Author of Breasts Don't Lie

Posts tagged ‘immigration’

American Citizenship-The Price

file8001243264561When I was 17, I chose to become an American citizen. Immigrating with my family at 13 to Alabama from a private boarding school in Scotland was difficult for my family. My parents’ marriage could not withstand the pressures. I grew up feeling confused and out of step. So many missteps, as simple as the use of English, like everyone got the US instruction manual but me.

Asking someone in the seventh grade, “Can I borrow I rubber?” did not mean what I thought it meant. When mother explained why the boy behind me laughed, I was mortified. I asked him for an ‘eraser,’ and he thought I was asking him for a condom. Eeoogh.

When the time came to go to university, my mother was utterly lost. I needed American citizenship to accept scholarships and at some institutions, back then, to even submit an admissions application.

I chose citizenship because, in high school’s Civics class and American Government classes, the American system presented a model of checks and balances, made up of groups helping each other create and maintain a democracy. The government was rational and prudent to my 17-year-old mind.

The actual occasion was memorable. Going before the judge in Mobile, I answered questions about American history and government from information I had been taught in school and augmented by ancillary reading done at night. I wore my best clothes – a black and green print shirt and a green corduroy wraparound skirt. I curled my hair. I couldn’t stop smiling. A teacher from my high school was there. He was from Mexico and getting his citizenship that day too. We were part of a larger group of immigrants. There is a picture of us standing before the US flag in the Mobile newspaper. It was a proud day for my family. A moment where I carved out a piece of my identity. My family went out to eat afterward at our favorite place, a little salad shop in the mall. Now I had the instruction manual.

I was the first of my siblings to receive citizenship. It was an honor. It breaks my heart to see the country torn apart by this election –people torn apart. Friends and family, colleagues and companies split by the divisiveness of this time. The price of the instruction manual is steep.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t be activists and stand for what we believe in. That is my definition of a government of, for, and by the people.

I am saying that a democracy should help elevate the people of the country to higher levels of thinking about complex social dilemmas. A government should help the people reach and create more.

More appreciation for diversity, not just tolerance but union.

More health, physical, mental, and spiritual, not my way or the highway.

More equality between and among groups, not justice for some.

More complexity in thinking, not moral relativism.

More compassion for emotional responses, not discounting nor overrating but integration.


Pay for your instruction manual whether given at birth or with your citizenship papers: what are you doing to mend our collective broken hearts?

Airport Nightmares


I will admit to being scared – I am acutely frightened these days of my status as an immigrant but in truth, I have felt this way since childhood.

When I was six, my mother took her two daughters from our home in Scotland to meet our ship captain father in Alabama. We flew into a New York airport with our British passports and went through customs/immigration screenings with everyone else but this time we were pulled out of the lineup. We were made to follow two people down a hallway into a larger room with a curtained off area on one side. I remember looking at my mother who had gone pale under her tan. We had made this transatlantic trip a few times to meet my father in the US without having to undergo this process. She nodded to me. “Take that baby’s hand,” she said. Like the good daughter I was brought up to be, I grabbed my four-year old sister’s hand. Mother and children were separated into two cubicles.

“Strip to your underpants,” a man said to us.

I remember helping my sister off with her dress. She was too small to undo the buttons.  Her hair snagged on a button causing her to cry when I tried to pull the dress over her head. She kept crying as I took off her shoes and socks. She looked tiny huddled into the corner of the shelf acting as a seat even to my almost as tiny six-year old self. I pulled off my tartan trousers and my top, unbuttoned my school shoes, to sit next to her. Eventually, I cried too.

There was a shuffling sound so I peeked through the curtain into the room. More people had entered, mainly men.

“Mrs. Young, come out here,” a man called out.

My mother came out of her cubicle.

Vicky, my sister, called out, “Mama? Mama?”

Mom turned around. Her face was paler still. She motioned for me to pull Vicky back into the cubicle. She was wearing her bra and panties. Under the bright lights before a group sitting in chairs. I heard them laughing. Settling my sister, I sneaked back to look through the curtains.

