If I want to get to heaven

I have to walk away from hell
Editor’s Pick
JULY 1, 2012 11:52AM

I am an immigrant

Rate: 34 Flag

 

 

I became an American when I was 5, I also got a middle name that day. It was an exciting day for my parents, I was told to be on my best behavior  and their nervousness extended to me. I vaguely remember a kindly immigration judge looking at papers then asking me what my middle name was. I was used to the question in school and told him where I came from we didn’t have middle names. He asked if I wanted one and when I said yes, he asked what I wanted it to be. Little girls have their hidden fantasies and I told him I wanted it to be Ann after my favorite aunt. She was sweet and gentle with long straight black hair, pretty pale skin and she was mysteriously American, I wanted to be like her. That was a big day for me, I became an American girl with a middle name. Childishly I thought it had the power to make others think I belonged.

 

Things were never simple for my parents, I was born in Cairo during the Suez Crisis in '56. Because Cairo was being bombed, my grandmother sent mama and I to the villa in Assuit right after my birth. She also sent my aunt who was expecting, and my uncle to accompany us. My father and aunt’s husband stayed in Cairo to work. I don’t know how long my dad had been planning to get out of Egypt but he had seen the movie Pillow Talk and named me after Doris Day so I would have a popular American name. It turned out to be an unpopular name and I was teased as Doris Night, but he did his best.

 

Though my parents were well to do in the old country, we are Christian so he felt at risk. My father had a desire to go where he was free to have his beliefs and make his own life, and we would be safe. Originally they couldn’t find sponsors here so they were going to Brazil instead, then fortune smiled on them. I remember his constant pride in the US and throughout my life he told me how lucky I was to be an American. He’d talk about the past in Egypt when if you spoke against the government you could be picked up off the street, interrogated and put in prison. Of course when we came to the US that was illegal, but when people get old they live in the past, he died believing Americans still spoke proudly of those freedoms the way he still did. It would have made him sad, and very afraid, to know that it’s no longer that way. Unlike those born here, my fear goes back to a different reality and history, I’ll never feel safe with changes in the law. Being aware of all dangers is part of my inheritance.

 

As simple emigrating was for me, it was complex for my parents. I was 6 months old when my father came to the US to earn enough money to bring us over, money could not be taken out of Egypt so he had to start from scratch. In Cairo, mama and I lived with his family for a while, then we moved in with her mother. When I was 18 months old my father sent for us and my mom packed two suitcases and got on a plane with me. When I think how terrifying it must have been, I’m filled with compassion and sorrow for her. They lived in a number of small apartments and homes those first years. It must have been awful for a woman so well educated and well mannered to be treated like an idiot or an inferior simply because she had an accent or looked different. She never speaks of those years and I coax out bits of information here and there.

 

There was no Egyptian community then, there was only my father's sister and his domineering and boisterous brothers who were not at all sensitive, and their spouses. My father was charming but also domineering and my mother was very alone. She grew up with a cook, maid and nanny living with them and once in the US had to teach herself to shop, cook, clean and take care of a baby. She had no one she felt close to since all but one aunt was  American or European and different from her. After moving out of San Francisco we lived in a small town in a little apartment for about 5 years. Next door was an elderly couple and they babysat me after school. My father opened a small antiques and jewelry store and worked nights as a bartender to make ends meet. Mama eventually learned to drive a car and got a job in a chemical company. Growing up I had a series of parakeets and small rodents to keep me company. In 2nd grade I made a friend, her mom didn’t have to work and I loved going to her house sometimes after school to play.

 

Cousin L and I in Hawaii

 

 

My wants growing up were simple, I wanted a sibling so I wouldn't be alone all the time and I wanted to live in a house where there was a yard. I secretly envied my cousins who were truly American and white. I desperately wanted the blond hair and blues eyes of the three female cousins my age so I’d look like my classmates. They fit in at their schools, but they loved me and on some weekends I had them to play with. I was the only non-white child in my school and my parents were too weird, spoke with accents and ate strange foods, other kids didn’t want to come play in our apartment. When I entered school I was teased about my accent and once I learned English I refused to speak Arabic and French anymore. I complained of my loneliness which became a great source of irritation for my parents. Since mama could have no more kids they tried to adopt but didn’t have a big enough apartment or the income to qualify. In looking back it was best they didn’t adopt because it was overwhelming for them as it was. They didn’t know how to raise a child and mama didn’t have anyone around perceptive enough to understand.

