Forty years ago today my family (originally from China) arrived in the U.S. from Peru. I was three years old and my memories of that night are still vivid: stepping out of a taxi into blackness; feeling the balmy air after an early rain; exploring our 3-room apartment with excitement; feeling pride when my dad said, “Ceci, you can take your shoes off all by yourself!”
My earliest memory is that of anticipation and togetherness. I remember waving good bye to my grandparents from the airplane in Peru, but I don’t remember missing them. I don’t remember what, if anything, I was told about the new life we were undertaking. But I must have been an adaptable child, because I remember being happy.
And in time the joy and excitement gave way to reality, the kind of reality lived when you are undocumented. We received court orders to be deported. My parents came home from their jobs describing with rapid heartbeats their narrow escapes from arrest by the INS. My mother would grab my younger brother and me whenever someone knocked on our door, huddling in a corner, clasping her hands over our mouths until the footsteps faded away.
I will stop here, because this is as far as I feel comfortable going. This is a story that I am telling “publicly” for the first time in 40 years. My former writing instructor has urged me to write a memoir, as has my husband Max. I am not sure if I will, or could. But today as I set out to write a blog post commemorating my family’s journey to America, these are the unplanned words that are spilling out.
The huge irony that I grew up with is that my parents had stressed honesty above almost everything else. Honesty in one’s deeds. Authenticity as a human being. When I was 14 I was a dime short when purchasing a pack of cough drops at the local store. The shopkeeper told me I can take the cough drops and just pay him back the next day. So the next day after school I got off my bus a stop earlier and handed him the dime I had owed him, shocked that he was shocked.
My parents were, are, good people…amazing people. That they broke the law confused me as a child. But I understand better now as a parent. How far would you go to ensure that your child will not have to go hungry or live in fear? As a child my father used to figure out whether or not there would be supper by seeing where the cooking pan was. “If it was hanging on the wall, it meant no dinner that night.” It is a primal parental instinct to want our children to have more than we did. Among my generation, it is the wish to be able to afford music lessons, private school if we wanted, international travel. Among my parents’ generation, it was the need to provide safety, food, shelter, a shot at a decent education, and hope. My father said that there was absolutely no hope for any kind of future for us if we’d stayed.
My family has been US citizens for many years now. I remember the first time my father could vote in a presidential election – he got up at 5:00 in the morning, dressed in a nice crisp shirt and vest, ate breakfast, and was ready to go. “The polls aren’t even open yet!” I had said, laughing, with tears I tried to hide. My parents now live a quiet life in a house that they own. My father’s retired, and enjoys daily swims at a local gym. A few years ago he told me, laughing, “Ceci, I am happy! You know, for the first time in my life, I am really happy!”
Those days when we lived under a shroud of dark and constant threat of losing everything we had seems like a lifetime ago. And I’ve battled depression and anxiety for much of my life. There is a part of me that still questions “Why bother?” Small things like redecorating our house, or buying a new outfit…an irrational part of me sometimes wonders what is the point, if ultimately everything could be taken away from me. And I have struggled between how close I want to be to my parents and brother, because it is sometimes too painful to be in the family unit that triggers so much. It is nothing that they have said or done, but everything that being in my family reminds me of. I have hurt my parents and brother by pulling away.
But time is healing. As is a conscious effort to understand what belongs in the past, and what can belong in the present. My family, my parents, belong in the present, as does acknowledgement that yes, this is a dream, but it is the American Dream: solid, secure, and mine. I, too, am truly happy for the first time in my life.