On My Immigration Anniversary

I’ve been writing this entry in my head for a while, and it will mark my serendipitous return to my poor, neglected blog.

This past Thursday, the 19th was my immigration anniversary. Sixteen years ago on Thursday, I arrived in the US for the very first time, not knowing a lick of English, not knowing any of the extended family that waited for me and not knowing what being an immigrant entailed then, now and for the rest of my life. Every year, I reflect on the years that have passed and often get stuck in the thought loop of, “What would I not have, have not been able to do or had not seen if I hadn’t gotten on that plane with my dad in 2004?” 

The answer? Everything. Everything I have and hold dear, every experience, every memory, every friendship.

But, because it’s also been a strange year (few years, really) to be an immigrant, this year’s reflection was different. Like with anything or anyone you love and love well, you have to be lovingly critical, but critical nonetheless, when considering the good and the bad. This year’s reflection also started with a memory.

Little Vanessa. Circa 2002? One of the few pictures of my childhood that I’m able and willing to look at… for two minutes tops.

When I was eight or nine, I got caught cheating on a test. This was Ecuador, so the details are a little fuzzy because of Trauma and trauma, but the gist is: I was sitting next to my “best friend” and we were given a test that she hadn’t studied for. The classroom had those two-seater desks where two children fit comfortably, and to keep us from cheating, the teacher gave each seat of the two-seaters a different version of the test.

As the teacher dictated the questions, we were supposed to write down the answers for our version on a blank sheet of paper. On one of the questions, my friend nudged me and pointed to the blank space on her paper. I knew the answer, but I shook my head at her because I didn’t want to get in trouble for talking during a test. She kept nudging me, so I did the next best thing: I wrote the answer in tiny letters on a tiny piece of paper, folded it and handed it to her. The teacher happened to be walking by as my friend was unfolding the paper. When the teacher inspected it and saw it was written on, she snatched both of our tests and returned mine with a zero.

I can’t remember what happened next, whether I was sent outside while the other students finished the test, whether I cried or not, or what my friend did. What I do remember is feeling incredibly sad and ashamed, with that prickly sensation on the back of my neck that I can now identify as a panic symptom (Little Vanessa was panicking at the thought of getting a zero on a test and getting in trouble – that’s Trauma with a purposeful capital T). I also remember writing “zero” in cursive next to the numeral the teacher had written. My loopy cursive was self-flagellation, a habit I carry to this day as an almost-twenty-eight-year-old adult; no one is as hard on me as I am on myself.

The next day, my mother went to talk to the teacher, to plead my case, and I don’t remember what the resolution was. I want to say that my friend and I got half the grade we would have gotten had we finished the test without cheating, but I definitely remember that she didn’t get in as much trouble as I did. I found out later that the teacher was a friend of my friend’s mom. The quotation marks around “best friend” were not accidental. We didn’t speak after that and actually became frenemies until I moved to the US three or four years later.

Why that memory and why now? I don’t know. All I know is that the test did not matter almost twenty years later, and that friend got pregnant at seventeen and posted a lot of selfies on Facebook last I checked when I still had a Facebook account years ago. I know you’re not supposed to get pettily happy about things like that, that motherhood can come at any age and in any circumstance as long as the woman is happy and sees the child as a blessing. But, on behalf of that little girl who wrote “zero” to make sure she learned a lesson, I’m pretty happy I turned out nothing like that former best friend.

That was not the first or only instance of unfairness that Little Vanessa would experience, and certainly not the first or only instance of pain or panic symptoms at not being the best, brightest or best behaved.

What Little Vanessa did not know at that time, however, was that she would come to a place where such unfairness wasn’t so blatant, where tests were better administered and she would be protected from being manipulated into helping a friend cheat. Little Vanessa would come to have opportunities, to go to university although her family was in no position to help her pay for her education. Little Vanessa would come to speak three languages, an asset that would set her apart wherever she went and at every job she had. Little Vanessa would even learn to drive a car that she owns herself, which she would drive on bad days while singing along to the best of All Time Low to cheer her up.

Adult Vanessa, however, still struggles with the realities of being an immigrant, struggling to always be grateful to a country that has done so much for her yet has behaved so heinously throughout history, even as recent as the past four years. Kids in cages, police brutality, the student loan system… all that lives in the same system that gave Adult Vanessa the opportunity to think differently, to question ideas that would have been a given in Ecuador had she grown up there. Can a place that supported Adult Vanessa in getting  a master’s degree in another country be the same place that does not support other immigrants who don’t have the privilege of migrating legally? To the point where they’re denied health insurance and are disproportionately dying from this unforgiving virus?

The answer is yes. Yes, it can be the same place. And that is the biggest way I celebrated my immigration anniversary this year: by accepting that two things can be true at the same time, and that my experience could have easily been different and harsher if I happened to belong to any other marginalized group. For that, I’m thankful. For the ability to be critical yet appreciative of my experience. To even have the right and privilege of speaking my truth.

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