 

The first house and my bitchin' panne velvet shirt in high school. 

 

When I was 13 they’d saved enough money to buy a house and I was thrilled to live in a house like other kids, for my birthday I received the puppy I’d been begging for. To this day it’s the best present I’ve ever received and I adored my dog Aton. For two years he was my constant companion and he brought me the acceptance I’d never been able to earn. I taught him many tricks and he was perfectly behaved except for one thing. He would jump the 6’ fence regularly and make his way to school to find me. He was so gentle the teachers got used to him, the office tired of calling my parents to come collect him, so he would “lay down and stay” outside each class until the end of the school day. Everyone at my high school, and all over town, loved Aton.

 

Yearbook photo of Aton and my girlfriend J waiting for me near the school cafeteria 

 

 

My parents were busy chasing security and a return to financial success and I was left on my own all the time. I would wander the streets with Aton. At 15 a man I’d met told me he loved me and asked me to marry him, so I ran away from home to live in Florida, the month I turned 16 we married. I returned to California and over the years I began to find pockets of acceptance. I made friends and a life for myself. I lived in Idaho for a few years and again found some of the non-acceptance that you find when you don’t look like everyone else but people finally stopped asking what my nationality was and where I was from. The only true answer I can give is that I’m from California and my heritage is Egyptian. I grew up a California girl and a peace loving hippie.

 

I’m sad that the dialog has changed the US from a country that used to be proud to stand for freedom, equality and goodness and now it’s proud to stand for financial success, supremacy and power. It used to be that people were proud that sturdy immigrants came and made lives for themselves. It’s not easy to leave everything you know, and everyone you love, behind to come to a strange place filled with uncertainty. My children were born here and the bar was lower for them than it was for me, or immigrant children today. My kids will never understand how lucky they are. When you’re an immigrant others expect you to meet higher standards and behave better than those who have a birthright here, even though it’s harder to do. But because of that, my legs are stronger than my children’s; it takes a lot to knock me down.

 

I don’t know how many immigrants had a similar experience. Perhaps it’s different for those who have some community or family to support them. I only know what it was like for me. I’m grateful my childhood was lonely and we had it hard. Because there was no one to lean on, my parents had to be truly independent, and so have I. Words don't teach the way experiences do, there were things I learned from the way we lived that others didn’t. I’ve never paid interest on anything but a home and never considered a second mortgage on any of them. No car can be purchased with a loan, even a brand new one has to paid for in cash. If there’s not enough paycheck for going to a movie and the savings account, then you skip the luxury and save. Because having money in a crisis means you’re independent. Fear of financial insecurity is another inheritance that goes back to a different reality and history. Being aware of all dangers is part of my inheritance.

 

There are other freedoms too. I grew up in poverty and spent most of my life broke, so poor is not a scary unknown. I figured out how to survive 50 years ago and that hasn’t changed. Uncertainty is something I’m used to, neither government, or family, took care of me or did me favors, so I don’t expect it. I didn’t grow up with a sense of entitlement by birth, group, or color, so in these hard times I haven’t lost something I assumed I was entitled to. The lucky breaks I’ve had, I haven’t taken for granted. I’ve utilized them all I could, not expecting more to come my way. I have no need to be admired or accepted by everyone because that's something I never had. If someone thinks poorly of me based on what’s in their head, I move on to find those who think well of me.  When I make a friend with high integrity who loves me, I know they love me for myself and I can depend on them. I love them for who they are, and only that, anything else about them are just trappings I have no use for. The people I love and can count on are my only treasures in life.

