Welcome to Us, America!
An organization staffed almost entirely by immigrants and first-generation Americans, we at GrubStreet are as keenly aware of the sheer breadth of "the immigrant experience" as we are the crucial contribution immigrants make to American arts, culture, and society. In defiance of an ethics of exclusion, we’re curating a series of immigrant stories that celebrate and illuminate the plurality of immigrant life. This installment comes from Shilpi Suneja.
The day I started school my father promised, as a reward for standing first in class, a seat on an airplane. On my first airborne journey I would rub shoulders with film stars, and eat all the foods I’d only read about in Nancy Drew. The plane would bring me to Bombay, where I would spend a summer with my cousins. Together, we would ride the local trains, see the sun setting on the Arabian Sea, firm our friendship that would last a lifetime. Each year, the thought of the plane journey and the summer in Bombay motivated me to stay up a bit longer, study a bit harder.
Alas, a combination of factors prevented both things from happening—some years I fell a few marks short, and some years my father fell short of money. What did happen, in the meantime, was the arrival of our US visas. My mother’s siblings had sponsored us, and all three of us—my mother, my father, and I—had been granted green cards. My parents began preparing frantically for life in America. Nothing else mattered, not my grandmother’s wish for us to stay back, not our lack of money or qualifications, not even academics. I could fail all my classes and still have the chance to start over in America. A year later, all their assets sold, including the house we lived in, they had enough money to pay for our one-way journey. When I finally got to hold the plane ticket in my hand—a stiff, velvety paper in the AirIndia red and saffron colors—I was filled with intense disappointment. I had done nothing to deserve it. I had not kept my end of the bargain. The flight and hence the trip felt unearned, unceremonious, wholly wrong.
On the plane, I asked my mother if I should think of the journey as a reward or a punishment, and she stared back blankly. I couldn’t enjoy any of it, not the intimacy (albeit forced) with my parents and other passengers, not the meals, not the free soap and lotion in the bathroom. All I could think of was the fear on my mother’s face.
Soon after we landed, my father went to look for coffee. This was the late ’90s. My father hadn’t traveled west of Saudi Arabia, and even though he’d listened to Michael Jackson and could mouth some of the words to “Bad” and “Thriller” (This … thriller … thriller nigh…he would sing) he was still out of place in America. Of the twenty-five dollars in my mother’s purse, he pulled out ten, and went to Starbucks. He returned to us with a paper cup filled with black liquid. We couldn’t understand. It wasn’t the creamy, frothy concoction we were presented with when we uttered the word “coffee” in India—to my mom, to the chai-wala, to the waiter at Kwality’s restaurant.
“I don’t know what I did wrong,” he said, passing the cup to my mother.
“Maybe she misunderstood,” my mother offered.
We returned to the queue and my father ashamedly asked if he could buy a cup of milk, or exchange half the coffee for some.
The barista stared at him like he was crazy and pointed to the canisters of milk at a nearby counter. There were six jars. Whole, 2%, 1%, Nonfat, half-and-half, and soy. Milk could be had for free—any amount or variety of it. There was plenty to quiet our rumbling bellies, plenty to make the black coffee palatable. We were awestruck. We divided the coffee into three cups, helping ourselves to the free milk and sugar, stirring in our fear, our guilt, our hope.
My father took the first sip, his grimace confirming that the coffee’s bitter taste had refused to leave. Still, he drank the cup down, half of it filled with the reward of his efforts, the other half filled with a “freebie,” the reward of someone else’s labor. He said to me, his gaze locking mine: “Here we are, America! Welcome to us! We can’t even order coffee, but make of us what you can.”
It’s been twenty years, but I still remember that cup of coffee. It tasted of shame, of inadequacy—my father’s inadequacy. The same way I had not earned my plane journey, he too hadn’t earned his US visa. He didn’t have to pass an exam for it, nor labor for hours. The joy that was forthcoming was hardly a joy. Of course, we didn’t know it then, standing in the airport, sipping the free milk, that the hard work was about to begin. That we were about to pay for our journeys, and for our joys.
Over the years, many terrible things happened, and my father and I lost touch. I don’t know if he has mastered the art of ordering a drinkable cup of coffee, but I do hope he has shed some of the shame he felt accepting “free” things. After his back-to-back stints as night manager (where he would routinely have guns pulled on him) and fork-lift operator (where he finally lost the ability to touch his toes), I hope he can see his own ability to do a little hard work.
I hope he has understood that while we cannot repay the people whose efforts have made it possible for certain things to be free, we can learn to be grateful. We can take it upon ourselves to understand the structure of things, the cost of things. I hope he sees that sometimes you pay for things with tears, with great personal loss. And that some part of America is happy to have him, and doesn’t measure him by his accomplishments.
Shilpi Suneja was born in India. She holds an MA in English from New York University and an MFA from Boston University, where she was awarded the Saul Bellow Prize. Her work has appeared in Hyphen, Consequence, Kafila.online, TwoCircles.net, and Meeting House magazine, among other places. She is currently at work on a novel about the Partition of India.
The Immigrant Stories series is a collaboration between blog editor Sarah Colwill-Brown and guest editor Chetan Tiwari. Chetan is a civil rights lawyer, who represents plaintiffs in employment discrimination, prison rights matters and immigration matters. Chetan is originally from Canada and presently lives in Roxbury with his spouse and daughter. He is a diehard sports fan who supports almost all Toronto teams (Go Oilers!). One day he wants to litigate on behalf of NCAA athletes to earn them the right to be treated as employees, and start a hedge fund used to support low-income claimants in their legal matters. He was also a finalist for the GrubStreet Emerging Writer's Fellowship, and is working on a collection of short stories.