Saturday, July 8, 2017

Lucky Number Seven - How this Immigrant Girl Found Her Way and Discovered What Being An American Means

It's been a while Blog World! Since I wrote my last post I have: celebrated Easter, got baptized *whoop!*, found out what the word "three-nager" really means, ate a lot on the Fourth of July, welcomed my Grandparents from Serbia, oh, and switched jobs! Also, our lovely Cherokee Trailhawk was totaled-- but that's a story for another day! Nobody was hurt which is a blessing from God, and that's really all that matters.

I started my new job Wednesday, and it has been scary and awesome at the same time. I realized yesterday was 7/7/17 and made a joke to a coworker about why we weren't in Vegas but I was so busy with the week and diving into my new role that it didn't dawn on me that on 7/7/98 we set foot on American soil. 19 years ago yesterday, my preteen self touched down in Houston, TX followed by Tulsa, OK. I'm in shock (still) as I write this...

Coming to America - What I Wish I Knew

When my parents announced to me that we were going to "go" to America, I was thrilled. 

We lived in the United Arab Emirates at the time, and what I knew of America involved Disney World, Universal Studios, Beverly Hills, and MOST importantly the Backstreet Boys! Movie stars were from America and there was sand, beaches, and water sports - just like I was used to. It also never crossed my little mind that we were never coming back. Ever. You can imagine my shock when the plane touched down in Tulsa and we began the subsequent 20 minute drive to Owasso, OK (which at the time was mostly grass, a Warehouse Market, and a Walmart - no, not the Super Center. There was neither sand, nor beach, nor movie stars. My heart dropped into my stomach as I wondered what the hell my parents were thinking. 

How desperately I had wished my parents would have given me the lay of the land before hauling us here, how desperately I had wished I knew what we were going to, and how badly I wanted there to be SOMETHING good about this place. My Father had been to Owasso before we moved and I wished he would have brought back pictures of what it looked like, then maybe I would have a say in going or staying. Except as we all know, I never had a choice.

Starting School in America - Middle School 

I remember the rest of the summer dragging on because we only had one car, a banana yellow 80-something Cadillac - we called it "Granny." 

My Father bought it with cash because naturally - we had no credit. My Dad drove that car to work so during the day my mother, sister, and me were left cooped up in a house because it was way too hot to do anything - and my Mom was too scared to leave the house; this was America after all. The beginning of August finally hit and it was enrollment time. All you American kids know what that means so I won't go into detail. We drove up in front of the Owasso Seventh Grade Center and as I looked at the building I wished the ground would open up and swallow me whole. THIS was the school? "Mom, are you SURE we're in the right place?" 

A little context... In the U.A.E, I went to a huge school - an international institution for higher learning. There's an admissions process, the curriculum is rigorous, and the campus spans over 370,000 feet. So, when I looked at the grey/tan building with no windows and my parents told me it was a school - I wanted to faint. We walked into the building and I could instantly feel eyes on me. Looking back on it as an adult its understandable. It was a small town and most of the kids knew each other so when someone new walked in, they stuck out like a sore thumb. As a 7th grader though, I was mortified. The children were different. They looked different, they spoke differently, their mannerisms were different. Everything from the way they wore their hair, to the brand names on their clothes was different. It really was a whole new world for me.

I begged my parents to send me back and one night my Father had enough. I will never forget the sentence or the sternness in his voice when I said, "I want to go home. Please let me go home." "THIS is home now. We are never going back, and I don't want to hear one more word about it." He emphatically answered me, and that was the end of it.

The first day - hell the first year - was really rough on me. Middle-schoolers are not nice. I won't go into details about being bullied my first year, because that isn't the point of my post, but I want to emphasize that Seventh and Eight grade were't easy for anyone - but especially not for an immigrant child who grew up in a completely different culture.

Growing up "American" - The Flag and the Feelings

Years passed and I got more acclimated to my new surroundings. 

I made friends and I would purposely seek out the new kids because - they had no bias towards me and because I knew what it felt like to be the odd one out. I joined some teams and clubs and I had a crush. Typical teenage stuff. Our third Independence Day holiday was the most special one to me because a few pieces of the puzzle started coming together. I thought about my experiences in Owasso thus far. I observed adults and teens because I've always loved people watching and I observed a sense of freedom. Where I was from you couldn't just say anything. I spent my childhood as an immigrant. I was an immigrant in the U.A.E and I was an immigrant in the U.S but I didn't have to be too mature to notice the difference. 

In the U.A.E there were different "types" of immigrants and it was largely dependent on where people came from and what type of work they did. Some immigrants were treated very well, others were treated very poorly - and even as a kid you knew "who's who". As children on the playground, we knew to ask each other, "where does your Dad/Mom work?" because that held weight in the U.A.E, that mattered. In the States, I was in class with white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, and Asian kids and nobody cared where anyone's parents worked. Kids were more concerned about what brand t-shirt you had on, but parental occupation had little to do with anything. 

