My Immigrant Experience…

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It’s not my thing to take on the topical.  I am a storyteller, an observer of my own space and hope that my narrative resonates with others.  A confluence of experiences this month urges me to speak to something topical.  I will give my story-telling best to the effort.

My condominium is spacious.  It is also dated.  For the past two years, it has reflected my harried, not quite right life.  Reimagining my space seemed an important step in reimagining my life.  And so, I began slowly.  Sage green was the interior color of choice about fifteen years ago.  The previous owners of my condo seized the trend and I decorated accordingly when I moved in 3.5 years ago.  Sage green was getting on my nerves nearly as much as the walnut woodwork which surrounded it.  I have a lovely staircase which leads to three beautiful windows, their light obliterated by equally dated vertical blinds in a faux light brown tweed.

Three years ago I tackled the master bedroom myself – and doesn’t it always seem a good idea to do the painting yourself?  Halfway through my forearm ached, and the biblical Joseph’s coat had nothing on my painting jeans. The light brown with a hint of gold never quite thrilled me.

I treated myself to professional painters this time and they came by van, led by their boss,  a local friend of the Italian Catholic variety.  The workers themselves were Spanish speaking Guatemalan’s, Ecuadorians, and Mexican’s. They did the real work of painting my large family room, grand stairway, upstairs hallway, and bedroom.  Immigrants, each one. perhaps I should whisper, “I’m not quite sure if they were all legal.”

For four days, I was surrounded by drop clothes, ladders, and cans of paint.  My friendly Labrador loved the company and picked up the new shades of gray walls and white woodwork on his tail, ears, and whiskers while accepting endless affection from each painter. My typical background soundtrack is Broadway, but suddenly the sounds in my house had a salsa beat and lyrics foreign to my non-Spanish-speaking ears. For four days, my home was filled with light, laughter, and chaos.  The six immigrant workers were focused, meticulous, and happy. Their interactions with each other were easy and loving, like a band of brothers.   Furniture was hidden by plastic and moved to the center of the rooms and I had nowhere to sit, but it didn’t matter to me.  These worker bees were worth every penny, not just for their good work, but the happy spirit they brought with them.

In an effort to really make some changes, I had offered up a heavy dark wood desk for free on a tag sale site.  It was scooped up quickly and when the new owner arrived to haul it away, the two of us tried to move it. Our effort was pathetic. With lightning speed, two of the workers put down their brushes and bullied the oversized thing right into the back of her car.  She tried to slip them a tip, which they declined with humble smiles.

There is a certain presidential candidate who, had he known the scene in my condo, might have tried to erect a wall around it.

That leads me to my other place of immigrant interaction.  Like most of us, I seem to find myself at the same gas station several times a week.  Often, just for a quick diet coke, or emergency can of dog food.  There are two workers there who know I am a regular.  The first, a twenty-something Indian girl named Suman, studies at the register when the place is quiet.  Over time she has taken to calling me “beautiful lady”, and that has led to sharing bits and pieces of our lives.  She discovered that I am a College Counselor, and often peppers me with questions about her goal of becoming a nurse.  Suman is hungry to improve her lot and achieve beyond her current station.  I found out recently that she has taken a second job at a local deli.  Her work ethic astounds me. Suman’s hours are long, her dreams for herself imbued with enviable hope.

Jahir is my other gas station friend.  When I walk in, I am always greeted with a sunny, “Hello, Ellen.  How are you today?”  If I have been away, he might say, “I’ve missed you, where have you been?”   He is articulate, his English lyrical.  He often arrives at the gas station around 5 am, though I might not roll in until mid-morning.  I have never known him to lack energy or civility.  His heritage was not immediately clear to me.  It did not matter and I did not ask. On one occasion I overheard him being teased by a local young man.  An American young man, who was not kind, though he thought he was clever. He found his fun in Islamic and Muslim references.  Jahir took it in his stride, offering a vague nod and half smile.  When the young man left, I asked him, “Jahir, is that hard for you?”  He smiled broadly, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me. It’s Americans, no harm.”  I have since discovered that Jahir is Tibetan, a Buddhist.  Hmmm…, may I please have an ounce of his peace and restraint?

Last week, I saw him reading something at the counter and asked about it.  It was a Christian Pamphlet, which mused about the need for Americans to get back to Church.  While explaining the content, Jahir paused, and said, “I don’t know about that, but I do wonder why everyone in this country seems so angry?”  There was no aggression in his question, not an ounce of judgment or implied criticism.  Only thoughtfulness.  I replied, “I wonder the same thing, too.”

I am sure that Suman and Jahir are legal.  I know that someday they will find work better suited to their ethic and intellect.

I want them to meet my other immigrant friend.

Today, Andrei, the Russian I so often refer to in this space, will officially become an American Citizen.  It has been 25 years since he arrived here from the then Soviet Union.  Beyond his dynamic persona, Andrei is one of the smartest men I know.  He speaks four languages and was a linguist and teacher in Russia, after serving in the Army.  Twenty-Five years ago, when he decided to stay, he began the arduous climb so many immigrants must. I have never, not once, heard him complain about work.  I hear Americans complain about work all the time.  If I was punching someone’s clock, it’s likely I would be complaining, too.

I will not be present for Andrei’s ceremony.  He would like to do it as he came to it, alone.  Someone has given him an American flag for his lapel, which he will pin on his freshly cleaned blazer.  Directly after his induction as a citizen, he will register to vote.  I can see him now, in my mind’s eye; shoulders straight, serious of purpose, proud that he has made this great country his own through grit and determination. I am so very proud of my Russian friend.

I am out of my depth in answers to regulating immigration so that it works for the benefit of this nation. I don’t pretend that my opinion really matters at all. All I know is that the immigrants with whom I am familiar are an inspiration and inform my life in a very positive way. I also know, that unless we carry Native American Blood, we are all of immigrant stock.  Perhaps a good thing to remember when the rhetoric gets hot.

2 thoughts on “My Immigrant Experience…

  1. Topical storytelling at its best, especially in this political climate. Special congrats to Andrei for wanting to be part of this great America, and making it happen. Ellen, this is a great story that makes you think, not just today, but every day you meet someone new.

    Like

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