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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Graduations

I’ve been invited to give a talk somewhere around here pretty soon. They want me to talk about this “post immigrant” business I’m trying to capture with the stories I tell. I decided, since the host is an organization called the “Institute for Social Responsibility and Ethics” to connect the post-immigrant experience to higher education. I figure I know a lot about both—or enough to be able to pay for this fancy keyboard and this 10 inch screen!

I was thinking about what it is that I’m going to say—something like: education is sacrosanct for immigrant parents; and my parents always encouraged me to…blah blah. (which they did). But then I started thinking about all of my graduations and the type of experiences these were for them—for my parents.

If memory serves me right, I graduated high school is 1994. My mother was there, but she claims she couldn’t see me. My father was at home, and now claims he wasn’t—that he was next to my mother at the stadium where the graduation was held. But this is a lie, because he was back at the house grilling meat and drinking beer (in my honor, of course!). When we got home, about 6 of my friends were waiting for me (3 died over the next 6 months…gangs). My father let me drink—my friends were happy. We drank and ate meat and drank some more. My father was proud of me; but he was also proud of himself. Somehow, his son had “finished” school. There had been nieces that had finished school, but no sons, no nephews. So he could brag. They couldn’t afford class ring, so my mother bought me a gold bracelet that I still have around here somewhere. It had my name on it (it doesn't have it anymore).

My college graduation came 4 years later. Everyone was there: my father, mother, R, A, P, and Jenny…my niece, and a couple of aunts. My mother insists she couldn’t see me. My father claims he could see me just fine. After the graduation we went to Red Lobster. Both my parents were very proud, but, simultaneously, and I could see this in their faces, a bit embarrassed. They didn’t know what they were supposed to be proud about. It was as though they felt someone was watching them and expecting them to say something like: we knew this day would come. But they didn't. This was not foreseen, planned, expected, discussed, projected....I bought my dad a giant beer and told him everything would be fine. My mother’s smile was uncanny, a mixture of pride, shame, and mourning.

Then I got a Masters. This time, my dad stayed home. My mother came. She asked somewhat mockingly: otra vez? Which, when properly translated means: you graduating again? I thought you were done—when will you be done? We had a quick lunch. I went to my parents' house and my father grilled steak. He asked me what was next. I said I didn’t know. He said: as long you’re happy. I said thanks. He gave me $100 and told me to do what I loved.

No one attended my last graduation—the one with the PhD. I didn’t go, and I didn’t tell anyone there was one. I called home after I defended my dissertation and said: lla! My mother said great and told me that my brother’s car had broken down and my sister had to go pick him up and my dad was mad that no one had mowed the lawn and P and A were fighting over bathroom cleanliness. Finally, she asked if I was coming home now, that I had been gone far too long, and it was time. I said I didn’t know. My father got on the phone and said he was proud of the kind of man I turned out to be, even if he didn’t know exactly what it was that I did. He asked me when I was coming home. I said I didn’t know. Then he said: we’ll be here when you do. I said: you always have been. Then he said: not always, but we’re here now. And, good job, mijo.

I’m wondering if my experience is unique in this respect. I like to think not, for fear of hurting my own feelings with the thought.

1 comment:

  1. My family is not a family that has recently immigrated anywhere. For the most part, we were part of the large Scotch-Irish immigration that happened a long time ago.

    We're a family of poor tobacco farmers from the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. But education is nevertheless an oddity. My paternal grandfather is illiterate - he dropped out of school after the third grade to help in the fields. My maternal grandparents did not complete high school. I am the first from my family to earn a college degree.

    My high school graduation was a joyous occasion. My college graduation was happy as well. Earning an MA and a PhD has moved me further and further away from my family. What I do is foreign and incomprehensible to them, and some of my older male family members actually view my career with suspicion.

    I've felt more and more alienated from my family with every step of my career. They're proud of me, but they no longer understand me. Or, to be fair, I should say that we no longer understand each other, at least not in the way we used to. Now I live miles away from our fields and mountains, in the flat heart of the country. I'm not sure I'll ever get to go home again.

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