My Mother And I Immigrated To Parallel Universes

All I remember of the journey to the United States was bread and red caviar on the plane, with pats of butter wrapped in gold foil and nestled in the airplane tray. This is just the beginning, I thought. If the gold-wrapped butter was any indication, America would be incredible. I was 6 years old, so “incredible” was not a clearly-defined concept: plenty of варенье (jam), new storybooks, and the occasional toy.

For my mother, 30 years old and pushing two suitcases and a young child through a foreign airport, hope was a more solid thing. Like many immigrants, she pictured our new country in “betters” — for her and, most importantly, for me. A better education, a better career, a better husband, a better life.

At 31, I frequently find myself at odds with these betters; my job pays less than my mother’s, I rent while she owns, I am unmarried. In contrast, I devote time to creative pursuits, am non-binary and queer rather than female and straight, and have wrangled my poor mental health into something I work with rather than fight to suppress. Things are powerfully, unequivocally, capital-b Better, but the move severed our past from us and delivered me into a new life so fundamentally different, that as Ocean Vuong wrote, “English readers will understand more clearly what I want to say to my mother than my mother ever will.”

Lately, I have come to see my family’s immigration from Russia as transatlantic, transgenerational, and some third thing I can’t fully describe.

Let me try. “Trans” means across, and the “im” of “immigration” means in, but the effect was more a kind of bifurcation — a split path that shows the other through the tricks of a funhouse mirror when, in reality, we are both now walking alone. Immigration drops children and parents into parallel universes, running alongside each other but no longer speaking the same language. As a writer, and especially as a writer of poetry and memoir, the impact of this is occasionally crushing. “It’s bittersweet that I get to articulate it,” Vuong writes in that same interview, referencing his poetry, “but not to the person I want to articulate it to most.”

In 1991, a move to the United States meant opportunity — but an opportunity for what, exactly? As I grew up, economic and social changes made stable careers obsolete, unconventional living situations commonplace, and identity a lifelong exploration. Graduating right into a recession made many of my early business decisions for me and influenced my earning potential, but I think I could have explained the resulting anxiety to my family.

What I’ve never quite been able to explain is how my choices were immeasurably driven also by the desire to understand myself fully and to be known by the world around me. There is a space for ego there that my mother did not have access to — I can’t pinpoint which things set what in motion, but for my mother, the realities of being with a child, moving across the world, and having an intense work ethic and no-nonsense tenacity meant she used most of her energy on maintenance. She was, understandably, focused on keeping things afloat and moving vaguely forward.

I think about what she could have done with the space to be more of a person; to explore loves for no good reason and paint murals with her memories. And yet I hate to make these statements about her, to act like I know something she doesn’t. I remember a paragraph from Anna Kovatcheva’s essay “Further Instructions For American Writers Surviving Bulgaria”: “After all, what right do you have to speak for a land you left when you were so small? You fear stumbling, hurting the people whose stories need telling.”

Kathryn Tolbert wrote for The Washington Post about Japanese war brides — women who came to the United States after marrying military men and the way they were forever changed both by the “betters” of immigration and the real-life blur-tool of learning a language and culture later in life:

“Rodney Yoder, of Boston, was a Harvard student spending a year at Doshisha University in Kyoto when his mother, Itsuko, came to visit. Decades later, sitting in his Back Bay apartment, he choked up at the recollection. ‘I could understand my mom for the first time. I could hear her speak, I could hear her sense of humor. My home-stay family told me how bright and cheerful my mother is. So in a way it was like getting to know her for the first time.’”

The burden of child-rearing has fallen disproportionately to women throughout history, leaving them tending the hearth while fathers wrote novels and stayed up until dawn talking about themselves. There are several things that I can’t bear to think about, and this is one of them: the magnitude of individuality we have made women swallow. I feel born from this like Venus from foam — like I’ve fed myself off someone else’s life, which is bad, and can thank them only through a 10-round game of semantic telephone, which is worse.

I want my mother to know who I am, what the result of all this sacrifice was, and I can never figure out if this is something I owe — how do “I am grateful” and “I want you to know me” meet, and how can you know me when I am things Russian has no words for? Vivek Shraya wrote for Buzzfeed about the “unrelenting investment in sharing personal information with our parents,” the “linguistic juggling required to communicate with my parents, using other words to signify the ones I can’t say out of fear or respect.” If our parents are the “ultimate barometers of approval,” what does it mean when they can’t parse what we need them to sign off on?

So we meet monthly for dinner and talk about our jobs, our homes, our partners. Simple things, in simple words. We discuss the side effects of my anti-depressants, but not what it feels like to wake up in the morning without the clammy hands of anxiety around my throat. I tell my mother how my friends are doing, but not how the term “non-binary” made my insides and outsides match for the first time. I practice patience and understanding and try to hold space for my mother — to let her exist as she is in tandem with how I am.

“Maybe there is beauty in love that thrives even when difference is unnamed,” Shraya writes. “Maybe that’s ok.”

In 1991 my mother and I immigrated to alternate timelines; walking side by side on separate paths that will never cross. And maybe that’s ok. I can only hope that the distance is short enough for us to hold hands.

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