 

My girlfriend is also an immigrant and though she came at 15 her story is similar to my mom’s. Sometimes we all get together and visit and she understands what others can’t. The last time we were together my mom confessed she sometimes wished my father hadn’t brought us here. It was not something she ever had to say, I’ve always known her entire life here was a nightmare compared to the first 25 years of her life. I know she missed her mom, siblings, aunts and cousins half a world away. I know she regrets the choice and in trying to give me a better life, they brought me to what was possibly a worse one. I know she wished I could have had a childhood where I was accepted and belonged but she didn’t make things the way they are here and could not have known what it was like. I know she looks at her sisters and brothers children and sees what she thinks my life could have been like but that’s no guarantee. I’m not them, and I never was, I was always going to be me. I know no other life and though I have no tribe, I'm glad California is where I call home.

 

I’m not proud or ashamed to be an American, an immigrant, of Egyptian descent, a woman, or any other group I might be labeled and defined as part of. On any given day I’m either proud or ashamed of the way I act. If others wish to define me with those labels I can't change it.

 

Whatever you thought when you read the title is probably not what you found here. Like saying "my name is Doris," saying "I am an immigrant" says almost nothing about me.

 

My past shaped me but the things I think, feel and do are the things that define who I am now. 

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do feel and think on!
ah i was an immigrant from day one, myself.
me too:
" wanted a sibling so I wouldn't be alone all the time and I wanted to live in a house where there was a yard. I secretly envied my cousins who were truly American and white."

well, it happens that i am perhaps the whitest man alive,
but still...
my cousins were out of range. doing that financial thing.
i had good sisters, but they were older.
i needed a ...oh i dunno...some connection to this insane culture
that was not insane his/herself.

thank goodness for os.!
A wise and wonderful post.

Going from your photo, I always had the idea that you're native American.
; )
I'm glad you are who you are. Immigrant status is only one way to define a person. I hate being of German descent. I was born here but that German stuff sticks in my craw. The English part of me I love. I always wanted to be exotic like you. Great insights on who we are, really.
You named your dig after the sun god! What a beauty he was! My mom has the same first and middle names. It's true coming here must have been so hard for your dad and mom. But I'm glad you all survived and even thrived. And you were a beautiful kid too.
James, we're all visitors everywhere and everything is temporary. There is only what we do and who we are right now.

V. Corso, thank you. Just like people born here, immigrants have many different pasts.

zanelle, to define is to set limits, it's such a waste of energy trying to move limits. And I wanted to be like you, of course what we all want is to not have limits.

torrito, thank you!

ccdarling, nice catch on the dog's name. He was even more beautiful in temperament, my hamsters used to crawl all over him and he would lie very still and lick them. I'm glad my parents finally made a safe life for themselves.
I wonder how the new government and living in an Islamist society is going to effect the secular population? I guess we'll wait and see. This was a great Post B.
I grew up with the most wonderful grandmother in the world. She immigrated from Finland when she was 15 and was left by her family at the Canadian border because she was quarantine. Her parents gave the people money to send her to Minnesota when she was well. They stole it and she worked her way across the country working in Chinese restaurants, because you did not have to speak english, all the menu items were numbered. She was my idol and still is in all the memories of the stories she told about her trek across the US.
Thanks for sharing your story, it was a joy to read today.
rated with love
"My past shaped me but the things I think, feel and do are the things that define who I am now. "

We're all in the constant process of change of our individual experience. Each of us is different than the person we were yesterday, a week ago, or a year ago. Everyday we're meeting one another as new people. I was in my late twenties before I learned that and it took me another twenty years before I really understood it.
This was a great read and reminded me of my ex who came over at 2 on a big boat as he remembers. They worked hard like your parents and ignored him the only child to make their future.
They lived with the same motto.. if you cannot pay cash for it you do not need it..
Most of us should have learned that lesson.
Loved the photos.
HUGGGGGGGG
and your doggie
Absolutely awesome story. Thank you for sharing!
Lovely & bold. And very cathartic for you to write this; I'm sure. R
Bleue,

"My past shaped me but the things I think, feel and do are the things that define who I am now." I wholeheartedly agree.

