The immigrant experience, 40 years on

Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University in Elon, N.C.
Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University in Elon, N.C.

Aug. 29, 1978, was a big day for me. Forty years ago I stepped off a plane in Boston, Massachusetts, a graduate student from Britain. At 22, I was excited, hopeful, confident. I knew I could do it, whatever “it” was.

That confidence was a gift of my upbringing and education — plus a dose of native hubris thrown in. With my crumpled onion-skin paper I-20, and my F1 student visa in my passport, I did not grasp what a complicated business migration might be. When you’re young, lucky and privileged, lots of things look easy.

Spin forward 40 years: after moving through Green Card Land to Naturalization, I’ve now spent two-thirds of my life in the USA. It’s been great. Mostly.

Flying back this summer from a visit “home” to London, I sat next to a young man from perhaps India or Pakistan. About 20 minutes before touch-down, he turned to me and asked: “Do you think I have to fill in a landing card?” I hedged. Probably? Do it electronically when we land? He responded: “I have an F1 visa — I think I should fill out that card.”

The years dissolved and I remembered anxieties of arrival that I usually forget: the impenetrable authority of the immigration officers, their requests for pieces of paper you hadn’t realized were important, and their power to move you to a small room for further questioning. I wanted to tell my seatmate all about August 1978 and how he reminded me of my young self. But I held back. Lucky for him. Who knows where that rambling story would have gone, or where it would have ended?

Actually, migration is a work in progress, even for the naturalized American, even 40 years on. It is, it seems to me, a privilege, a challenge and, I suppose, a sort of gift — to the migrant and to the place of arrival. It can be a glorious existential leap. But it’s also a desertion and a rejection.

Watching the film “Lady Bird” on that same flight from London, I felt the power of Laurie Metcalf’s performance as the sad and angry mother of the teenage Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan, who is poised to fly across the continent to her dream college. At the airport, Mom leaves it seconds too late to extend an olive branch to her daughter: she’s disappeared through the gate.

Metcalf’s depiction of parental love and loss touched a nerve in my mid-Atlantic psyche — 33,000 feet over Newfoundland — as I absorbed what my own parents must have felt at my departure.

“I understand why you want to go, but your Mother’s unhappy about it,” my father said to me in the early summer of 1978 as I prepared to leave our suburban London home. I can’t remember what I replied, but I do remember being quite impressed by the fact that my famously reserved Dad had said even this much.

Of course, I knew my Mother was sad. She had told me so: “I find Scott Joplin’s piano-playing is good music to be sad to,” she had remarked one afternoon. I definitely remember that moment: I said absolutely nothing in reply. I would have had to admit that my excessive home-leaving performance was the source of her pain and that would never do. I was, after all, the heroic voyager to the New World.

Now, a parent myself, I finally get it. And, perhaps, I continue, even now, to learn more about what novelist V. S. Naipaul, a Caribbean migrant to Britain, called the “enigma of arrival” in a foreign land. The migrant’s story is also about the many mysteries of departure, which cast long shadows. 1978 was forty years ago — and yesterday.

Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University in Elon, N.C.

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