Outside In: Sujata Massey

Sujata Massey is the award-winning author of the Rei Shimura mystery series set in Japan, and of suspense and mystery fiction set in late British colonial India. In the fourteen novels that Sujata has written over the last twenty years, she’s been interested in sharing the experience of other places, and her new book, The Widows of Malabar Hill, which is coming out in January, is about a Zoroastrian Indian woman – a tiny minority within the country – who is even more different as she’s one of the country’s first women lawyers in early 20th century Bombay. These exotic settings and storylines give a hint of the intricate threads in Sujata’s own life that have led her to make her home in a Victorian summer cottage in the Wyndhurst neighborhood of North Baltimore.

Sujata’s father came from India and her mother from Germany. After they met in England, they had fall-outs with both families who didn’t want them to marry outside of their culture. But they did – and happily were forgiven, and their three daughters are welcome whenever they visit India and Germany. Sujata was born in England, and she describes this as an invisible marking that made her immigration experience quite different from that of her parents.

It was his scientific specialty in geophysics that facilitated Sujata’s father getting a visa for the whole family to come first to California and then to Pennsylvania for work. While working at the Franklin Institute of Science in Philadelphia in 1969, he and others were tasked with examining the moon rocks from the Apollo 11 space mission. He let his daughters hold the plain gray stones in their hands and explained where they’d come from. “I felt special knowing I was one of the first children in the world to touch part of the moon,” Sujata says. “And the moon rocks also express for me the tremendous change in destiny we all had through immigration.”

Sujata was five years old when the family left Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England to come to the States, and she didn’t want to leave her friends and familiar neighborhood. “I proudly told everyone who asked my origin that I came from England. It may have looked cute – the brown girl with long black braids speaking in a Geordie accent for the first year – but it turned into a long-ranging difficulty for me integrating into school.” Her social situation really became difficult after the family moved to Minnesota in the early 1970s, when her father joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota. “This was the Twin Cities in the 1970s, which meant diverse social contacts in the university world for my parents to enjoy. However, I was ostracized from grade 2 to 12. My foreign name, brown skin, different interests, and refusal to conform were the problem.” The struggle of growing up in a very racially prejudiced school environment changed her forever.

Based on an instinct that the East Coast would be better for her than the Midwest, Sujata moved to Baltimore to study English at Goucher College when it was still an all-women’s school, before transferring to Johns Hopkins University and earning a B.A. in the Writing Seminars. Her instincts about the East Coast were right: “It was easy to make friends at Hopkins, which was very international,” she says.

Sujata’s whole family got green cards very easily due to her father’s desirable immigration status as a scientist in the 1960s. “It was a special time,” she says, “when the U.S. government was eager to build its science capabilities to compete with the Soviet Union. In those days, South Asian immigrants were few and far between – most were doctors or scientists.” It would be many years before Sujata decided to turn her green card status into U.S. citizenship. In 1998, she and her American husband were preparing to adopt a baby from India. “Looking at the immigration paperwork, it became clear that things would go more smoothly for our family if both my husband and I were citizens.” Now, she’s very glad that she did it. She’s active in voting and also supporting candidates she believes in. “My status as a citizen makes me feel safer, given the recent turn of events in this country,” she says. “We are tremendously blessed to have been able to adopt our children, because immigration rules have changed making it more difficult now. I made quite sure that our adopted kids have their certificates of naturalization and U.S. passports so they don’t face the risk of deportation.”

As a naturalized U.S. citizen, Sujata thinks of herself an American who will always stand up for immigrants. She tells the story of speaking on the phone to a tradesman about coming out to do a fix-it job in her house. “In a knowing voice, he said to me, ‘I’m not going to send you any foreigners.’ I stopped him right there and told him that I was a foreigner ­– my whole household was made up of immigrants – and his comment had offended me. He went even deeper into things, saying that certain immigrants had come into his industry and didn’t know what they were doing and were ruining the business. Of course I cancelled the job. People need to know that just because someone has an American accent, it doesn’t mean that they will be complicit in racism.”

