Over vietnamese spring rolls this evening, I shared a story with some fellow-immigrant friends of mine that they noted captures the immigrant experience, so I’m sharing it, with the hope that my parents won’t mind.
This story came to mind because of the book group I’m in to discuss the book about the Great Migration of Black Americans between the 1910s and 1970s, called “The Warmth of Other Suns.” I expected to enjoy it and to learn from it, but I was suprised to discover myself relating to it so deeply. In particular, I resonated (with some guilt) as a 2nd generation American Asian to the following passage about those parents who escaped but were of the South as they tried in vain to connect their Northern-born-and-formed children to the land of their forebears: “Many of the people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things, tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city of western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself. Some spoke of specific and certain evils. Some lived in tight-lipped and cheerful denial. Others simply had no desire to relive what they had already left. The facts of their lives unfurled over the generations like an over-wrapped present, a secret told in syllables. Sometimes the migrants dropped puzzle pieces from the past while folding the laundry or stirring the corn bread, and the children would listen between cereal commercials and not truly understand until they grew up and had children and troubles of their own. And the ones who had half-listened would scold and kick themselves that they had not paid better attention when they had the chance.” [p. 45]
In the book, one woman in Chicago struggles to nurse a plant from Louisiana that comes up scrawny and thin and sad in her Chicago apartment where it would have flourished with thousands more. It bloomed for one night a year, and she would call over her other Louisiana friends on that night, and they would gather in the kitchen at midnight and talk for hours waiting for it to open, to spread that scent of home and history for one night a year, a scent that meant nothing to anyone in the city besides those people who had left home behind.
When I was growing up in Akron, Ohio, we composted. One hot summer in August, a mango pit sprouted. My father laughed with delight and promptly potted it.
My mother was quick to point out how scrawny and pathetic it was, and may very well have used the word “eyesore” to describe the plant as it inched up, with those long thin leaves and a stalk-like trunk due to VERY cold winters in our underheated dining room and lack of direct sunlight in one of the cloudiest cities in America. But my father nursed it, hauling it out in summer and in during the winter, moving it to the even colder Chicago with us where it may not have grown and even shed a couple of those long thin leaves, attaching it to a stake to keep it from toppling as it reached a lean 3 feet. It would never bear fruit, my mother pointed out, and it was completely unaesthetic. My father said nothing as he continued to water and care for it.
At one point, my father was away from the tree for an extended period and my mother “accidentally” forgot to nurture it, so that it died.
I’m not certain my father said anything other than expressing some irritation with my mother’s carelessness. And he planted three mango pits.
I don’t know what this story might mean to most people, and it seems to have very little to do with the fierce and often ugly battle over immigration in which this nation is engaged. But in the book “The Warmth of Other Suns” mentions a woman who said that if things hadn’t been so markedly safer and more likely to put food on their table, she would have much rather stayed home in the south. My father loves America and even tells his nieces and nephews what’s better about American than India when he’s back (an interesting spin on my grandfather’s avowed conviction that India was better off before the British left). But I find myself thinking of that mango tree and thinking of the home that so many immigrants gave up that those of us who never had to tear our roots from the soil we knew and loved cannot truly understand.