Thank you for sharing this.
Stunning...simply stunning. What a gorgeous story!
Beautiful and full of wisdom. I was an immigrant too--came to the US when I was 3, became a citizen when I was 18. The hardest thing was as you suggest the loneliness, the sense that you and your family are somehow living apart from the great American family. I sometimes imagined I was living in a cave with my mom and dad and sister, the only people for hundreds of miles around.
Fitting in, sticking out, grown up fears of poverty, being the new kid, loneliness, homesick, they shape us. Our pasts are the paving stones.
r
Doris, me being here in OS, sometimes gives me the sense of an immigrant too. I do not know the language, the jokes, the traditions, the issues, the notions, the interests, and to be honest, I am always afraid of the time someone will ask me the question ''What are you doing here, you are Greek.. you do not belong here''. My ''immigration'' issues, sometimes have gone to feeling a stranger among so many Greeks, I do not agree in so many issues, that here are considered to be not only correct, but also needed.

This story, is one of my favourites, cause I know you better, I saw you as a child, I can understand you better, and we have much in common, on the sense and sensibility attitude. Your words ..
""On any given day I’m either proud or ashamed of the way I act. If others wish to define me with those labels I can't change it. "", could easily be mine.

But this saying here, I must be honest tell all that I need to know about one human being as to consider him/her a friend, and I would be glad if he/she did the same with me...

""

There are other freedoms too. I grew up in poverty and spent most of my life broke, so poor is not a scary unknown. I figured out how to survive 50 years ago and that hasn’t changed. Uncertainty is something I’m used to, neither government, or family, took care of me or did me favors, so I don’t expect it. I didn’t grow up with a sense of entitlement by birth, group, or color, so in these hard times I haven’t lost something I assumed I was entitled to. The lucky breaks I’ve had, I haven’t taken for granted. I’ve utilized them all I could, not expecting more to come my way. I have no need to be admired or accepted by everyone because that's something I never had. If someone thinks poorly of me based on what’s in their head, I move on to find those who think well of me. When I make a friend with high integrity who loves me, I know they love me for myself and I can depend on them. I love them for who they are, and only that, anything else about them are just trappings I have no use for. The people I love and can count on are my only treasures in life.""

This is a life learning, and I must tell you I have saved your words. Best regards and many wishes. Thank you for sharing.
How brave your parents were to throw themselves into a completely unknown country! Your touching story reminds me of my own feelings of isolation as a child, even though I had a sister, cousins and playmates. Being different, which I now love, can be difficult at first. Thanks for writing such a compelling post.

Lezlie
Rated for well said!
;-)
.
What a cute teen you were. The name Doris never did take off, eh? I have come to like it because it is your name. This was fascinating. I felt gifted when reading it. It is a cruel world when one is from another country. My mother went through it nd she didn't even have to deal with being dark skinned. This was great . Now is the time for you to come back to California for the cruellers that I shall provide upon your return, Ms. Thing.
Lovely post, l'Heure. I'm sorry that you and your family had a hard time. The land of opportunity is not always kind and its arms, while sometimes open, aren't always caressing. It does seem that you gained strength and wisdom though, as well as a middle name.
scanner, thank you. I quit following it, the family there and country are all foreign to me. As far as the government of Egypt or the US, it's always wait and see.

Kate, thank you, I put some care in this one because it seemed important. None of us is as simple as the labels others want to assign. We each have our own experiences as well as carrying the remembrances we are told. Ah yes, the surname, mine is no longer the original spelling, everyone has to adapt. Good for you for changing yours back.

PormanticPoetess, what a life she had, troubles can make us strong and soft or sharp and hard. I'm glad your grandmother shared her past and so much love with you. Thanks for spreading it around.

jmac, you put it really well and it took me a long time to really understand it. Nothing stays the same, the pain comes when we resist change.

Linda, if I want it that bad then I want it enough to save for it. I miss my sweet dog, my first true love.
Amy, thank you!

Marilyn, it's been very healing putting the pieces together. Thanks.

Hopeful Diary, I find it best to ignore the limits others want to put on us. The limits belong to them, not us. Thanks.

Brazen Princess, thank you!

john, I rememeber reading a post of yours long ago. I remember crying because I didn't want to read it, but finally starting to understand. Thank you for being here and being part of my journey of healing.
***RomanticPoetess, my apologies for the incredible typo in your name. Oh my, good thing you're the forgiving kind.