For Sujata, the strangest part of her immigrant’s story is that she realizes she appears to most people as Asian American. She uses that term for herself occasionally. But when it comes down to it, she wonders if that is technically true. “What happens to the German part of me, and the British?” The Victorian summer cottage in Baltimore – the home she shares with the husband from Louisiana whom she met at Hopkins and the children they’ve adopted from India – is furnished with a mix of American, English, and Asian furniture and art. “A real mashup,” says Sujata, “just like all of us.” 

Outside In: Maria Lucia Silva Jaimes

Although you wouldn’t know it to look at it, this photograph was taken shortly after Maria Lucia Silva Jaimes had gone through a difficult and scary health episode. She was living in the U.S. at the time, and she went through it without telling her family back in Colombia because she didn’t want to make them worry. So, for her, this image means strength, resilience, and independence.

Maria Lucia comes from Bucaramanga, Colombia, which she describes as “a lovely mid-city on top of the Andes Mountains.” She left Bucaramanga to learn and experience more life than she knew there was in the town, to be able to live in a more inclusive society. And, she made her way to America because of that age-old driving force: “Love.”

Love has a way of taking on a life of its own, and Maria Lucia has reveled in meeting “all the wonderful beautiful people I now call friends and family.” Still, love also needs some down-to-earth practicality to help it along at times. And so, Maria Lucia, who is a scientist, secured a position as a Quality Manager at one of America’s largest and most successful companies specializing in advanced plastics compounding systems. The company sponsored her H-1B Visa, which allows U.S. employers to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations, and she worked first in their headquarters in Baltimore and then moved to their facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Her status as an immigrant has made Maria Lucia feel very fortunate, she says, because she has been able to broaden her knowledge and her way of seeing life. For her, the strangest part of it all has been realizing that, even though she wasn’t born here, she feels she belongs here. “I feel more normal and comfortable with myself than at my hometown,” she says. “I have grown to love this country and feel a part of it.”

And yet, being an immigrant has given her anxiety at times. “Being away from my nona (grandmother), and missing her last years of awareness, has broken my heart. I’ve never been the same since then.” Perhaps that is why, when you ask Maria Lucia where home is, her simple answer is, “I don’t know.”

 

Outside In: Minás Konsolas

This quintessential photograph is a strong reminder – both literally and symbolically – of where Minás Konsolas came from. It is of his mother, in a moment that can never be recreated, in their family home in Olymbos Karpathos, Greece.

The phrase, “Go West, young man,” attributed to the founder of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, was always in Minás’s plans in his early years. So, after he had completed his mandatory service in the Greek Army, that is exactly what he did. In fact, he followed in the footsteps of a procession of family members who had gone west. His uncle was a World War II volunteer; his older sister was married to a Greek-American; his younger sisters followed; and Minás’s turn came in 1976. Back then, it wasn’t as tough as it is now, and he was able to come legally, with a green card. Within five years, as soon as he was eligible to apply, he became a U.S. citizen, and he “feels great” about his status. For him, the strangest part has been that the community he left behind in Greece recreated itself in Baltimore. As he says, “I was not the only one to leave the Village…”

The full quote by Horace Greeley is, “Go west young man, and grow up with the country,” and it’s what Minás has done in the 40 years he has lived in America – the longer part of his life. Minás is a painter. After he graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art – the best part of being here, he says, is that he went to an art college and met his wife of 20 years, Peggy Hoffman – he established Minás Gallery, one of Baltimore’s alternative art spaces. Situated above his vintage clothing boutique in Hampden, his gallery was a gathering spot for local artists, writers, and performers to find an outlet for poetry, both visual and verbal.

When Minás closed down the gallery after 22 years, it was so that he could devote himself to painting full time. “I am most at home in front of my canvas!” he says. This, of course, begs the question of where home is for him now. “My adopted home is here in the city I love for it’s diversity, Baltimore.” But he adds, “Greece will always be a big part of me. I miss family, friends, and all things you cannot recreate.” Like that moment with his mother in their family home in Olymbos Karpathos.

