I. WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
November 2008: I’m on a lunch break from a court trial in San Jose with my client, Pytor, a tall and charismatic but lovelorn Russian high-tech engineer. We pass by a plaque that tells the story of the son of Mexican migrant farmworkers who earned a PhD. Pytor is puzzled and says, “Both of my parents had PhDs.” I answer, “I’ll bet your grandparents weren’t peasants.” He is quiet. He then tells me his story of immigrating to the US He says,
When I left Russia, I moved to Germany. I lived there for five years and as long as I was there, I always felt like I didn’t belong. I speak perfect German, but I was always treated like a foreigner. But when I immigrated to the US, from the moment I got off the plane, I immediately felt at home. Everyone accepts me as an equal without reservation. That’s why I love America.
As an American, it made me feel good just to hear his story.
We stop at a Thai restaurant and take our seats. The waiter arrives. He looks at me, tilts his head slightly and asks with a smile, “So, where are you from?” I explain, “I’m from San Carlos, but I’m originally from Palo Alto. It’s about 20 minutes up the road.” I know what he meant, but I throw him a curve ball anyway.
He takes our orders and I contemplate the irony. I’m thinking, I’m in my native land. My forefathers have been here for more than a century. I’m sitting with a Russian émigré, fresh off the boat, but I’m the one who’s asked where I’m from. I know I shouldn’t be so sensitive about it.
My mind wanders back in time.
I’m a classic baby boomer, born in 1947, exactly nine months after Dad was discharged from the US Army. The 1950s was the time of my childhood. It was a time of conformity.
Television was the new technology of the day. We were excited when Dad set up our first TV set in the living room. Every night our family gathered around the TV to watch shows like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver. Through the magic of television, we were taught what it is to be American, how to act and how to look. The quintessential American family lived in the suburbs, had a white picket fence and ate Wonder Bread. Everyone aspired to be like them. No one wanted to be different. I did my best to blend in.
When I was in first grade, I came home from school one day and told my mother, “My teacher found out I’m Mexican.” Mom repeated my words as a question, “Found out?” I told her I’m half Mexican, pointing to one arm and half American, pointing to the other. Something in the ether made me feel that being Mexican was not as good as being American. I grew up in East Redwood City. It was a working-class neighborhood, with a smattering of different ethnicities and races. My friends at school were “colored,” Freddie Wilson, Russell Hamel and Lenoris Spillers. I used to walk home from school with Russell. He was the toughest kid in school. One day we stopped in at his house. He said “Hi” to his mother and I was shocked to hear them speak English to each other. It hadn’t occurred to me that people spoke English at home. It blew my little six-year-old mind.