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Becoming American

It was an overcast day when we landed in Dallas, but there was a sense that the sun was aching to break through. The air was warm, dense with humidity, much heavier than in Sweden. We had been on the plane for a long time, our family of 5 taking up a whole row. My sisters and I had visited the cockpit twice during the flight (pre-terrorist days) and we had our new plastic pilot wings proudly pinned on our shirts. Strangely though, I don’t vividly recall where we went right after we landed. I don’t remember the weight of the things we carried with us that day, nor the ride from the airport, or the first glimpse of Dallas from the car window or even stepping through the door of our temporary but first home in America.

The expression on my parents’ faces that day — tiredly triumphant  — is just a faint impression now, transparent and fragile in my memory. I don’t recall falling asleep that first night. I wish I did — I wish I could remember every detail of that first day in my new land. But I do see now, in retrospect, how America took me, and made me hers. I see how she took us all, shaping us over time as a family, as individuals, into Americans. It happened in unexpected ways, in subtle ways too numerous to list. There were small offerings such as Fruit Loop Cereal — in Sweden our cereal was bland, monochromatic (tan in hue) and for the eight-year old me, this brightly colored sugar in a bowl for breakfast was heaven (thank you America).

I recall now with a with an inexplicable nostalgia the slight cultural and social crimes that we committed when we first arrived — my father mowing the front lawn every weekend in nothing but tighty-whiteys comes to mind (in Texas of all places), his surgical pager responsibly attached at the hip, hair sticking up haphazardly. With time, our Swedish conversation became peppered with English words (some words just are better) morphing into our own brand of Swenglish, eventually being almost entirely replaced by English as Americans have joined our family. My nieces and nephews are fully American, except for names that hint at their heritage. My sisters will teach them about their hyphenated identities — and they will wear that hyphen with pride in the same way that all Americans do.

I have traveled extensively in my life, but I’ve realized recently that my most important photographic work will likely unfold right here in America. I want to train my camera on the seemingly insignificant details of the immigrant experience.  I want to consider how families come together from different cultures and ethnicities, looking at what customs they keep and which ones they reject from their varied backgrounds, and also, what new customs are assumed along the way. In short, I want to answer the question, “at what point does one become an American?” with small photographic glimpses for I know now that the answer lies in the seemingly insignificant details of everyday life. I draw inspiration for this new work from Jhumpa Lahiri who captures the immigrant experience so eloquently in her novels and short stories.

I’ll end this post with a promise of more to come soon on this topic and also with a couple quotes from Lahiri’s writings:

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination. (Jhumpa Lahiri, from Unaccustomed Earth “The Third and Final Continent”)

For being a foreigner Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity of from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect. (Jhumpa Lahiri, from The Namesake)

One Comment

  1. Leslie

    Thank you, Kris, for such a beautiful post. I love the story of immigrants (which, of course, most of us are) and in my part of the world that means mostly Hispanics. It was so nice to read the impressions of your personal story. 🙂

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