Mar 6, 2017
The Golden Door: You Become an Immigrant
Late on a January morning you arrive at Heathrow after a long series of flights. It had been daytime when you left Calcutta. This is the second time you’ve been in the air.
You’re planning to stop in London for a couple of days, then fly on to Boston. Your final destination is Tulsa, Oklahoma, where you will start college.
You hand over your traveling papers. Instead of a passport, you carry an Identity Certificate issued by India, identifying you as a refugee from Dacca. For just over a month, you have had a country, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. Only a few countries have recognized the new republic; the U.K. hasn’t.
“You don’t have a diplomatic mission here. We cannot let you in.”
Politely you respond, “I have traveling papers, they say I can return to India, I have a ticket and visa for the U.S. I’m only stopping here to visit friends.”
“We cannot let you in.”
You try again, holding back something in your voice. When they look at you, barely eighteen years old, weighing 85 pounds, what do they see?
“What do I do?” you ask.
“You can go into detention, or we can put you on the next flight to Boston.”
“If I accept detention, will my chances improve?”
“No, you wait for two days until your flight.”
A TWA flight leaves within the hour. They retrieve your luggage, hurry you to a police car, and with your second-hand wool coat flapping in the cold wind, you climb onto the plane lugging the suitcase in your hand. You think people on the plane look at you like you’re some criminal being deported. Crossing the Atlantic, you wonder how you’ll be treated when you land.
When you arrive at Logan, morning there as well, the official looks at your papers and greets you with a smile. “Welcome to America. You’re the first person from Bangladesh.” The U.S. has not recognized Bangladesh either—in fact, it supported the war against your people—but this man takes your travel papers seriously and perhaps he reacts to you differently because this is Boston and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts has been vocal in his support for the people of Bangladesh.
You exhale. The ground feels solid again.
You are stopping in Boston for a few days to visit your older sister who teaches at a Catholic girls school in Newton. But you’re two days early and you only have one dollar in your pocket. You have a $25 travel voucher but you haven’t cashed it yet. A woman at the Travelers Aid desk offers directions and helps you make a phone call to your sister’s home. Your eleven-year old niece is home. You tell her you have arrived early and you’ll make your way on the subway, then catch a taxi from the station. She’ll have to provide the fare.
Outside the airport, there is snow on the ground—you’ve never seen snow before—the temperature is eighteen degrees and a wind blasts your face and your mouth goes numb and your words freeze. You board the shuttle to the T, then a Blue Line car headed for Government Center. You’re to change here for the Green Line, one bound for Riverside, but there are too many Green Line options, you get confused and end up on the street outside the station. You have no change to go back and try again. You find a cab, you give him your sister’s address and hope that your niece can cover the additional fare.
The taxi ride is a blur. You haven’t seen your sister and her children since they emigrated here two years ago. Years later you’ll still remember: piles of snow outdoors, central heat inside, a soft bed with fitted sheets, chilled cranberry juice at breakfast. Your nephew’s crazy about Bobby Orr who plays something called ice hockey.
Your sister will show you Cambridge and downtown Boston, she will get you clothes, including a warm parka. At MIT, you are greeted by the Rosa Luxemburg Students for a Democratic Society handing out leaflets protesting the British army murders in Belfast on Bloody Sunday. It’s a welcome sight.
Your sister has arranged for you to speak to seniors at her school about the war in Bangladesh. You even get a small stipend. The girls are almost your age, but you feel like you’re a hundred years older. They have no idea about your life, you probably think they might be like the kids in the Archie comics you read before the war turned life upside down.
You like what you see of Boston: a thickly urban city, efficient mass transit, universities, engaged students. You fly on to Tulsa and start college. It isn’t as cold there but you can’t tell the difference; cold is cold. You try to resume a normal life and in the gaps, you try to sort out the last year of life when you became a refugee uprooted by war.
Just a year ago, your life had a certain normalcy, perhaps even innocence. Then came a night of gunfire and you entered a world you read about in books. You were suddenly face to face with war.
You were in your final year of secondary school but the times were turbulent and you’d lost interest in schoolwork. You were active in campus politics; the previous year you’d led a month-long strike. You worked with an organization carrying out post-cyclone work in a remote island in the south. With some friends, you were putting together a small magazine. The first issue of The Rebel was nearly ready.
You were not unfamiliar with military rule. Just a couple of years ago, the opposition had brought down a decade-long dictatorship. Elections had been promised and delivered, but the military refused to respect the results in which the nationalist party you supported won an overwhelming majority. The people rose in nonviolent rebellion, the military responded with mass slaughter.
They came for Hindus, for politicians, for rebellious youth. You and a brother three years older figured you would be targeted. Your eldest brother had been in the army, but at their base, the Bengali troops were attacked by their erstwhile comrades. They fought back but had to retreat into India. The military detained his wife and infant child. It would be months before they were spirited to safety.