Outside In: Kwame Kwei-Armah

When Kwame Kwei-Armah was invited to become the Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage six years ago, the thing that struck him most about moving to Maryland was the colors. “The colors of the sky,” he says, “the colors of fall, in particular. The leaves are so beautiful, the colors are so vibrant.” He remembers snapping this image and seeing the snow, which really shouldn’t be in it. “Snow and fall, in my humble opinion, are two separate things. But in the middle of fall, we had this snowstorm and it feels a little bit like my life. Like the immigrant’s life, actually. So many things are surprising about living in a new country. So many things catch you off guard.”

Another thing that struck Kwame, one of the things that has been the best part of being here for him, is the energy that is America. The engine of optimism. “Without a shadow of a doubt, it is a can-do country,” he says. “In my experience of this country, from my privileged position, if you have a good idea here people say ‘how can we make it work?’ It’s geared towards that kind of entrepreneurial spirit. That’s very exciting.”

Kwame was born in London to immigrant parents, so he is a first-generation British born. The country he was born into really saw him as an immigrant, probably up until about fifteen or twenty years ago. And he felt like an immigrant. Then, post 1997 in Britain, there was a real push towards inclusion, and he began to feel British for the first time, as if England was his home. “And then what did I do? I up and made myself an immigrant again. And as an adult being an immigrant, I understand how bold it was of my parents, who were in their 20s when they left Grenada to come to England, what a big bold experience it is.”

His immigrant status is really, really fascinating for Kwame. “As a natural born, there are critiques you can make of your country, critiques you can make of your government, that as an immigrant you think twice before you … not think it, but before you articulate it. You find a different way of framing it,” he says. “Because, quintessentially, someone born in a country can say exactly the same thing and it can be perceived as love for the country, and the exact same thing from someone foreign can be seen as hate for the country.” So, he believes, there is an insecurity about being an immigrant that affects you intellectually; that makes you have to think more than you normally would about the way you see the world and what you can do to solve it. So the experience of being an immigrant has made him more empathetic. “I count my blessings a bit more. It’s made me, I think, slightly wiser.”

Kwame still has family in London, and missing the people he loves is the most difficult part – his family, and the friends that have been his friends for twenty and thirty years. Still, he got here when social media was exploding, and it’s revolutionized his connection to home. “I can get on the phone and call someone and it doesn’t cost me anything. And I can see them via FaceTime, and that’s fantastic.”

Evidently, Kwame has picked up the “can-do” element of America. Likewise, the energy that he pours into being a multi-talented theater practitioner – playwright, director, actor, and Artistic Director at Baltimore Center Stage – is a good fit for this country. The strangest part of being an immigrant in America, Kwame says, has been not being able to vote – but, given his can-do energy, one has the sense that even that has the potential to change.

Outside In: Najwa Al Amin

When Najwa Al Amin arrived at the Iraqi border after a ten-hour drive from Baghdad ­– the only way in or out for anyone in the 1990s was by land because of the UN embargo – she came face to face with an Iraqi customs officer, who could easily have said, “Go back!” She passed through that first gate. The second gate was in Jordan, where the Jordanian customs officer could also have said, “Go back!” The third gate was the Sanaa /Yemen Airport – Yemen, Jordan, and Libya were the only three countries back then that took an Iraqi passport holder. The fourth gate was the most difficult; it was the American Embassy, where Najwa applied for a visa to the U.S. to visit her mother and two siblings, who were living in America. The fifth gate was at Jeddah Airport in Saudi Arabia, where the officer confiscated Najwa’s passport containing her American visa . . . for hours, without a word. He, too, could have sent her back. The sixth gate was at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., July 2000. The immigration officers pulled Najwa out of the line to a separate room, took photographs, and fingerprinted her, before letting her in. Behind the seventh gate, stood Najwa’s mother, her sister, whom she hadn’t seen for 10 years, and her sister’s family. The eighth gate Najwa had to pass through was when the immigration officer decided whether to grant her permanent residency or not.

Najwa Al Amin “gates of hope”

This image is one of Najwa’s paintings. It represents every gate she had to pass through to come the United States.

Back in Baghdad, in the mid-1990s, young professionals would secretly talk about migrating. Baghdad had become a lawless, dangerous city after two wars and a brutal UN embargo that took its toll on innocent civilians, with no end in sight. The migration options these young professionals talked about were Australia, Canada, New Zealand . . . and they would always say to each other that the U.S. was the best place to migrate to for a reason; it is made up of immigrants, and one will fit right in.

