This essay is about those from a poor country who get scholarships to attend university in the US. I was inspired by the transition theme of NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We need new names”. The style of “How they arrived” mirrors the style of three short stories in the book: “How they appeared”, “How they left” and “How they lived”. I love the way NoViolet used the third person voice in those short stories. Her “they” sounded impersonal yet emerged to be oddly personal, with a face, a voice, even a personality I can sympathize with.
They arrive one by one, never with friends or with family. They would get on the plane, sit down next to a window and stare out of it for the rest of the flight; their Mom’s tears still damp on their chest and their Dad’s hugs still warm on their skin. They would roam around an unfamiliar airport; music of their country playing in their ears and strangers blurring in front of their eyes. When they finally land down at that great country called USA, they have already clad themselves in a new jacket, shuffling through the map looking for the cheapest way to get to the place where they would be spending the next four years of their life. They have no friends with them, as they are the only one lucky enough to have been admitted. They have no family with them, as none could bear to buy a flight ticket that could feed their whole family for a couple of months.
They arrive with food: brittle instant noodles in their backpacks; jangling cooking pans in their suitcases; dry meat and seafood wrapped in layers and layers of old newspapers so that the smell wouldn’t blend in with their clothes. Their mom prepared little bags of seasonings that she knows they love so much, should they crave for flavor from home half way across the earth. Their grandma slipped in boxes of cookies she had saved from the last New Year’s. What if their taste doesn’t agree with the food in that strange country? Who would remind them to eat often as they get too caught up in their schedule to realize that they are hungry? Where could they go to get food when they are studying late into the night? How can a person be happy without having the food he loves?
Dope. Tight. Lit. Their heads puzzle as the Americans spit out words that have none of the meanings they were taught back in their country. Didn’t their teachers tell them that “fuck” was a bad word? Who are those singers, actors, politicians their friends keep referring to? What are these TV shows, bands, underground groups whose names their friends keep dropping in on random conversations? Why is politics here so complicated: left wing, right wing, then center left, center right and even far left, far right? Wait what, people don’t go to tea parties to drink tea? No, you shouldn’t call somebody black even if his or her skin is obviously black? I’m sorry; you’re offended that I sincerely wish you happy by saying “Merry Christmas”? I’m not Christian either, but I celebrate that holiday all the same, the way you celebrate Martin Luther King Day even if none of you is Martin Luther King. It is a holiday. Why can’t we just be happy?
Standing straight with their chest bumped out and their heads held high, they still have to look up when talking to their American counterparts. Their heart trembles at the soccer fields when they see that they would be playing with those twice their size. The smallest size at the clothes store is still too big for them, and their friends joke about them buying shoes from the children’s section. “Why are you so short?”, their friends would ask merrily, with a smile on their face and a kind look in their eyes. They laugh: “Life is short, and so am I.” Everybody laughs. Life is a lot easier when they don’t tell their friends the ugly truth. Do you know that 20% to 40% of a person’s height can be attributed to environmental effects, mainly nutrition? They are short because they never had milk to drink. They are short because their parents were too busy trying to put bread on the table to think about nutrition.
They make up for what they miss in the field by what they learn in the class. They would study days and nights, when their friends are getting drunk and throwing up at a frat party or screaming obscenity at a football match. They are the first ones to wake up and the last one to leave the library. And they would, invariably, become engineers, computer scientists, doctors, lawyers, or professors. “Get a life,” they have heard. “Have you ever done anything fun in your lives?” Yes, they are trying to get a life, a life to the truest meaning of this word. They can’t afford to follow their true passions if these passions don’t guarantee food and insurance not only for themselves but also for the rest of their family. The wellbeing of those they love tolerates no frivolous exploration of interests, no blind step in the career trajectory, no taking of risks that can throw them back to where they started. They might not be doing anything fun, but they are doing things that make them happy.
But they too shall fall in love. They fall in love with the beautiful trees whose leaves change to red and yellow when the season changes. They fall in love with the sweet amber sunshine that doesn’t come with sizzling heat and doesn’t make their shirt stick to their skin. They fall in love with the girl down the hall; freckles on her cheeks and hello on her lips every time they meet. They fall in love with the shy guy working part-time at the café in the library, who gently asks for the meaning of their name in their own language, and gets it written down right every time. They quietly admire their love from a distance, uncertain how to make a move. Dating in USA is a 20-unit class they have never taken. It has rules, laws, expectations they have never heard of.
“You’re the one who made it,” people tell them. “Even though you have none of the advantages the kids here have, you still end up the same place they are. You should be proud.” But when their friends make plan for a nice dinner and they can’t join because they can’t afford it, what’s there to be proud of? When their friends all go out of town for the class ski trip, will their pride keep them company and help them overcome the self-pity? Their roommate’s Mom asks them where to buy a shirt with their university logo on it and they suggest Walmart. “It’s cheaper than the bookstore.” She thanks them but later on they hear her telling her kid: “Don’t even waste your time going to Walmart. That few dollars different at the bookstore are nothing.” Are they still the one who made it?
And God, they miss home. They miss their little brother, that bouncing ball of joy who would claim the right to wear T-shirts with misspelled English words written on them because their big brother is now in “A-me-ri-ka”. They miss going home after school to find their favorite dessert waiting on their study table; their Mom had spent all her morning making it. They miss goofing around with their friends, telling silly childhood stories of each other just to embarrass that unfortunate person in front of his or her new love interest. They even miss those exuberant family gatherings they used to hate so much: those awkward kisses from overbearing aunts and painful pats on the back from overzealous uncles. They turn their faces to the wall and cry after coming back from Thanksgiving dinner with a local family they signed up with through their university’s international center. They scramble their contact list for a distant relative or a family friend they have never met, who would be kind enough to accommodate them over winter break because they can’t go home: the flight is too long and the ticket is too expensive.
“Look, those Asians are clustering together,” they often hear in passing, directly or indirectly. They dreaded that stereotype at first, but as the need arises, they find themselves gratefully embracing it. They need someone who doesn’t politely ask them to repeat something they have just said because of their accent. They need to share the craving for their country’s food with those who know what food they are talking about. They need to shed themselves free from the mask they have been putting on to fit in with a culture they are not at all familiar with. Together with their small group of friends, they would scour the vicinity for anything slightly related to the flavor from home and cook their best and eat to their heart’s content. They would tell jokes in their mother tongue and laugh also in their mother tongue. They would talk about random things the way they talk about random things in their country, without having to worry to offend somebody because of their political incorrectness. In those swift unhinged moments, they can almost trick themselves into believing that they are back home.
But they are not living in their country. They are living in a civilization where cars stop for them to cross the road and grown-up college kids complain about doing laundry as if they had to wash those clothes with their own hands. So they would walk out and again put on their mask. They would speak with a neutrality that wouldn’t offend anybody’s feelings but wouldn’t give anybody any real feelings either. They would google cultural references and casually drop them in on conversations as if they knew what they were talking about. They would smile when people call them a nerd and help their classmates with Math and science problems. They would call home and tell their parents that they are doing great. How could anybody not do great here in this prosperous country, with its perfect weather, amazing professors and a bright future ahead of them? But then at night, after the library is closed, they would run and run and run, as if running would eventually take them back to where they belong until exhaust overpowers them and they collapse on their bed. When they wake up the next day, they would put on their best smile and ask every person they meet: “How are you?” They have learned to walk away even before they hear answers because they know: everyone is having a great time. We are the lucky ones, aren’t we all?