Sometimes I like to blame my family issues on being first generation US American. Except I don’t think I am first generation, as I wasn’t born in the US, although I am a naturalized citizen. Wikipedia says I’m first-gen, although my parents might be the ones who are first-gen by their definition, which essentially means I’m 2nd, except that I cannot be, as it would be my kids that would be the first generation born in the US, which makes them either second generation or first, but definitely not third, assuming my children are born in the United States to begin with. Anyway you slice it, this situation is madly confusing and I’m not sure what freaking generation of what freaking country I am. [for those of you playing AskAdri, The Game, at home: Challenge #3-> read this paragraph outloud. If get through without stuttering or pausing to make sense of what the hell is being said, then you should go get yourself a beer/diet coke, because you’ve earned it.]
So the only way I really know how to deal with these matters is by joking. The classic line “I am not of this country” peppers my conversation often enough that my friends in Pittsburgh enjoy mocking me. My favorite example was the A-Team. I claimed no knowledge of them really (I mean, I know who Mr. T is, but then again, who doesn’t?)—I knew they were a TV show, but I’d never seen an episode. I think I called them “those guys in that van, right?” to my friends’ chagrins. When people scoffed, I raised a (metaphorical) eyebrow and simply stated, “but I am not of this country.” One friend promptly compared me to the caveman lawyer from SNL (“I don’t what these laws are… I’m a caveman!”). And it’s true. I blame a lot of dumb things on my foreign-ness (or is it foreignicity?)—but the joke is that I’m obviously not. (Ironically, when my Pittsburgh friends asked my parents at graduation if they knew the A-Team, both of them nodded vigorously and my mother may have said that she watched them all the time. “They had that van!” … Guess I forgot about international syndication on that one!) I’ve lived in the US since I was three months old. I’m not (that) foreign (at all).
Yet in some cases, I totally am. (I’ve had about three major crises in my life about this, mostly while working at the National Hispanic Institute and feeling like I did not fit in.) I’m writing a book about Colombia because three out of my four grandparents were born there. I write about Mexico because I was born there and grew up on the Mexican/Texan border. I speak Spanish with a clean and clear accent, like the guys on TV. My mother speaks with a funny Colombian accent. I have a big, bad Mexican father. I understand regional nuances in Mexican and Colombian cultures. I can dance. I make good Mexican and Colombian food. And, more importantly, I have obligations. Huge cultural obligations. Insurmountable unavoidable massive obligations. They may even be Obligations. (I always thought German such a serious language, with its capitalization of nouns.)
I tell my father before I drive down to Texas (disastrously, I might add), that I will only stay for a month. Only. On these terms I arrive, and it is these terms that I (incorrectly) assume everyone understands. This lasts for about two days. And then the guilt trip begins. “When are you leaving? Why so soon? You never see us. We love you. We want to see you all the time. You don’t love us, because you can only spend a month with us. What have I done to you that is so horrible that you cannot spend more than a month? You don’t have to pay for anything. We give you everything. Save your money. Stay the whole summer. Don’t leave us. We need you. You should work at the company. We’re short handed. You’re smarter than anyone we can hire anyway. Don’t you love us enough to stay?”
And I do. So I do.
McAllen, TX starts to look different these days. Shiny white and pink adobe hospitals everywhere you turn (The New Yorker has something to say about that), chain restaurants and sophisticated wine lounges, a new shopping arenas the size of small countries, and a new performing arts center. The population has exploded: the metropolitan area is about 700K, with Reynosa (on the Mexican side) with another 600K people less than 10 miles away. It’s a city.
But in a lot of ways, it ‘s my town (not in the creepy Thornton Wilder minimal furniture and props way, either). And being back is strange. I hung out with friends from long-past, with whom it was a pleasure to reconnect, but it just made me realize how disconnected I’ve been/we’ve all become. When my mother goes home to Colombia, she still knows people in town, still runs into high school acquaintances at the store. And no one judges or cares. In McAllen, though, there’s something about “getting out,” that’s important. People will mention how they “left for school” but “came back” for family/financial/whatever reason. Like we’re all sitting around trying to prove that McAllen is a way-station, a place we are embarking from to better and different horizons.
“Who goes back?” a kid said to me a bar. “I kinda love it here,” said another, and everyone at the table stared at him in shock. (“Really‽” “Yes, really.”) [Challenge #4–> find the keyboard shortcut for the interrobang on your computer. If you can do this without a) looking up what an interrobang is and b) getting frustrated and quitting, then you have earned a snack. Any kind of snack, really. But you have to get it yourself.]
I can see what there’s to love in the RGV. McAllen now boasts a “club/bar scene” and it’s actually kinda nice. There’s access to Mexico and South Padre, there’s the weather (if you’re into 108°F), there are a lot of palm trees. It’s the Square Dance Capital of the world, which I totally didn’t know about, like my whole life, until I looked it up and then I realized it’s because the Winter Texans (For Floridians: Snow Birds) do it in their trailer and rv parks, and apparently they bring in “callers” from around the US to join them in their square-vaganzas.
It’s not bad eating good Mexican food. And it’s not bad sleeping in my childhood room. I just miss Pittsburgh. Not because it’s better or different, or because I like the place, but because I don’t live out of a suitcase there. Because my friends are there. Because it’s become home.
And maybe that’s the strange part. My parents both left their motherlands to go somewhere else. They have no qualms in picking up and moving to a new city. Right now, as we speak, they’re considering a move to Houston. So you see, I’m first-generation homesick. And I feel an Obligation, of sorts, to a steel river town up North. Hard to explain to my parents.