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Love Stories: Coming to America for a New Life, Thanks to a Mother’s Love

Giving up everything for the love of a country doesn’t mean it’s going to love you back.

15.2.2020

For our Love Stories series, one Vogue writer reflects on what is received when one is sold the American Dream.

Giving up everything for the love of a country doesn’t mean it’s going to love you back.

Pinterest My mother gets onto a plane to America while my grandfather is dying. He has raised his children on the works of Robert Browning and Langston Hughes, taken them to tennis lessons, enrolled them into private schools, and paid for their college degrees at any institution of their choice. He is a teacher, activist, and writer with a book that is currently sitting in the Stanford University library, but even he no longer sees opportunity in Zimbabwe. It is his deathbed wish that we will find a home elsewhere. My mother’s name is listed on the second drawing of the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, the Green Card Lottery, which is a free pass that will take her away from my father, her career, and her family. It is a 21-hour plane ride that she does with forty dollars in her pocket and one bag of clothes that can dress her for a week. She is certain that America will provide for her. She lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and a distant aunt who lives in Queens is there to pick her up. The first thing she tells my mother is to toss out her resume because no one will believe any education that she claims unless the institution is run by white men. Instead, she hands my mother The New York Times every morning and tells her good luck. My mother gets a job within a week with a family who has a house so large that entire rooms are dedicated to play. The lady of the house takes my mother up to the attic floor of her home and invites her to take a better look at America. The lady’s husband is a music producer who works with artists like Bobby Brown, who my mother remembers listening to in Zimbabwe while kissing boys at dance parties in the country’s capital. My mother finds the job from a page in the newspaper; the lady is looking for someone to stay with her family, sweep her floors, make the beds, and care for her children. My mother learns how to stack their jeans and hang their blouses in the order in which they request. She prays every night that this will pass. It takes a year until she can send for me to join her in America. I nearly forget that I have a mother or father. Days before my grandfather passes away he reminds my mother that she has done the right thing. ​America looks like a rainbow with multiple ends to which golden pots are kept. My mother has to hold my hand to keep me from slipping into candy aisles in awe of the variety. We are living in the basement of the home where my mother is the cleaner until she has saved enough money for us to rent a two-bedroom apartment with a lady from the Philippines, named Anita. My mother tells Anita about our dreams and though she has come to America for different reasons, she supports my mother where she can. Anita teaches me about fried seaweed, face masks, and nail care while my mother works nights cooking dinners for another family as a source of income. Sometimes I catch Anita brushing her hair in the mirror and I can tell that she misses home in how she quietly sets down the brush when she is done. I can hear from our bedroom window the young Americans coming home late and yelling their language; they sound like wild chickens in distress but they seem proud of it. It makes me want to sound like a chicken too. ​Reading English becomes my favorite thing to do. I refuse to speak anything else other than these new words that bounce off of my tongue, like h-e-l-l-o and g-o-o-d-b-y-e . I am enrolled into first grade in a mostly Jewish suburban town in New Jersey. White teachers with their hair in buns search for my mother at Back to School Night to shake her hand and tell her that I’m gifted. My mother is new at this too but we are faking it well. Family sometimes call to check on us but I hold onto the other line with my eyes glazed over and my mouth completely mute. I have forgotten my native tongue for America. I move to the top of my class and keep learning. My mother quits her job as a maid and gets a new one as a cashier at a retail store where she gets discounts and wears jewelry. It feels as though even with less we are already better than the versions of us that would’ve been buried in the soil of Zimbabwe. People call us things like lucky and blessed . Old women with rouged lips and the smell of musk on their necks grab me by the face to ask if I know how nice it is that America is doing this for us. Advertisement ​I finally reach middle school. No one told me that black wasn’t any good here, but I am finding out on my own. Black girls who are a different type of black than I am seem ashamed that people are getting us confused as being the same. They call me too black behind my back and to my face. I ask my mother to take out, in one night, the weave that she has stayed up for two nights hand-braiding into my hair like we do back home. We get on the bus and go to a salon that will burn my hair until there is no more curl in it. My mother asks if I am happy when it is done and I smile so large that it is nearly from eye to eye. The woman at the salon runs a comb through my hair, that is now thin, and tells me to come back every two weeks for more. ​I am 16. I wear Apple Bottoms jeans and Air Forces that my mother works an extra shift to buy. People now ask me where I’m from and sometimes get it wrong. I have made friends with black girls who are three or four levels below the ones that boys want to talk to on their way to class. We log onto online chat rooms after school at our friend’s house and pretend to be a blonde girl with blue eyes named Trish. It is our first time with a boyfriend. We swap out by the hour when we are Trish until our parents pick us up. We all want a chance to see what it feels like to be both cruel and beautiful. America no longer speaks to my mother the way that it speaks to me; I stay up late thinking about whether I have done enough while my mother strains her neck over bills. I receive an award that calls me the best actor in all of New Jersey. The kids at school ask me to remember them when I’m famous. I learn to run long distances to lose weight and reduce my anxiety. My mother hugs me as she sees me thin away around my ribs. I am losing you , she says. I am officially a senior in high school. I get into full-of-potential colleges that are more than my mother can afford. Advisors tell me that I will spend all of my life paying it off through loans. We walk to the homes of everyone that we’ve ever met in America with a folder of my report cards and acceptance letters, like traveling salesmen, and ask for money to finish my education. It is the reason that I have come here, my mother says. She is now an executive at a state corporation who has people report to her with answers to questions that she has asked. This is humiliating for the both of us, but we do not shed a single tear until everyone has said no. I go to the only state college in New Jersey that is not known for its STD rates. A boy that I’ve met in class tells me that he will smoke me up. I lose touch with my teachers who call me a rising star and spend many nights riding shotgun. America has robbed me of my grace in pursuit of its dream. Advertisement I am 25. I am the assistant to an editor in chief at a high-selling magazine. We are in the middle of New York in a 46-floor building. My mother asks me if it is safe to be so high up. There is a new president, the ex-star of a reality show, with the catch phrase: you’re fired . He is announcing that he has a new America planned that will keep out outsiders and make lots of money. I can hear all the throats in New York dry up. I cry for the duration of a run from my new apartment in Chelsea. People do not move out the way for me no matter how fast I go. I push in the bags under my eyes that have been there for months. On the TV they are saying that immigrants from Muslim countries are no longer allowed here, that the only people who belong in America are those who do not steal from it. I think of my childhood friend Deema who no longer feels safe to wear her hijab or go out after dark. I call my mother to ask if she is watching, but her phone goes straight to voicemail. I worry about her living in a town all on her own. My home country is not war-torn—it is miserably poor—but there are days when I wonder if all that was gained in America was worth all that was lost. Topics Read more: Vogue Magazine

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