According to immigration law, Najwa says, anyone who comes into the U.S. on a visitor’s visa from a “war zone” or a troubled country can apply for asylum, if they can prove that it is too dangerous to go back and have no residency anywhere else. Initially, Najwa was going to send an immigration application to Canada, but her sister said to her, “America is a great country, you will love it here.” So Najwa hired a lawyer and applied for asylum, and she was granted asylum status in the States. Coming just fourteen months after Najwa arrived in America, 9/11 stirred up feelings in her that were amongst the strangest of her whole immigrant experience. “I foolishly thought I left such tragic events behind,” she says.

Najwa makes her home in Baltimore now. She subsidizes her artist’s life by being a licensed childcare provider, and she says that being in the States has changed her. “I was able to just be me,” she says. “The best part was freedom, and independence, self confidence, safety, kindness of the people.”

But it was hard won. By the time Najwa had passed through the eighth gate of her migration, when the immigration officer decided whether to grant her permanent residency or not, she was so tired of officers’ interviews, not to mention the anxiety, the worry about the eleven-year-old son she’d left behind in Yemen, the marriage that had collapsed, and working two jobs, seven days a week, to pay rent and support herself.

Four years after she came to the States, Najwa was able to bring her son to join her, but she didn’t travel outside the U.S. herself until she had an American passport. “I remember thinking, the magic of what a piece of paper can do . . . gates just seem to disappear for a while.”

Outside In: Alison Woodall

When Alison Woodall was 24 years old, she set off from England to travel the world, stopping over briefly in America. It was a country she had little interest in; it was simply a stop on the way to New Zealand and Australia. Four days into her trip, she met an American at the Grand Canyon, and knew she had to come back to the States and marry him. She spent a year desperately searching for an American company to employ her and, after nearly two years, one job offer, and at least $7000 in lawyer and visa applications fees, she was back in the States. “I loved my job and the U.S.A.,” says Alison, “but not the man I moved here for!” After two years working for a consultancy firm and seeing all 50 states, just when she was ready to move back to England, she met the man she would marry.

Alison had a good role model. Her mother was born in South Africa, and moved to the UK to marry an Englishman. Having lived in England for over 45 years, Alison’s mother is proudly English. “She is my role model for assimilation,” says Alison, who grew up in England and was always English – never British and definitely never European – but loved having South African heritage. “I knew I never wanted to marry someone English. I wanted to marry someone from somewhere else, but who shared my values, as my Dad had done.”

When Alison first came to the States, she managed to get an H-1B temporary work visa, even though she was told she had less than a 20% chance of getting it because she had the ‘wrong’ degree for the job she was applying for. As soon as she married, she applied for her green card, a procedure that took over two years and thousands of dollars. In the middle of the process, when she was four months pregnant, an INS official told her that it would be all right for her to visit England. He was wrong. Alison’s green card application was invalidated. She was stuck in England for six weeks, and had to pay for an emergency visa to get back to the States. Then, she had to apply all over again for her green card, and the second time they switched her fingerprints with those of a Vietnamese man, so that delayed the process still further.

In November 2015, Alison became a U.S. citizen (the strangest part was being one of only a handful of people who knew the words to the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem), and it was the easiest, quickest, and cheapest part of her immigrant process. But the whole experience has given her definite opinions about immigration. “It was incredibly expensive and stressful, but I accepted that it was just the nature of the immigration process,” she says. “I have no sympathy for the people who are here illegally and expect special treatment, or those who come from countries with a history of terrorism and can’t understand why they aren’t welcomed with open arms. The rules are here to keep the country safe. If you are qualified enough or lucky enough, you will get in, and if you aren’t that is just life!”