“Take everything off,” said the man. I watched my mother strip in front of these men and women, probably US Customs and Immigration agents. I do not know what other indignities my mother had to endure. Vicky was screaming at this point and I was so scared I wondered if I was going to die. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening and who these people were but I knew mean when I saw it.

Clutching my sister to me, I heard a man say, “Get the kids.” Mom came into the cubicle and one at a time she paraded us in front of the people. She was still naked. Vicky pulled against Mom’s hand trying to escape, I guess, until Mom picked her up. There was a defiance in my mother’s gesture. I pushed her hand away, wiping my face clean with my top, to walk out on my own. My brain has a snapshot of the group sitting, uninterested, talking among themselves, oblivious to my terror.

Shaking and crying, the three of us were allowed to dress and leave the airport.

We never talked about this. Nightmares of being naked in a confined cage surrounded by giants plagued me into my thirties and have restarted.

When I was 18, I applied for American citizenship. To accept a scholarship to college and to never have to go through this again.

I have written this as I remember the event, devoid of most emotion and description. Because a part of my six-year old self did die that day. I hate New York and I hate airports, and I hope no other six or four or thirty-three-year old ever has to go through this.

Good Enough

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I’ve had many opportunities to think about perfectionism lately. Being from a family of overachievers, I struggled with it from toddlerhood. I keep thinking I have it in the bag but … not so true.

I remember mimicking other teenagers when I first immigrated to America. The stress to fit in was so great, I would cry walking home from high school. Maybe if I was perfect, I would get invited to sleepovers. Instead, I got a red nose and pimples from the stress and sleep deprivation.

I remember the time I said to my first husband, Numero Uno perfectionist art director, “I’m not a size 4. I’m a size 8. Get over it. I have.” There was a wonderful freedom in that statement. He wasn’t so sure. “You could eat less,” was his response. Spaghetti Carbonara or perfection? Not a difficult decision. My stranglehold on perfection slipped.

I remember the interview for admissions to an educational program. They asked, “What do you want to get out of the program?” I said, “I want to be a B student.” Their mouths fell open. They looked kind of dumbfounded.  I had gone through graduate school with a 4.0 GPA and just didn’t want to waste energy making As in everything. I had a pinkie finger hold on perfectionism.

In my counseling practice, my yoga classes, and teaching positions, I emphasized the thoughtful use of energy. Along the lines of, “You have 100 units of energy in a day, a week, a month, year, or lifetime, and you decide how you allocate your resources.” Most people would look at me with a blank face but some people would get it – start prioritizing what they were doing, how they were using their time and energy.

Then this year, some of my favorite celebrities died. Alan Rickman. David Bowie. Some friends and clients died or developed major health setbacks. An epiphany slapped me in the face. “Damn, this life is finite. I really don’t have time for perfectionism.”

That’s not saying I’m a slacker. Well not most days. I still like taking a day out of each vacation and spending it in my pajamas. I can plop down in front of the SCIFY channel for a good six plus hours with a bag of chips. I am proud of myself for letting myself enjoy those times without judgment. At some point, I get up, stretch, and do something productive. But I’m not exhausted with the continuing judgment of Being The Perfect Whatever (you fill in the blank).  Most things in life are not perfect and don’t need to be perfect.

I think I wanted to be perfect because I was afraid. Being me wasn’t enough. If I picked up a new career, friend, lover, hobby, I had to be perfect at it right away. Immigrant, curvy, bad hair, dyslexic me is ImPerfect. Seeing that on the screen makes me cringe. Now I want to be Good Enough.

Last holiday time, I gave a reading from my book and it was awful. Really awful. I stuttered. I stammered. I lost my place. I forgot my own story. When I finished, the packed bazaar was silent. Good bloody grief. Perfectionism triggered flop sweat. I wiped it off and joined the other authors in a dance lesson around the bazaar. It was okay. No one died. I didn’t sell any books but next time …

Life will go on. And life will be easier and more productive if I am not using my energy on the impossible goal of perfectionism.

Do you struggle with perfectionism?

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