Like thousands of others your mother thought it prudent to leave the city. You joined her with other relatives, retreating to her father’s village, a place you had never visited. You stayed there for some weeks until the soldiers arrived there and set fire to Hindu homes. You returned to the capital, but not home.
Feeling useless but at risk, you wanted to find a way to engage. You decided to flee across the border to India. Two attempts failed when you couldn’t find the contacts to guide you across. You were moved by the generosity of people who tried to help, one family insisting you eat the only substantial item in their meager evening meal, a single cooked egg.
The third time, you joined your brother and a deserter from the border guards, and this time, after a journey on bus, auto-rickshaw, rickshaw, and on foot, you made it across. You reunited with your oldest brother. Your brothers readily agreed with your desire to move to Calcutta; later you would discover they were eager to send you away from the front.
You are lucky. You do not have to live in a refugee camp or hustle for shelter. Your eldest brother’s wife has relatives in Calcutta and they welcome you. You reconnect with some schoolmates. You try to make yourself useful, joining a documentation project. With three friends, you do a stint at a guerrilla training camp on the border. On the way back, you get jailed, accused of being Pakistani spies. Some of you enlist in the final weeks of the war. But you’ve been disturbed by what you’ve seen among some of your leaders and partisans, your mind’s on fire, and you have trouble figuring out what you should do.
Meanwhile your brother in the United States has been wanting you to move there for college. You’ve put him off. You’re not too keen on America, though you accept that America’s more than its president. Soon, the war ended; the Bangladesh liberation forces and the Indians rout the Pakistani occupation. Your homeland now free, you trekked home, along the way witnessing tragic scenes of devastation. With your earlier idealism cracked, many things not feeling right, you agree to move to the United States—fully intending to return.
You’re in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where some of your family have emigrated. You move into your brother’s apartment which he shares with your mother and younger sister. The three of you share a room until your mother returns home a few months later.
Culturally you’re prepared for America. Schooled by missionaries from the United States, you’re fluent in English. From the school library, you read the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. Your family subscribed to Life, Time, and Readers Digest. On TV, you had watched Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, and Mission Impossible. You had listened to Nat King Cole and Jim Reeves on the Voice of America. On LPs you’d listened to Joan Baez and the Four Tops.
The campus is three blocks away. Your brother introduces you to the routines of daily life: shopping, laundromat, meals. You attend classes, work at the computer center, make a few friends, finding yourself drawn to outsiders: among them an Iranian woman and a single mother who fled an abusive marriage in Pecos, Texas. You ask her out on a date; she tells you she’s the mistress of a married man; all three of you go out to see the Concert for Bangladesh.
Tulsa feels far from the world familiar to you. The newspapers, militantly conservative, do not carry much world news. The only news from home comes via a magazine from Singapore that arrives at the library several weeks late. You have family, teachers, and friends, but it is hard for others to relate to what you’ve gone through, you find it hard to even formulate the questions you have. The library becomes your refuge and you read voraciously. You encounter Sartre and Camus; their writings in the aftermath of war speak to you. You discover Emma Goldman, Danilo Dolci, Thomas Merton.
In your alone time, you try meditation. For a long time you will treat yourself harshly, setting impossible standards and failing to live up to them. You have trouble negotiating desire and responsibility. You will sometimes have unfair expectations of others, and people you love will suffer your buried frustrations. Years later you would learn a word to describe your condition: survivor’s guilt. Naming it will help assuage it.
One morning you arrive on the campus green and encounter a protest. Nixon is dropping bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong in Vietnam, and some students organize an open mike speakout. You feel you should say something. The Nixon who’s bombing Vietnam armed the Pakistani butchers; he was culpable in the genocide against your people. You walk up to the mike and have your say. You feel it important to share the story of another people who’ve been on the receiving end of Nixon’s cruelty. This stand will gain you new friends, but also some enemies. The foreign student advisor warns you that you should stick to your studies. You never return to see her again.
You had enrolled in engineering but move to the social sciences. Tulsa continues to feel remote, and you seek out a transfer. You think Boston will fit you better, and Brandeis accepts you with a generous scholarship. New worlds open to you, you find more like-minded people, even people you see as mentors. Soon after you arrive, Boston is caught up in near race war. Witnessing images of black children in school buses set upon by white mobs, how can you stay passive? You find yourself drawn again to active engagement with the world around you. You love what Boston as a big city offers but you also encounter its cruel side: you are called racial slurs and even assaulted once.
You arrived on refugee papers but no longer a refugee. You came as a foreign student, with the intention of returning. With time, you become an immigrant. Some of it has to do with the distancing hand of time; it takes ten years before your first visit home. Some of it has to do with love and relationships; opening yourself to companionship brings new responsibilities. Some of it has to do with your belief that you should engage with the world around you wherever you live. You move multiple times, to the midwest, back East, then all the way to the West. You realize you will never fully belong anywhere again, but at a certain point you discover that you have made this country your home.
“The Golden Door” is our weekly essay series that offers first-person perspective on the immigrant experience in the United States.
Collages by Sarah Lutkenhaus
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