Alison is fully assimilated into the American culture, and she is “intensely proud to be an American.” She doesn’t cling to English things, and probably the only weird part was changing her date of birth from 8/3/75 to 3/8/75, because of the month going before the day. She says that her life is a million times better than she could ever have imagined it would be, largely because of the place she lives, in Atlanta, Georgia. “Not only am I proudly American, I’m especially proud of my husband’s southern heritage,” she says. “I’ve kept my English accent simply because it takes too much effort to change, but if I spoke with an American accent it would be a very southern accent. I’d say “all a y’all” at every opportunity! I hate it when movies use actors with southern accents to portray someone stupid or prejudiced, because the south is the most welcoming place I’ve ever lived.” Alison also loves the opportunities that her children have here. In fact, the only thing that she misses is “not having family and several high school friends here enjoying my journey,” which has turned out to be a completely different journey from the one she started at 24 years old, when America was a country she had little interest in.

 

Outside In: Margia Argüello

Margia Argüello was just a few months old in 1984 when her mother brought her from Managua, Nicaragua, to the United States. “So, she comes to the U.S.,” says Margia, “and she files for political asylum. And the INS is like, ‘Oh, we can help you, but we need a letter from your employer stating that you’re in imminent danger.’ And of course her employer is the Daniel Ortega government, so she just had to get a lawyer. So she never was able to get political asylum.” The attorney recommended that Margia’s mother – and her father when he joined them the following year – should apply for a work visa, so that at least they would have some kind of a legal status. “The work status happened right away. They got the work visas, but to become permanent residents, that took sixteen years.”

These images come from a dog-eared scrapbook that Margia has kept all these years. The pages are crammed with her childhood drawings. It’s what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words.

The Argüellos settled in Miami, and initially it was Cubans who helped the family with networking. Then, in the late 1990s, several Cuban and Nicaraguan politicians got together to lobby for NACARA – Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act – and Margia’s family was right at the cusp of this movement. NACARA was advocating for permanent residency and citizenship for people who had come in the 1980s from countries like Cuba and Nicaragua because of the governments there. “So they were able to state a case for people like us,” Margia says. “There was an amnesty, so that’s how we were able to get our permanent residence.” Every year, during the sixteen years that it took for the family to get permanent residence, they had to submit documents “updating that we were here and paying taxes and going to school and all that jazz,” and years later, when Margia applied for citizenship, she remembers going in to see the agent, and he had a stack of papers, like a book of life – report cards from kindergarten all the way up to high school.

Margia describes her parents as being “the second batch to come,” following her aunt who came in the 1970s to seek medical help for Margia’s cousin. Then, in turn, her parents assisted the rest of family to come, guiding them through the process. They helped to raise families and communities, so it wasn’t a normal childhood for Margia. “There were always people in the house. My parents were proactive about lobbying and protesting and signing petitions, and I remember being at rallies with them in downtown Miami. But still, I was a girl scout and sold cookies, so I did some typically American things. But it was bits and pieces of sharing things.”

The question that Margia is struggling with now is where home is for her. After growing up in Miami, she got her undergraduate degree from Cornell University in upstate New York, and she moved to Baltimore twelve years ago to pursue a post-baccalaureate, followed by a Masters in Science, at Johns Hopkins University. Now, she is an Associate at Johns Hopkins Medicine International. “I’ll find it,” she says about her quest for a home. “Baltimore for a while, but maybe it’s time to move on.”

Margia is pretty sure that home is not Nicaragua. “My family there asked if I would ever move there and I don’t think so. I don’t know. I’d love to do something for the country, but I don’t miss growing up there – I know how hard it is.” She’s visited Nicaragua several times in the past and she doesn’t feel Nicaraguan at all. “It’s obvious that I’m sort of this foreigner,” she says. “I go back to my country and they say, ‘you don’t speak like a Spanish person, you don’t walk like a Nicaraguan.’ The strangest part is that you don’t belong anywhere, I don’t know where home is, and growing up in Miami too just adds another layer of insanity because there are so many different nationalities. I see some of my American friends, who are so proud, and they have their flags and this whole lineage of people serving their country, but for me there is no pride. I find myself wishing I had it, and that I was fully accepted here.”

Margia’s extended family is scattered all over the world now – Canada, Australia, Oregon, California, Mexico, Costa Rica, Miami. “What is our family?” she wonders. “Who are we?”

