesn’t matter, right? Actually, it does. The U.S. and Canada  — every daydo $1.5 billion worth of trade with one another, by far the most inter-related (quietly, largely invisibly) in the world. That sort of wilfull ignorance — hey, they’re just like us, just more boring/polite/better hockey players — is really offensive and becomes even more so as the global economy becomes a fact of life. (But we’re too polite to tell you that.)

Malcolm Gladwell, a fellow University of Toronto alumnus raised in Ontario, recently told Time:

“I’m also lucky to be an outsider in America. A lot of what Americans take for granted I think of as strange and weird. I still don’t feel like I fully understand this country.”

Canadians are often seen as quieter, less interesting Americans and, like all immigrants, expected to blend into the melting pot as quickly and as best we can. I do love the irony that my two best professional opportunities in the past four months — in years — have come from smart and ambitious young women, both Canadian-born, both, like me, also living in New York.

Here’s my 1988 Globe essay: Read the rest of this entry »

Over the Niagara River, Suspended Between Two Countries

In culture on August 23, 2009 at 6:22 am
Description: Photograph of an Amtrak train. Ph...

Image via Wikipedia

Today I’m heading north by train, arriving in Toronto 12 hours later. And the day began, at 6:20, with an enormous rainbow over the Hudson River.

There are few journeys, certainly planned that way in North America, that still take 12 hours — usually what you expect in developing nations in small, crowded rattling buses filled with chickens. I’ll settle in with a huge stack of unread magazines, some music, a book. I love traveling by train, even unloved Amtrak. I like watching the landscape change, feeling all those miles.

We always lose at least one hour, and sometimes more, waiting at the border, where uniformed guards with sniffer dogs and latex gloves board the train, deadly serious in their pursuit — on whatever side of the border it is — of those they deem sufficiently suspicious, or insufficiently documented, to interrogate and possibly toss off. I once saw a young-ish woman with her small child removed from the seat right in front of me.

There’s a point in this journey, one I’ve made many times, that always leaves me a little torn, suspended between my two countries, as the train crosses the bridge spanning the Niagara River, its spray visible off to one side. I can see Canada beckoning, the red and white maple leaf flag and the bilingual signs, and the Stars and Stripes receding. Or vice versa. Which one is home? To which do I owe my deepest allegiance? Canadians who leave the country lose the right to vote there and, unlike Americans, don’t pay taxes when non-resident citizens. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.

Having lived in the U.S. since January 1988, where I’ve had many jobs, published a book, married and divorced and own property, it’s now home. But so, still, is Canada, in fundamental and blessedly unchanging ways, from boring-to-Americans shared cultural references to the comfort of my ancient history — my former homes and favorite shops, college boyfriends and camp room-mates and my high school best friend Sally who I see almost every time. I go to visit my Dad, now 80, meet some editors, wander the gorgeous downtown campus of my alma mater, the University of Toronto, catch up with friends of 20, even 30 years’ standing. I’ll re-stock the necessities like 222s (not a gun but a powerful headache remedy with codeine in it) and Canadian candy, truly the best. I’ll savor a butter tart (nope, they’re not made of butter!) and maybe indulge in a peameal bacon sandwich at the St. Lawrence Market, one of the world’s best indoor markets.

Deep sigh of pleasure.

Don’t forget: J-Day is Thursday, a powerful, emotional interview with two best-selling journalists/authors, former Los Angeles Times religion writer William Lobdell and T/S contributor, GQ writer and former Newsweek reporter Michael Hastings.

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