Sunday, August 8, 2010

Adjusting to life in the U.S.


         Young man Playing Scully on the sidewalk



So I had started the second chapter in my life in a new country with almost new parents. This chapter would bring both joy and pain - each one fighting for supremacy as the major player in my daily existence. It would prove to be a difficult period in my life. One that would shape who I am and what I would become.

In the very beginning, I was trying desperately to come to grips with missing my friends and relatives in Trinidad that were central in my life thus far. I cried a bunch, reminisced with my sister, and wrote letters to my grandmother.

I longed for the foods of my youth - pelau, callaloo, shark and bake, provisions, stew chicken, roti, and coconut water. Instead, I was introduced to spaghetti, twice baked potatoes, hamburgers, broccoli, lasagna, and kool-aid. There was one new food introduction that was especially good however – pizza. As with many kids today, pizza trumped any food item for me during my first few months in the U.S. Nevertheless, I felt that my history with Trinidadian food was slowly being erased. My taste pallet was being rewritten with a bent on European/American cuisine.  

We moved into a house on 219th street in the Bronx at first, which was a temporary arrangement until my parents closed on a house on 3940 Pratt Avenue close to the border of Mount Vernon.

I was trying to fit into a culture that seemed foreign at best and wildly exciting at the very least.

I attended a public junior high school when I first arrived in the U.S.

School was my first true reminder that I was not in Trinidad anymore. I was trying to find my place among the throngs of students who seemed to know exactly their position in the universe. I had a heavy accent and tried to communicate with children that seemed to speak a language I only heard on American television shows.

It was the beginning of the school year and children were dressed in new stylish jeans and Adidas sneakers. I looked way out of place with my “high-water” pants and sneakers that kids called “skips” even though it was not written anywhere on the sneakers.  I felt out of place in the American school system.

In class, I would raise my hand to answer a question posed by the teacher and would have to be asked time and time again to repeat myself. I could hear students saying, “huh? What the hell did he just say?” What I learned from that experience was to shut my mouth and try to speak properly. I felt like I was being forced to relearn a new language.

On one occasion, I got in serious trouble for not knowing the proper U.S. classroom etiquette. One day the teacher in my history class asked a question about a U.S. event. I raised my hand high with certainty that I had the correct answer, my hand waving back and forth with anticipation, my eyes wide open hoping that the teacher would make eye contact with me, and making the sound “ooh! ooh!”.  She called on me since I was the only student making this odd sound and acting as if my hand had a serious cramp. I answered and got it incorrect. I responded with a loud, “shit!”

Aghast, the class looked at me with mouths wide open. I looked at them with horror as I realized that I had committed a crime and was going to be sent back to Trinidad for my indiscretions. The look on my teacher’s face was one of disdain. My mind raced to fathom how what I said could have been so offensive. My teacher replied, “Young man, we do not use that language in class. It is not appropriate.” I replied with my eyes trailing down to my desk, “sorry.” I can’t even say shit, I thought to myself. We would always use that in Mr. Orsoco’s class if we missed an answer. He did not mind. The only consolation was that this teacher did not hit people with canes for bad behavior.

Our neighborhood was pretty cool. There were kids around riding bikes and playing scully http://www.teako170.com/scully.html – a sidewalk game played with bottle caps filled with clay.

I did not know how to ride a bike. I never had one in Trinidad. So my parents bought a ten-speed for me. It was made by KIA. The same company that now makes cars.

My parents always looked out for our safety and decided to put training wheels on my ten-speed to assist us in learning how to ride a bike. Now picture a grown 13 year old boy riding down the block on a ten-speed with training wheel. It did not dawn on me how utterly ridiculous I looked until I rode past a group of teenage boys who stopped their conversation, stared at me riding past, and immediate fell on the ground laughing all the while shouting, “he’s got training wheels on a ten-speed!”

To make matters worse, as I turned to look at them rolling on the ground, I hit a patch of uneven pavement, lost control, and fell off the bike. The bike toppled and landed on me. And as I looked up, the first thing that came into focus were those damn training wheels sticking up in the air spinning as if taunting me to no end. Of course, that made the boys laughs even louder. Pointing and jeering they continued their onslaught of insults. I rose to my feet, picked my bike up, and with my head bowed I walked around the block to my house. I walked inside and found my father’s tool bag, grabbed a screw driver and went outside. In five minutes those training wheels were off the bike and sitting next to the garbage can.

I still believe that somewhere out there when any one of those boys wants a good chuckle they think back to the day that the boy on the ten-speed with training wheels took a dive in the Bronx.

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