Of ambivalent immigrant narratives

Ali, my Lyft driver today, is from Morocco. He has lived, off and on, in the US for two decades. He’s 40+. His wife has lived here for about eight years. Now he has sent them back home. He wants the kids to get their schooling in Morocco while he himself will work in the US a few months a year. He didn’t want them to grow older before he sent them back, because then it would be harder for them to return and adjust to Morocco.

Later, he says, when they are grown, he thinks they will come and attend university in the US.

What do you think, he asked me.

I ride Lyft frequently. I am now an unofficial educational advisor to Lithuanian-American college students and Moroccan fathers.

I told Ali he was doing great. I think it’s excellent that he’s choosing to raise his kids in Morocco. Why subject them to daily racism and stigma here in the US? The psychological cost is too high. If my own back-home security conditions were better, and the economic prospects for my employment there were better, and my husband was brown (and therefore not a walking signal that spells dollar signs), I might well move too.

But, I said, I think European higher education could be a lot cheaper for your kids. U.S. higher education is insanely expensive. Europe would also be closer and less prohibitive from Morocco. When you are an immigrant from Asia or Africa with ties back home, Europe is a geographically preferable option. I say this as someone struggling to come up with cash to pay for flights.

I left him mulling this over seriously.

Do you think I’m planning this well? he asked me. I’ve rarely encountered people who, unlike Ali, weren’t constantly thinking of ways to remain here in the US, or ways to make their lives more permanent here in the US. And for what? For many, many professions, economic prospects are bleak and jobs few (not to mention racism, credential transfer, etc.). If your field is not doing well, then–especially with the Muslim Ban and anti-immigrant sentiment at a high level (again)–why bother with the struggle? And then why put your kids through identity crises in White supremacist society? Struggles to belong? Constant endeavor to calibrate their identity so they are non threatening, acceptable, white enough, and — and then finding they have lost their  cultural heritage? Lost the integrity of their religious identities as married to a sense of place, roots, and kinship? The ability to walk through the streets with a solid sense of belonging?

Oh, how I do miss that.

Photo: APP. Via The Express Tribune

Just the other day, I realized that I miss standing by a fruit stand and talking to the fruit-seller and casually chatting with aunties and uncles nearby.

I miss being truly knowledgeable about my environment in a way that goes into my bones and blood and my history.

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©Zaigham Abbas

I miss knowing that my favorite tree is an amaltas tree, and that I will pass it on my way home.

Sometimes, I told him, I sit in Devon Ave. and look at the old people gazing around forlornly. I’m going to be those people. Oh my God, he said, I think about this too.

The artist Bruno Catalano who created these sculptures said, ‘I have travelled a lot and I left Morocco when I was 12 years old. I felt that a part of me was gone and will never come back.

Many of you will not recognize these feelings. Many of you will not see why a person should feel so divided. Why not enjoy the paved roads and air-conditioning? I do, I really do. With all my physical health issues, I really do rely on my American life. But I have a Pakistani core that screams out and cries for nourishment. I speak zero Urdu for weeks at a time. I yearn to drop the line of a popular she’r and not have to explain it to culturally inquisitive Americans. I want the uninterrupted cultural communication I used to have.

Ali’s kids will have that. More power to him.

Of course none of these answers are perfect, and no place is perfect. But Ali’s kids will speak perfect Arabic, and, since they attend an excellent school, will have English and French as well (good luck achieving that in the US). They will have ties with their extended families and a sense of being grounded in a culture. They will not worry, as we do, of how far this Muslim Ban rubbish is going to go. Yes, they will have probably issues in their economic lives, families, freedom of speech, availability of resources etc. But they have a better chance at being whole. 

And they will not have an American perspective on the world, on economics, on people, and on life. This, I believe, is worth the trouble.

I probably wouldn’t have said these things a few years ago. Now, I feel more and more that what has been left behind is far too precious and what has been gained is of at least dubious value.

Svend says that these sentiments are, possibly, a sign of the times.

My triumphalist narrative is dying.

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