People were free to say what they wanted, where they wanted, whenever they wanted. They bashed the President, the Government, and cursed everything under the sun and nobody flinched. In the U.A.E, we (the adults mostly) had to be careful with what was said and around whom. You wouldn't dare bash the Sheikh, and you wouldn't speak out about the Emirates, and you certainly wouldn't say anything about the Government or the reining religion. Now, we didn't live in fear for our lives and we were not persecuted - but people knew where they fit in on the food chain, and by in large their mouths were kept shut. Disagreements with bosses in the U.A.E led to people getting kicked out of the country, so people minded their Ps and Qs.

I began to relax and buy in to that freedom and that Fourth of July made me emotional. I slowly started to realize why my parents made the choice they made. Why my Father risked and sacrificed everything. It wasn't for the tangibles - because we had abundance in the U.A.E but it was for the intangibles, which are absolutely worth sacrificing for. A certain set of known freedoms which did not exist where we were. 

The Aftermath and the Cost of Freedom

That "American" feeling was infectious and my fourth summer in the States was a turning point. 

10th grade started, I was a Sophomore in high school and the looming fears of being that old were before me. Pre-ACTs, pre- SATs, and people were beginning to slowly think about what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. The schools were separated according to grade due to the rapid growth of our city. The 9th and 10th graders were in the "Mid-High School" and 11th and 12th graders went to the "High School" which was just across the street. I was in advanced French and had to cross the Street a few times a week because those classes were in the High School. I was just getting in the swing of things in early September and I didn't know this was the year everything I was beginning to feel about this country would be solidified. 

I walked into French class on September 11th 2001 and sat in my desk. Our teacher had the T.V. on which was very unusual because she was somewhat of a battleaxe. As the bell rang, I looked up at the T.V to see an airplane crash into a very tall building. I would learn that was the second plane in the attacks of 911 to hit the World Trade Center. The entire class was in shock and our teacher was silent. We were all frozen as live footage streamed with people on the T.V. telling us that this was a terrorist attack on out country. I was so confused. This is AMERICA. What is going on? My mother was at home watching, as many other parents were, and nobody knew what would happen next. Should our parents come for us? Were we at war? What the hell?

I don't even remember the rest of the day - its a blur, but I do remember my Mom being terrified. I remember her telling my Father that she thought this couldn't happen in a country this strong. I vividly remember President G.W. Bush on screen. His emotion, his vigor, and him making a promise that we were going to get whoever it was that was behind this attack on Our Nation. I also remember vehemently agreeing and then being confused as to why I was agreeing. We? Our? Biljana, you're not from here. But in that moment, I felt like I was. Our house was here, my parents were here, and THIS was home. I began to realize why people loved America. In four years we had made a new life. My father started a business and it was working, I was making friends, my mother was volunteering, and we were accepted. I realized then that this felt more like home than I gave it credit for.

I realize now when I travel abroad what makes America so special. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, as the media so vehemently likes to point out, but by in large you are FREE here. You can speak out against your leaders, your President, your country. You can burn the flag, shit on the flag, and protest in the streets. You can have Pride parades and any other kind of parade. You can hold up a pipeline project, you can take a photo with a depiction of a decapitated President. You can pose in the nude if that is your choice, or you can wear a hijab if that is your choice. You can pray in the streets and you can praise Jesus or denounce Him publicly. All of these things without arrest or execution. You are free. 

I realized after 911 the cost of that freedom every time a soldier's death came on the news. When we had a processional in our town for a hometown fallen soldier and I saw the grief that fell upon the town and his family. I understood how important it was to protect freedom when I traveled to my home country of Serbia and my parents were stopped by a cop and everyone in the car was afraid of what would happen next. I realized it when I went back to the Emirates to visit and I was propositioned in front of a mosque and told I'd be taken somewhere I couldn't leave because I was a white female. I realized it when I went to Portugal and saw the struggle to make enough money to make ends meet by hardworking, smart individuals due to corruption in politics. 

The Oath - The Finale

I became an American citizen June 15th, 2011, 10 years after the attacks on 911 and almost exactly 13 years after I came to this country. 

I swore an oath then and I still swear it today, 19 years after moving to this country, my feelings have not changed.

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."

I figured out where I belong and why I belong here, in a fly over state with no beach. I know where the beach is, I can move there tomorrow if I wanted to - because I'm free to do so. I am free to sing, write, agree or disagree. I am free to preach and free to request audience. I can read the Bible while reading the Torah and the Quran and nobody will come knocking down my door. I'm free.


Post a Comment