Outside In: Neil Ferguson

outside-in

While he was teaching English in Japan, fully intending to return to his native Scotland at some point, Neil Ferguson met an American who was teaching there too. She then returned to America and, having fallen in love with her, Neil decided to come to the States and ask her to marry him. He’s now been here almost 14 years.

The best part of being here for Neil has been his wife and kids. That, and meeting new people, experiencing “fantastic” cities like New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia. At the moment, Baltimore is home for him but, as he says, “Who knows?” And he adds, “It’s wherever my immediate family are, but in an ideal world it would be Scotland.”

Being in the States has made Neil realize just how much he took Scotland for granted. He misses sarcasm as competitive sport … decent public transport … long summer evenings where it doesn’t get dark until midnight … British spring and autumn. And he misses the arts in general, “which seem to be in a far healthier state than here,” he says. When he first came to the States, he was a full time arts journalist. Then, print media began a steady decline, and he’s back to freelancing and working at the Ivy Bookshop. 

In light of the current administration, Neil, who has a green card, is feeling more Scottish / less “American” than ever. He was completely taken aback at quite how Conservative (with a capital C) a huge swathe of this country is. “I find the whole God and Guns brigade pretty mind boggling. See also: climate change denial as a badge of honor and the all-pervasive sense of uber-patriotism. I’m reminded on a weekly basis just how European I am.” Although he finds America a lovely country (most of the time), he also believes that it has a ludicrously over inflated sense of self. He’s found that one of the most difficult things of being here has been “frequently encountering well meaning Americans who assume that I’ve come to the U.S. to pursue the whole ‘American Dream’ malarkey, and are mildly flabbergasted that I don’t get all misty eyed at the very sound of The Star Spangled Banner.”

I think we can safely say that Neil is homesick for Scotland. His chosen image means “home and happy memories.”max-724507

 

Outside In: Miguel de la Fuente

outside-inIn 1962, a nine-year-old boy named Miguel Lino de la Fuente Alfonso and his two sisters were sent by their parents, with the assistance of Catholic Charities, from Matanzas, Cuba, to the United States of America in one of the world’s largest political exoduses of children in history. An estimated 14,000 unaccompanied children were airlifted from 1960 to 1962 to different locations in the U.S. as part of the Peter Pan project. As Miguel explains, “Under the Castro regime, a communist government, children – like the land, industries, stores, and housing – would become the property of the state. If that happened, parents would lose legal custody of their children.”

Once in the U.S., Miguel’s older sister was separated from him and his younger sister because she didn’t meet the age requirement of the Peter Pan project. So, although the two younger siblings were later reunited with their parents, they were never a complete family after 1962. “I did not come or was sent by my parents to chase the American dream for a better life,” says Miguel, “our life was just fine until it was taken away from us.” 

venceremos
“Venceremos” oil, stucco Veneziano, shellac, gesso on paper 11 in x 14 in

Miguel has lived in three countries, seven U.S. States, an estimated seventeen cities, and countless residences. He now makes his home in Baltimore, where he works as a fine artist. He made this painting, Venceremos (meaning we will overcome), which shows his struggles to survive “the insurmountable challenge of using an unstable surface through the journey of applying incompatible materials, working each layer to compromise, morph, or dissipate.” He goes on to explain that through the complex experiences of loss, anxiety, fear, love, and happiness, the layers that are applied and removed to cover up, fix, or mask “create the beauty of never giving up.”

Ever since he remembers, Miguel has needed to be resilient. “Nothing is free. I have survived by trusting my instincts, being innovative, and never giving up.” In time, his immigrant status evolved from political refugee to U.S. Citizen, and it’s something he doesn’t take for granted. “Not only have so many Cubans fought and risked their lives to be wards of this great country, but human citizens of the world,” he says. He feels so fortunate to be educated, established, and to have made the best of all opportunities. At the same time, he struggles to make sense of all that he is. “I do have regret, or guilt, that my parents risked so much; risk of imprisonment, being black-listed, and even their own lives threatened for us to be in a democratic country, but we don’t have a democracy in the U.S. There is censorship, class discrimination, and lack of education.”