Poppi, that's a good way to put it, we all journey and those are the things that paved our way.

Stathi, we're all affected by our experiences. I've learned to work toward the best and plan for the worst, being sensible keeps us alive.

I've wondered how it was for you here and hoped you'd choose to stay. The US is a very tiny piece of the world and we Americans are often much the same. I'm hoping you'll blog more about how you see and experience your world, we're lucky to have someone here from another country that writes in English. Indeed, I feel very lucky that you're here.

Lezlie, it wasn't until I was a mother and moved away from everyone I knew that I realized how scary it was. Hahaha, now I adore being different too. Thanks much.

Director, thank you.

sky, thank you.

fernsy, Your mom went through things most will never be able to comprehend. I myself feel more connected to the Jews from Egypt than the Muslims, it's about being powerless. I WANT MY CRUELLER AND MY FERNSY TIME!!! Oh, sorry I shouted.

jlsathre, thanks. I think it's brutal for all imigrants. There are nice people but they still don't understand and often the kindness is condescending, others don't bother to try to understand. Either way, it made my mother and I strong and wise as you say.

Getting to pick my middle name was really cool. Mama dropped by and we went shopping and I reminded her of that day. I wish I could take her bad memories away but I can't, all I can do is help her make good ones.
I called you Ms. Thing and you have SHOUTED! We are out of control. You will get to view my supernaturally cute mother if you visit. The other day, a nurse at some doctors office, started giggling when she saw my mother and she pulled me aside and said " She looks like a big baby." This was thrilling because i was sure that my sister and I weren't being objective when we marvel at her large infant appearance. I want to put her on youtube but she's too dignified.
Again, loved this piece .These types of posts make OS worthwhile.
fernsy, dear sweet lady, I was shouting for you. The inner spirit is what shines as we grow older. I would love to meet your mother, your sister and you... because the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. And thank you for a lovely compliment.
Your story means so much to me, because it is true life talking here, walking to this uphill that is called life. I am sorry to read for the difficulties you and your family had, your parents are to be admired for starting their life from the beginning. And you too.. I think that you made a beautiful life, carrying inside your both countries.

In the meantime, Pillow Talk is one of my favourite movies, and in this movie, the ones living alone, although natives, are in their isolation island. It is like the song by Sting "'I am an alien, I am a little alien, I am an Englishman in New York...'' . We all sometimes in life, are aliens, although in our home.

Thank you for this life story, Doris.
Olga, thanks. It's okay, it's in the past now. It made me strong and I've had a very interesting life. I hadn't thought of it but yes, the characters in the movie were isolated and reaching for another. Separated and longing to be close, our condition no matter where we are.
Beautiful image, nice to see your face better!!
Your strength of character and stoic acceptance of what life throws in your way come shining through in this wonderful post. R
Olga, thanks, sometimes I like to wear a mask.

Gerald, stoicism is a by product of what life throws at us, character is a choice. I'm hoping to regain my sense of humor ;~) Wonderful compliment, thank you.
Doris - thank you for this wonderful, beautiful post. So many things I relate to, especially our father's America and how things are at the moment. God bless Aaron Sorkin for me...

"If someone thinks poorly of me based on what’s in their head, I move on to find those who think well of me. When I make a friend with high integrity who loves me, I know they love me for myself and I can depend on them. I love them for who they are, and only that, anything else about them are just trappings I have no use for."

in all the stuff-lack of your life, you certainly found true value, maybe sooner. Beautiful, wonderful post. Thank you. r
L'Heure, I cannot possibly imagine what it was like being a stranger in a strange land, as I was born and raised in NY. It sounds like you were instilled with excellent values (not taking out a second mortgage and only buying what you can afford--great!), but it must have been very difficult too. Thank you for sharing your experience. Funny you were named after Doris Day. When I was a little girl, I sometimes wished that Doris Day were my mother.
Delia, thank you. Material things and admiration can be taken away in a flash. In retrospect there was a lot of value in what I learned, I learned to value people who value what I could depend on, love and goodness. It's only with age that wisdom came.

Erica, being an alien makes you strong so it's good. Believing things will get better (or never change) in the future is risky, reality is a healthy thing to learn. There's no real way to know anything that will happen in the future, let alone how much money you'll have or what the world will be like.

