As presented at an On The Move panel for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2017, in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.
“Everything I owned was in a suitcase,” is too vast to comprehend. A suitcase can be heavy, like your heart, or too light, at least to carry a life. You try to find that one pair of shoes you can wear year-round, and you put that pair on so it doesn’t weigh down the suitcase too much. That pair ends up being the British-made “Clarks”—shoes you can’t really buy in the US in the early 1990s. Of course, that one pair–utilitarian though it might be–dubs you “the girl with the weird shoes” for the rest of the school year.
If that was the only “weird” thing about you, you would consider yourself lucky. It’s not. Your parents, too, could only bring a suitcase.
A suitcase can’t hold furniture. Your “home” becomes a collage of clashes, a very weird modern art piece. You end up collecting whatever you find abandoned in trash heaps: on the side of the road, a hand-me-down. The kindness of strangers is spoken about reverently through the various objects in your apartment. A gutted, giant sound speaker becomes the bench you sit on. A couch cushion becomes your floor bed. The table is foldable; the chairs are foldable; everything is compact and compactable…probably even compostable.
At first, you eat sandwiches consisting of hot dogs and mayo; once you discover that hot dogs are only supposed to be eaten in buns, you attempt a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so you know…you can eat your lunch in peace just once.
Everything is transient; ready to be picked up and moved wherever it needs to go. And every object that you are required to own becomes fraught and imbued with meaning-—in school, the teacher states you are required to purchase a “binder.” You are not even sure what that is, but you are sure your parents can’t afford to get it for you…because everything they own came from a suitcase, remember? When they buy you a McDonald’s $1 burger, you keep the paper it came wrapped in for a little bit, not because you want to recall the not-terribly-tasty experience but because you know that your parents thought really hard on how to spend that money they probably needed for much more important things.
All the dishes in your house are mismatched; not a single cup or plate has a mate.
School becomes the place you go to be made fun of; at a certain point, it doesn’t even bother you anymore. At first, you eat sandwiches consisting of hot dogs and mayo; once you discover that hot dogs are only supposed to be eaten in buns, you attempt a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so you know…you can eat your lunch in peace just once.
This is what it looks like to be an immigrant—or at least this is what it looked like for an impossibly awkward 13-year-old me. Mismatched, belonging, fitting, proper, part of a set—words that don’t seem to mean much…or maybe they mean too much. Like the objects in your apartment (not your home, really), you are impossibly out of place and mismatched. Sometimes you are “quirky,” but mostly you are “weird.”
You will never again be part of much of a set. The only order and sense will reside in your memories, precariously sewn together from the patchwork of experiences past and present.
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