For Miguel, the strangest part has been not to be able to identify with his Cuban culture; having his life interrupted and not having a consistent upbringing until he was reunited with his parents four years after coming to the U.S. Even so, he makes the most of having two cultures, like observing all the hallmark holidays with a Cuban twist. “Celebrating Santa Claus and Los Reyes Magos, eating Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie but also roast pork, black beans and flan; all the US holidays that always gave us an excuse to get the family together and share our favorite foods.”

But he’s wistful about the happiness, dreams, security, and quality of life that his family lost. “I wonder,” he says, “what our lives would have been if we stayed in Cuba.”

Outside In: Gillian Harris

outside-inwavesGillian Harris has always considered herself a water-baby. She grew up in Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, where the city and the coast, north and south, are a paradise of gorgeous, tropical beaches, embracing the warm Indian Ocean, and the golden sands. “Our family, mother and father included, all loved going to the beach.” Gill says. “This is how I remember my childhood – always in the surf (the bigger the better), and taking vacations in beach cottages up and down the coast.” When she was very young, and her parents couldn’t find her on the beach, her father would say, “See that little head way out there? The person well beyond the other swimmers – that’s Gill!” Most likely, he would join her.

That was that life.

When Gillian immigrated to the States, her American husband soon introduced her to the Northern California coast. It was foggy and cold, and Gill thought to herself that they were the most miserable beaches she had ever seen. “Today, over 30 years later,” she says, “I view those same beaches as utterly beautiful in their misty bleakness and grandeur.” It’s the perfect metaphor for how one’s vision of beauty and belonging changes.

It was in 1983 that Gillian came to the States for a vacation. At the time, she was working in the training department of a human resources company in Johannesburg, and she told her manager that her vacation would be about three weeks long. “He said, since I was coming such a long way, if it wanted to I could stay a little longer. Little did he know that I would never come back!” On her second day in San Francisco, she met a man she would marry four weeks later. “If I had intended to do it, I would at least have brought the right paper work,” she laughs, “my birth certificate, and so on. In fact, I had to go back for it.”

Initially, it was a difficult period for Gill, ending up in a pretty deep depression and sense of isolation. “When I first came, I went to a psychologist and I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, ‘you are displaced.’” The most difficult part was being so far away from her family and often feeling unsupported and alone. “I’m not sure I would ever give anyone advice to emigrate because it is very demanding,” she says. Gill has lived a life in this country and raised a child – ultimately as a single mother – without any extended family around. “So many of us South African friends have had to rely on each other almost as extended family.”

Gillian has permanent resident status in the States, rather than being a naturalized citizen and, while a part of her wishes that she had been “smarter” many years ago like her friends who became citizens when it cost $50 instead of $800, she recognizes that, unconsciously, a part of it may have been not wanting to give up her heritage. “My father was British, and when I was still at university in South Africa, I applied for British citizenship. I still have a British passport.” Another part of the picture is that, while home is here for Gill now, it’s actually always her adopted home. Even in the community where she lives in California, she has the sense that the underlying message is, ‘you’re not really one of us.’ “I miss that profoundly personal feeling of, ‘this is truly my home.’ I would call this home but I can’t say it is truly my home.”

This manifests itself in subconscious ways. Both her parents have died, but she is now, at the age of 63, experiencing these dreams where she is back in Durban, and asking people if they know her parents’ phone number, or their address. “It seems I want to go back ‘home.’ This dream takes the form of all sorts of contexts, but the final realization is that, if I found our old address, and tried to knock on the door, strangers would answer, and my parents would not be there. Where do I go?”

Yet, despite the dreams, Gillian is bound to the States now, for all the history and experience she’s enjoyed here. “I think what plants me here now in the USA, is the fact that my 30-year old daughter is very much American, loves living in San Francisco, and I am eternally grateful for her in my life.” Gill believes that the experience of immigrating has made her into a survivor and self-sufficient person, and the best part is that she has come to love this country and feel completely content to make her life here. “I live among the vineyards – what could be better than that? I have access to all sorts if physically glorious splendors – Yosemite, Tahoe, the Pacific coastline …” And, under current circumstances, she adds, “I am so grateful that I have an immigration story to tell, at all!”