It always struck me as odd that my father named me after a woman with pale skin and platinum hair. I was in my 40's before I could hear Que Sera, Sera without shuddering. Hahaha!
hey rather deep , this :
(what must be expected from an editor's darling):

"James, we're all visitors everywhere and everything is temporary. There is only what we do and who we are right now."

and yet there are these memories of our past life.
something i did a few years, months, minutes,
ago.

aint me, i say.

otherwise my love for the sheer flux of life would be
in vain.

otherwise i might be guiltridden or shameridden to something
that pops up from that damnable friend-foe,Memory.

i guess dreams are for that.

my dreams shame me down to zero.

my dreams are relentless in making me..a better man?
How could you want to look like anything but you? You are a stunning beautiful child and woman. I am jealous.
Wonderful piece. I think you put a real face on how it is to be here and try to succeed and leave people who were your family. Even though you were very young, you experienced the loss of family early. I think your experiences made you the woman you are today. You are a great woman and very good writer, you know how to share what is important.
James, yes those memories are what are left of what we did, or others did. Oh so many times I wish I could take scisssors and cut out all kinds of unfortunate memories and start fresh. Don't you?

There's no point in storing shame if you're no longer doing shameful things. I too wish to be a better woman, all I can do is try right now. Georgie knows, he can't undo yesterday, he just tries to do it better today. We should be puppies just for a day.

Dianne, haha, thank you. Well today I don't much care, it's just a face and except for my smile, it says almost nothing about me. Back when I cared about such things the problem was... I did not look the way others wanted me to look. Funny isn't it?

Sheila, wow, what a really goreous thing to say. You are a remarkable woman and that means a lot to me. My past definitely shaped me, it was important to me that this piece helped others have a bit more insight into what it feels like, even if it looks like everything is okay.

For the most part I don't really care what people I'm not very close to think about anything, but there are people on OS I really respect as well as care about, I wanted them to have a bit of a close up. There are those who will never even try to understand and I get it, but I wanted to reach those who want to. Thank you.
What a story of your past -- thanks for sharing your journey, l'Heure.

" At 15 a man I’d met told me he loved me and asked me to marry him, so I ran away from home to live in Florida, the month I turned 16 we married. "

That was the most shocking part of your tale for me -- wow!

I live similarly as far as cash vs credit. If we can't afford it by cash, we don't buy it. Not an immigrant leftover but a basic American distrust leftover from my Depression-era parents? I don't know...but all that 'buy first, pay later, or not' attitude is exactly why our country tanked, we need more attitudes like ours, I say....

Thanks again for sharing this, I enjoyed reading very much.
Just Thinking, yeah, it messed up my life getting married so young but if you're going to play you have to be prepared to pay. My parents are like the Depression-era parents and because I was such a young mom, I utilized what they taught me. Anyway, I survived like they did.

For me it was easier to save money than to make money so I had to save. Now with the economy the way it is I'm grateful for the financial attitude I had. I'm better off than many I know who were doing really well just a few years ago. I'm with you, I think it's a healthy attitude. Thank you.
I thought I married young at 19!! Your story is so deep and you tell it so well. I was waiting for a time to read it when I was relaxed and it had time to sink in and I could reflect on it. Strong piece here Bleue. Kudos on setting it down so well on 'paper'.
ps Congrats on EP too!
THIS POST HAS RECEIVED A READERS’ PICK AWARD
This is a really good post. Very revealing.
Charming story, l'H. It reminds me not to ask "Where are you from" when I meet someone who may be from abroad. I'm unlearning. I'm unlearning.
koshersalaami, thank you. It was important to me to say it well, and as always, to speak honestly.

Daniel, I have no accent yet I met that often when in very "white bread" areas, if they don't accept California as an answer then I know they want to ask what race I am. If someone has no accent then no matter the race I think they're from the US. I doubt you're as pushy as many I've encountered, I suspect you'd have accepted California as a legitimate home for me.
I loved re-reading this today, on this 4th of July, thinking of you and your mom, and Cairo today, and all of us. Thank you again. xo