5 Stories About Truly Being In America For The First Time
What do you remember about your early days in the U.S.?
The Fourth of July is a wonderful time: it’s the only day of the year when it’s not only accepted, but encouraged, to drench oneself in more American flag crap than peak Juelz Santana. And that’s true if you landed on Plymouth Rock, or if Plymouth Rock landed on you. It’s Pop Jingoism: for one day, we can act, guilt-free, like the most buffoonish American caricatures.
But before we head into a weekend full of perfectly seared hot dogs and perfectly crushed cans of Bud (excuse me: cans of America), it’s worth noting: the USA means so many different things to so many different people.
So, in the name of both appreciation and critique, we asked FADER staff and friends — first-generation immigrants, ex-pats, and Canadians alike — to reminisce on their early, early memories of America.
Yvonne Wilkins, writer
My family is from Liberia. My family was split up when we moved to America — I was four and a half. My older sister and I lived in Brooklyn with my mom, who was pregnant with my little brother. We stayed with my aunt and cousins. My dad was in Rhode Island with his brother, and my oldest sister was in Atlanta. My first memories in America were actually my first memories of life. I don’t remember anything about living in Liberia. My family fled the country at the start of what would be a 13-year civil war, so if I do have any memories, they may be suppressed. I remember living in Brooklyn.
I grew up with a lot of Dominicans, Ghanaians, Nigerians, other Liberians, Venezuelans, and Guatemalans. People didn’t really start repping their nationalities until high school. In middle school people were still making jokes like “African booty scratcher” so it wasn’t really cool to admit where you were from. By high school it became more normal for the black kids to start talking about their backgrounds. The Dominicans and Puerto Ricans were always proud of their heritage; they had huge festivals and streets named after their political figures. In the beginning I was a little ashamed to talk about being African, people were always asking me my nationality and quick to say I didn’t “look African” because I had long hair.
I feel American because when I leave the country I am considered American; not just because I have an American passport, but because I have an American accent and American style, and I grew up in America, and old Liberian people consider me American.
Although I feel like an American, I do not identify as an “African American.” I feel like to white people, or non-black people, all black people in America are lumped into one category as “African American.” But in actuality, growing up with fresh-off-the-boat African parents is very different from growing up with parents who grew up in America. I identify as black, and I identify as African.
I love my history and, in retrospect, I feel blessed to have grown up with strict African parents. Things are changing with how black people view being “African.” Now it’s cool to show off your super black skin and wear dashikis and what not. I love when someone can guess what country I am from. Being from Africa is a huge part of my identity. It makes me feel beautiful to know where I came from and to know the story of my ancestors, and to have special traditional dishes on holidays, and special music. I look at myself as an African Goddess and I love it.
Anupa Mistry, Canada editor for The FADER
I know that my family had previously visited the U.S., but my first memory of America is a trip to Houston when I was 8. It was for a wedding, and so we spent almost all of our time traveling between a hotel and a suburban enclave for a series of pre-wedding festivities common in Indian families. That suburb felt a lot like the ones I'd spent time with back home in Canada — the kids rode bikes and played out front and watched neighbors gawking at the endless stream of well-wishers — and so there was no real sense that I was 'in America' until after the wedding was over, and dad took me and my little brother to the Houston Space Center. I was balancing a tray, being careful not to spill a very full carton of fries, and probably not watching where I was going when a grown ass white woman decided to call me a Paki. It wasn't the first time I'd heard that word, but certainly the first time an adult had used it on me. And it was the first time I'd feel something I still get every time I go Stateside: homesick.
Rawiya Kameir, senior writer for The FADER
I used to think I was American. Before I’d visited the States for the first time — as a teenager on a trip to California with my mom and brother — it already felt oddly familiar. It was cultural déjà vu: the criss-crossing highways, the ubiquity of cargo shorts and socks-and-sandals, the cartoonishly huge bowl of ice cream a pimply-faced teenager handed me after I’d ordered a small serving. After all, even though I’d grown up thousands of miles away, America was everywhere. It was in the history textbooks from which I learned about the Redcoats and Bluecoats before I learned about my own history; it was in the referential sitcoms I watched dubbed in French on local Ivorian television; it was in the pop-punk songs that taught me about suburban teen angst before I’d ever set eyes on a Hot Topic or in a shiny cul-de-sac. I knew what America was.
And yet to be granted entry, my family — or someone we’d hired specifically for the task — would have to line up in front of the U.S. embassy at the crack of dawn, present our Sudanese passports and fingerprints and bank statements, and beg permission to visit a country that hadn’t had to ask for permission when it entered our homes via television and music and a never-ending political theater that played out on CNN. I often think of that when I see American flags flying out of cars and buildings and businesses. I often think back, too, to one of the moments that grounded my relationship with America as an adult: it was 2009, and I was sitting in a building at the U.S.-Canadian border at Buffalo, waiting to process a student visa. There was a portrait of President Obama on the wall, the first official one I’d seen. For a second, I felt happy and proud and hopeful. And then an officer called my name, flipped through my file, and reminded me with his eyes that I’d been born in the wrong country.
Jeff Donna, musician
I started coming up in Elmhurst, Queens and I always felt Americanized because my mom was basically like, “You’re in America. You’re going to learn English and live your life.” Luckily, my parents were a little more open minded to what I experienced on my own.
My mom is from the Philippines and I don’t know my biological father, but I grew up with my step father who’s actually from Israel. I’m from here but the Filipino culture is what I grew up with.
Growing up most of my friends were of different races. It’s a pure representation of where we’re from in New York and specifically Queens being as diverse as it is. It impacted all of us differently. Whether we were going out or playing in the park, we understood some of the same things when it came down to curfew like, “Alright I’m out. I have to go with my family, we have something to do.” We all understood strict parents.
I had a knowledge of culture. A lot of people didn’t know where I was from and it may have always trickled down to, “Oh you’re Chinese.” A lot of times, I’d say, I was the token Asian in my group of friends. I’ve always looked different than everyone and I grew up in more urbanized neighborhoods where there were several families from Caribbean backgrounds, African-Americans or Latino people. I wasn’t meeting a lot of other Filipinos as friends. But it was something to be proud of because it was rare. When it was brought up, it was always something to put somebody else on. Like, “You look interesting. Where are you from?”
Amos Barshad, senior writer for The FADER
I was born in Ann Arbor while my Israeli parents were getting their PhDs at the University of Michigan, but we left before I developed actual sentience. So my first memory of America is when we moved back to the States ten years later. It was Massachusetts. I was starting the fifth grade. The woman cutting my hair the afternoon before the first day of school made sure to give me a proper floppy bowl cut. She told my mom, “Now he’ll look just like all the other American boys.”
It’d be a few months before the sale was final and we actually got to move into our new house in the suburbs. So on my very first night back in America, we stayed in a Holiday Inn. The next morning, at the complimentary continental breakfast, I had a bagel and cream cheese for the first time. By now I know that people associate bagels (and lox and pastrami and smoked meats in general) with Jews. But that food actually comes from the Jews that came through Eastern Europe. The ones that went to Israel rightly adopted (stole?) hummus and shishlik and all the beyond-reproach Arabic food. So I’d never had a bagel before. Jesus Christ, it was good. I was already falling in love.