Yesterday, as The Bustey and I took our usual walk through our neighborhood, in the sweltering heat of a mid-afternoon Summer, I observed one of my neighbors hopping across the street barefooted. She was being led by her miniature Yorkie who seemed intent on getting to his friend’s house to play. As I watched my neighbor return to her home alone, I suddenly had an epiphany, related to her simple act. And suddenly, I became melancholic, over what I once did myself, that is, before Assimilation!
Coming to the U.S.A. some 46 years ago, our family did what every immigrant family does. Back then, we quickly adapted to the culture, accent, and ‘ways’ of New Yorkers. My little sister, brother, and I had little choice, if we were to blend into the tough stages of pre-adolescence and adolescence NYC students.
Our first home back then was on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Brooklyn and we rarely came out of it. Our Summer time was probably worse because we had no school to go to and were not trusted to go anywhere by ourselves, being 12, 10, and 8 years old. There was the occasional trip to the supermarket, laundromat, and the nearby park which consisted of a small playground with swings and a seesaw and a jogging/walking path on asphalt. There was also the once per Summer trip to Coney Island and/or the beach on the ‘D’ train, and that was it.
The rest of the time was spent in front of our first ever television, a small black and white with an antenna, that we often struggled with to get a good reception, or we would look through the window near the fire escape to observe the people walking by and cars driving through. My sister and I also learned to ride our brother’s bike in the long hallway outside our apartment door, using the narrow hallway walls to protect us when we lost our balance.
Reminiscing, I realized that long gone were those days when weout of our small simple wooden home to run across the street to play with our neighbors’ kids. Back then some of the games we played were pitching marbles on the dirt ground, handball, cricket, hide and seek, or we would wander down the road for a walk with our friends. One of the favorite things I enjoyed shortly before leaving Trinidad was when we walked across the street to a particular neighbor’s house and sat on the long step that led to the upper level and converse with her and her little baby girl, Gail-Ann.
It was on those steps that my grandmother joined us, around dusk, and shared her earlier years with us. Her vivid descriptions sometimes scared me and other times brought wholesome laughter from the small group of us gathered around.
There were also the times, my grandma, fondly called Ma, would take us on short walks that took us through our neighborhood. We would pause on the side of the road at a neighbor’s home and Ma would have short exchanges with anyone who came out in response to her call. Our destination was always to any of our relatives who lived a little further away. We would just show up and she would call out to them and enter their yards and homes and we would sit and talk about ‘anything’ and ‘everything.’
Eventually, as I got older, 10, 11-years old, I was trusted to take these walks by myself. And, I often spent a whole day at a cousin’s house playing with their kids or watching various activities in action, like cooking, baking, or laundry in a tub with a built in scrubbing board. Of course, there was always fetching of water in a metal bucket from a nearby neighborhood stand-pipe, balancing it at our sides, in the hope that most of the water will still be inside when we arrived home. And one of my favorite things back then was bathing outside in the open in the huge basin of water I had collected. But, this was only at a particular cousin’s house that I did most of these things with joy and a sense of adventure.
Ma was the elder in our family back then, and she was caring for our family while Mom was in America. Ma often received visits from her many children, grandchildren, and those from near and far. So, my sister, brother and I had front row seats to these visits. We heard the latest updates on their families and on current events in our town, city, and country, as well as enjoyed the cooked foods or fruits they brought with them. It seemed that our grandma’s tiny wooden house always had visitors, random as they were, any day of the week or time of the day.
That was the life that my sister, brother, and I left behind. And two nights after we arrived in New York City, our apartment building caught on fire in the middle of the night, and we ran down stairways with burning walls collapsing all around us. We almost lost my 10-year old sister that night, who had fallen into a deep sleep and did not awaken when our parents rushed us out of the apartment and down the already burning walls. When we realized she was not following, it was already too late to retrace our steps to get her.
As we exited our burning, collapsing building that frigid April night, we quickly informed the firefighters of my sister’s situation. Anxious and horrified, we watched them retrieve my sister and brought her down very, very, long ladders to safety with us. Without realizing it we were pulling winter coats closely around us to provide warmth to our bodies clothed with tropical nighties. It was later on that we realized that strangers had taken off their own coats and put them on us during those moments of confusion and fear. We have always been grateful to everyone; and this was only our first week in America!
After this, we had many other life altering experiences as a family. I have moved about 25 times within the U.S.A. But here I am today, the Summer of 2021, walking down a small neighborhood street in Virginia, U.S.A. and the simple act of a neighbor walking across the street brought back such vivid memories.
My neighbor’s simple act had reminded me of what I once did also, that unassuming saunter over to my own neighbors’ houses, when I was a kid, to play with children my age. So many decades ago, but the memory now stung and made me realize what we gave up when we left those small little towns in Trinidad. The familiarity with our neighbors back then, allowed us to pop over anytime and shared so many moments that today I remember and perhaps wish for a little to infuse itself into my profoundly changed life.
But, I cannot have that, have never been able to really. Because no one around me has ever looked like me, shared my culture, and/or my unique East-Indian features. Sure I know most of my neighbors and say hello and have a good day, but that’s it. I watch as they go over to each others houses, one neighbor once carrying her dinner in a piece of foil, and stating, “I’m going to eat my dinner with Sally and Jim.” To be able to say and make this simple move means that somehow they collectively identify with each other in some way.
I, on the other hand, think of the many, many times though few and far between, when I see someone that looks like me, as if we probably share a similar heritage, and they turn their heads away to avoid my eyes, to avoid saying hello. It’s one of the worse kind of insult, where you’re not recognized by ‘your own.’ So I’ve lived almost 46 years of my life assimilating into an American culture that has brought me so many opportunities to learn, grow, and prosper, while at the same time couldn’t include experiences for me to just walk across the street and sit and get comfortable. I’m not being remorseful, just becoming aware of a significant truth in immigrants’ lives.
Immigrant parents don’t ever consider these minor factors. I believe they are understandably too occupied trying to provide opportunities that will enrich their families’ lives in ways that are far more important to our survival. And I believe that it is okay for us to have these occasional lapses back into our past to remember and memorialize these simple acts, like crossing the street to our neighbors’ homes, unannounced.