Feeling American

Stale Off the Boat

“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign.”

I had just waved goodbye to my grandparents, their soaked handkerchiefs limply floating in the air. I stared at them through the screen separating travelers from the waiting area, crying outwardly but confused on the inside. I had been to airports before, but I was too young to remember.

“Make sure your seat back and folding trays are in their full upright position.”

I had never heard so many different languages and seen so many people hugging and crying in the airport. And within the commotion that surrounded me, I had to make peace with the fact that I was leaving. My 8-year-old brain had to comprehend the notion of coming back to Sri Lanka only once every six years, if that. But my 8-year old brain couldn’t absorb any of it — I was too consumed by the excitement.

“If you are seated next to an emergency exit, please read carefully the special-instructions card located by your seat.”

I liked airplane food. The flight attendants gave me a fork. I didn’t know how to use it, but I somehow managed. I didn’t understand why you’d try to pick up pieces of rice on a tiny metal bar when you could just swoop it up in your hand, but I did it. That was the first time I felt “American.”

The second time was when we got off the plane in Oahu, Hawaii, and into the rental car.

The roads were paved. I didn’t even know people did that. I just assumed a bumpy ride was the best you could do and thanked God for inventing cars that could even take us from point A to point B. I didn’t know that people suddenly closed down streets so they could use a magical machine to smear a new layer of concrete over all the bits and bumps that made my head hit the ceiling of our dark-green Mitsubishi Montero in Sri Lanka. Paved streets were a thing. Paved streets made me feel “American.”

I looked out the window of our rental car and swore we were driving around in circles. I kept seeing the same house over and over again. Every house was different in Sri Lanka. We didn’t have much space to build wide homes on that island, but the rule of thumb was the taller the house, the wealthier the owners (though the money used to build these homes was generally borrowed). But that wasn’t a trend in the 96797, also known as Oahu.

“94-737 Kime Street. That’s our house.”

My dad pointed to the yellow one-story house on a street of other yellow one-story homes. Suburban neighborhoods in which all the houses were the same made me feel “American.”

94-737 was the perfect location for immigrants who had only one car and one licensed driver in the family. We were walking distance from Walmart and a block away from my elementary school.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”

I was told to stand up and place my right hand on my heart. As confused as I was, I obeyed. I stared at all the other students who chanted in unison, intrigued by the cult-like atmosphere — and then it clicked. It was their “national anthem” of sorts. In Sri Lanka, we didn’t have a pledge but did have the Sri Lanka Matha: our long, melodious national anthem that we would sing every day. But the Pledge of Allegiance was my new morning routine now.

It had been only a week since we had moved countries, but I had already done so much. I ate with a fork — multiple times. I walked to school on paved streets. I crossed the street when the sign told me to, as opposed to dodging autos. I learned the term “cul de sac” and made it my new hangout spot. I memorized the Pledge of Allegiance and matched the other students who chanted in unison. I started the transformation. I started feeling “American.”

It’s riveting to think about all the nuances that define what an “American” is — all the habits that I see as learned experiences but that my friends view as inherent norms. Every day I pick up a fork, I remember sitting on a mat at my grandmother’s house with so much food in front of me that my tiny hands would get overwhelmed. Every time I wait for the crosswalk light to turn green, I think back to the incessant honking of angry drivers who swerve and cut corners without blinking. Every time I see a suburban neighborhood, I remember riding my bike on the bumpy, unpaved Peiris Place and using other people’s homes as landmarks.

These minute differences that we often gloss over actually serve as a perfect metaphor for my transition here. My surroundings are my new home, though hints and memories of my Sri Lankan life keep seeping through. It took me a while to realize that accepting these new norms did not mean I was abandoning my culture: One does not come at the expense of another. Instead, it adds to my hyphenated persona. I now have the repertoire of two countries as opposed to one. This was the start of the Sri Lankan-American writing this column today.

Ilaf Esuf writes the Monday column on the challenges of being an immigrant. You can contact her at [email protected].

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