An immigrant's daughter remembers her father's assimilation (and what happens when you wear a Red Sox cap in Queens)
You start by dreaming: You dream of green lawns, big cars, and a house with many rooms. You don't tell your father of your dreams. He would tell you you're being immodest. 'Why always so big and fancy?' he would ask. You don't listen to those who doubt you. They talk about how you'll be back in a year, how America is a tough place to cut it. You take your wife and you hop the next 22-hour flight from the Philippines to the States. From the plane, you watch your island country grow smaller and smaller.
You arrive in America in a suit and tie. You find an apartment in a big city. The walls are thin, and you don't like the way it smells. You notice how the city is tight, with barely room to breathe. You thought there would be more trees. You have an apartment on the fifth floor, and when you look out the window to the cement sidewalk below, you think how nice it would be if you were closer to the ground.
Even though you were a doctor back home, you work at a blood bank here until you fulfill all of the U.S. tests and qualifications. They give you the crazy shifts, the ones that everyone else passes on. You learn to ignore the woman who requests to see an 'American' doctor. You give her care, but you don't tell her to come back.
The grocery clerks snap at you. 'It's ham, sir, not hum,' they say. 'If you want Tang, don't say tongue!' You write this down and you remember this. At a meeting at the hospital, the director turns to you and asks, 'What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?' You buy a book of American idioms and you find out what he means. When he asks a question during the next meeting, you are compelled to say, 'The proof is in the pudding!' Everyone looks at you, puzzled.
You learn that Americans are so tall. You don't seem to fit. The pants are too long and your shoulders are tiny in their tailored shirts. You buy your clothes from the boys' department, and you don't tell anybody. They are cheaper anyway.
You learn to love baseball, a game they don't play where you're from. You dedicate yourself to your local team. The Boston Red Sox. What do you love? How the game can change in the matter of an inning. How you can be down 8-0 in the eighth inning and have a nine-run rally at the top of the ninth with two outs to spare. Just like that. You yell at the TV when the ump calls a ball a strike. You swear at him in Tagalog. From the kitchen, your wife throws things at you.
You have a son. He looks like you. Small thin bones, thick black hair. You look at him and worry. 'My son,' you say. You talk to him in Tagalog; his first word is in English. He turns down his mother's noodle dishes and opts to eat American food. Cheese. Hot dogs cut up in tiny pieces. 'My son?' you ask.
You take your son to the Big Apple. The glowing lights and the tall buildings amaze him. You watch as he points up, up, up into the skyline. By now, you think you know your way. You're abrupt with the cashier when you ask for subway tokens; you move quickly through the streets so you don't get pickpocketed. You go to a deli for a sandwich. The serious man behind the counter looks you and your son up and down and says, 'We can't serve you here. We don't serve your kind.' At first, you are offended. But then you realize that it's not because of the color of your skin, or because of your accent, since the clerk, too, has an accent and dark skin and dark hair that pokes out from under his shirt. He won't serve you because your son is wearing a Boston Red Sox cap in a deli in Queens, New York. You fight to keep a smile from appearing on your face as you walk out the door.
You naturalize. You memorize the U.S. presidents in order. You put your hand over your heart. You look at that flag and you wonder: How can I still be Filipino if I am American?
Your father dies. He is thousands of miles away, and there are aunts to deal with, and cousins, and you wonder how they'll get along and, while you send what money you can, you wish you could send more. You wish you could send more.
You get robbed by a man wearing pantyhose on his head in the garage of your apartment building. His gun is big and silver, and he is angry that there is no money in your wallet. You are so scared you offer to bring him upstairs. You have more money up there. He throws the wallet back at you and you run like hell.
You move away from the big city to a small town where there are those expansive green lawns. You have neighbors who smile at you; you have parties to go to. You don't forget about baseball, though. You play catch with your son in the backyard, and now you're watching different games on TV. St. Louis versus Chicago. Pittsburgh versus Cincinnati. You start to think: Where do my allegiances lie? Do I cheer for the place I'm from or the place I'm going? Can I be split?
You find yourself accidentally becoming a gardener. You know what a hosta is. You kneel in the grass and feel the soil in your hands. You trim the oak tree in the front yard and you notice its roots, thick and gnarly, how deeply embedded they are in the dirt, how securely anchored into the ground. Yet you notice how they extend out, far beyond your view, almost reaching the end of the lawn. They don't seem to stop growing.
Things start to move slower now, and you don't mind. You take your son to a baseball game; you buy cheap tickets from scalpers. You listen to the calls of the vendors; you feel the hot summer air on your face. You watch the new player come to bat, the Dominican with a killer swing. You remember reading in the paper that he grew up poor, that he used to play ball with a stick and a rock. You hold your son close as he falls asleep in his seat and you whisper to him, 'Always, always root for the underdog.'
This piece of creative nonfiction also appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly (Vol. 23 #1). First published by, and reprinted from, the Red Mountain Review (Fall 2005). Subscriptions: $6 for the most recent issue from 1800 Eighth Ave. N, Birmingham, AL 35203; http://redmountainblog.blogspot.com.