On (not) being an immigrant


On a cold February night, Bum and I went to a bodega to pick up taco ingredients. After grabbing tortillas, I was on the hunt for toppings. As I slid by the candy to get to the infamous bodega produce section, I nearly rammed into someone. After letting out a customary Midwestern “ope” and quickly apologizing, I noticed the man I bumped into was wearing sandals. It was clear from his nice rain jacket and jeans that these weren’t “I can’t afford sneakers” sandals but instead something like “I’m tired and too lazy to put on other shoes” sandals. Trying to have a fun interaction with a stranger, I jokingly asked “aren’t your feet cold?”, to which I received no response. Not a chortle, not a cackle, not even a slight chuckle. As I perused the saddest bunch of tomatoes I had ever seen and reflected that maybe I’m not as funny as I think I am, the man (who had gotten in line) stepped out of line, turned around and asked angrily “Do my feet offend you or something?”. Embarrassed and immediately red in the face I responded defensively “I was just joking!”. Unsatisfied, the man said “Well for your information, my feet aren’t cold!”. He then got back in line, bought a single Advil, and victoriously left the bodega. On the way home, I joked with Bum about the absurdity of the interaction. Since we had just met a few weeks ago when I moved to New York, I felt the need to explain to him that for some reason I really like joking around with random strangers. It had never gotten me in trouble in the Midwest, so I blamed the conflict on the fact that “all New Yorkers are assholes.” For all I know, sandals man might have been from Cincinnati and had also just moved here two weeks ago and had a terrible migraine that made two shoelaces appear like a hopeless maze of infinite shoelaces and got angry at me because all he wanted was to buy one measly Advil in peace before my annoying joke made his headache that much worse. But I wasn’t able to accept that, so as I walked home I thought about the various ways I would need to change my behavior to survive the stranger-hating confrontation-loving deep dish pizza-despising New York City Metropolitan area. In that moment, for the first time in my life, I felt in some very small way like an immigrant. To those of you who who aren’t from the US or aren’t white or have travelled a lot, that might sound ridiculous. But I’m a third generation Chicagoan, and apart from a brief trip to Israel for a cancelled wedding (another blog post) and 10 months in La La land, I had never spent any meaningful time outside of Chicago. So there I was, a Midwestern farm boy hopelessly lost in the city that never sleeps. As I write this, I’m on a flight back from a trip to Mexico City. I can confidently say that this trip was the second time in my life I’ve felt in some way like an immigrant. Because I took Latin in high school (read: pretentious), my Spanish hardly extends beyond “¿puedo ir al baño?”. I literally asked Bum before I left how to say “thank you” in Spanish because all I could come up with was the Italian “grazie” (muchas gracias for the help Bum). In CDMX, I could hardly do anything without Pau by my side. One morning I ventured to a Starbucks alone just to get a tiny taste of home (jk it was just near a nice park). After nervously ordering a sandwich and a coffee in very broken Spanish, I waited in a corner for my things to be ready. I saw a couple of the baristas laughing. Were they laughing at me? (Read: anxiety / paranoia). If I lost my phone and I couldn’t find Pau and I went missing for the second time in my life (the first time is for another blog post), would I ever be able to survive? If I got Montezuma’s revenge (I did) and couldn’t stop shitting my brains out (I could), would I ever be able to figure out how to get to a hospital and explain to a doctor what was going on? Ultimately, I had an amazing time in Mexico City, but this anxiety popped up from time to time. I left Mexico City yesterday, but I missed my layover in Cancun. As I laid in a cheap hotel bed in downtown Cancun last night after eating a dinner of chips and salsa verde from the nearby 7-11, I yearned for home. I couldn’t sleep because I hadn’t gotten my covid test results back and I didn’t know if I’d be able to call the person who took my test and explain to them that I hadn’t gotten their email. All I wanted was to have the familiar feeling of being woken up in the middle of the night by Cecilia inexplicably attacking my foot. It was in that moment I realized that this is probably about 1/100000000000…th of what many actual immigrants feel like on a daily basis. Again, this might sound ridiculous to a lot of you, but for me it was actually a genuine moment of learning. I don’t think this realization will change the way I act (I really hope I’ve never intentionally treated an immigrant poorly even though I may have), but I think I’ll walk around with a bit more empathy. In this concrete jungle where my Midwestern sensibilities might get me in the tinyest bit of trouble from time to time, there are thousands of real immigrants who are hopelessly far from so many friends, family, and everything else that someone leaves behind when they move across the world.