I was listening to a recent Intelligence Squared debate titled “Don’t Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses” and it got me thinking about the immigrants in my family, the most near of which are my father (born in Sri Lanka, and came to the U.S. as a graduate student), and our kids (born in Ethiopia, and adopted by American parents).
My father was a talented, intelligent graduate student, who came to Columbia University but, by his telling, had more fun driving out to Pennsylvania to teach people to fly small planes than stay in class and get the Aeronautical Engineering degree he came for. He went on to start a small business, and worked in a variety of settings (truly a Jack-of-All-Trades). He spoke with a smile about having the status of “Permanent Resident Alien”, and it wasn’t until I was grown that I figured out that that meant he had a Green Card. He wasn’t typical – he didn’t become a professional, he didn’t achieve high status – in fact, I don’t think he cared much about status. He was much loved by just about everyone who met him, and he was the life of any party. In the end, he returned to Sri Lanka, a bittersweet return for him. He always hoped we, his family, would someday join him there. Sadly, we didn’t make it there until it was too late to see it with him.
Our kids will soon be US citizens, and yet, will always have a connection to Ethiopia, we hope. We have a nanny from Ethiopia, and we are encouraging both boys to re/learn Amharic. One of my greatest regrets about my own upbringing is that we came back from Sri Lanka when I was 5 yrs old, and I was apparently fluent in Sinhala, but it wasn’t reinforced here (my father often told the story of how the only A-level examination he failed in school was the mandatory Singala!), and I retained nothing, other than one children’s song about the moon.
Our wonderful nanny cooks wats, and we get injera from a local Ethiopian market to eat with the delicious foo she prepares. We have a few CDs of Ethiopian music, and I’m sure that we will plan a trip back to Ethiopia in the next few years. There’s a large Ethiopian community in or area, and we want the boys to feel connected to that. But, at the end of the day, what will they consider to be their real identity? It’ll be interesting to ask them in 10 or 20 years time…