Meeting in Boston

Zoe-McGee_Meeting-in-Boston_Creative-Nonfiction_AWC1

Papa eating ice cream with two American flags, 2015. Photograph by the author.

 

The conflict did not reveal itself when Ishan landed at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, from Beirut, Lebanon, in 1952. These were his first moments in America, and his farthest steps away from home. He was there for university, a community that welcomed him immediately, one that was used to being a home for everyone and no one. He expected to stay in the States for as long as he could. The inevitable struggle of adjusting came and went but was overshadowed by the fact that his dream had been realized. He had made it. In his case, seeking a greater education was the key to the life he so faithfully pursued. He applied to school to get into America. Its door was open before him, as wide as the United States.

This was before he was my grandfather, before he was Papa. Before his visit to a new country defined his family’s future. Americanness was only a hope. Sixty-five years later, I envy the cultural ties he left behind. I still catch glimpses of his origins—a faint accent beneath a rich vocabulary, his features in a black-and-white portrait of his parents on the wall in his office: light-skinned faces with intelligent eyes, framed by dark hair, his father’s mustache just like his. Papa looks and sounds like where he’s from, but I am American. As the product of several cultures intersecting, my features no longer correspond to one country. The one place I can call home is Boston, the city I’ve lived in all twenty-one years of my life, and where the roots of my immediate family tree began to converge. This claim, however, still feels inaccurate, knowing that my family might have easily ended up in any other American city. Two generations later, I identify with the country my grandfather had only dreamed of joining, but which I feel has diluted my origins in an indistinct sea of cultures.

The majority of information Ishan knew about the United States came from its depictions in comic books, Hollywood Westerns, and science magazines. He imagined a picturesque wilderness, heroism, and freedom in the air, and constant innovation. None of these was untrue. By the time Ishan was in his early teens, America had reached a mythical status; its allure would quickly become inescapable, and a constant motivational force. He was determined to live there, and—with incredible willpower—did only a few years thereafter.

When he finally landed on its soil, Boston’s landscape was perhaps the farthest from the deserts and canyons he had seen in glossy pages and on screen, but he was eager to acclimatize to its culture, climate, and size. To him, it was better than any other place in the world, especially compared to England or France, where his father had wanted him to study. He managed to convince his parents of letting him go to America only once he was accepted into M.I.T. and assured his father of its reputation. Ishan strategically chose Chemical Engineering as his major, not necessarily for its appeal, but for its absence in European curricula at the time. He took every math class offered in his high school to qualify, faked his birth date, was admitted, and left home to attend at the age of sixteen—all for America.

Everyone was very welcoming, he says. He would visit home only twice in three summers. His mother, Alice, would visit Boston a couple times. He missed home. School was challenging. He made friends.

Ishan graduated M.I.T. with both Bachelors and Masters degrees in 1956. As school ended, he realized his American vision had only gone that far. He expected to go back home to Beirut. His visa allowed him to legally work in the U.S. for a little longer after his studies, so he did. He worked at a small engineering firm in Newton Lower Falls, a suburb of Boston, for experience, time to think, and with the hope that the company would sponsor his green card after the year was up.

It was at the engineering firm in Newton where Ishan met George, an American boy from a Southern family, and a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University. George, who would become his best friend for the rest of his life, who’d introduce American football to him, whose family would act as his own. George would watch Ishan marry, then his kids marry, and then bear four grandchildren.

To me, Papa has always seemed logical—a man of numbers, of machines, of science. I could never relate to his passions. He helped me with science homework in middle school but he was always too smart for the kinds of questions my projects demanded, and in the end was not that helpful. He loves to travel, like I do, but his trips almost exclusively remain inside the States. When I asked why he didn’t see the reasoning in traveling abroad, his answer was clearly practiced: “There’s so much to see here [in America], why would I want to go where I might have language problems, and—what are they going to show me? I can see everything here. And in terms of the culture—I came from a different culture, so learning what a culture is wasn’t that appealing to me either. I love the culture here, I love the country here, and I decided that I wanted to see as much of this country as I can.”

Two generations later, in the same city, this concept is completely foreign to me. As the granddaughter of an immigrant, my grandfather’s search for an American identity  has morphed into its opposite as I struggle with being tied to this country, which gave me life, but also a nationality so vague and all-encompassing it’s impossible to fully grasp. It’s hard not to see his response as American propaganda. In it, there seems to be a blatant dismissal of other cultures, and a denial of their accessibility. By wrapping himself inside the borders of the United States, Papa successfully enclosed himself in its nest—perhaps catching himself (more often than admitted) wondering about the family he left in Lebanon but turning a blind eye to their relative proximity. I won’t be able to understand the feeling of being torn between the obligations of two familial generations—both the older and younger—until I have my own, but I can’t help sense a certain guilt in Papa’s conscience—not only about leaving home but also about traveling anywhere outside of the country that wasn’t home.

Choosing whether to stay in America was harder than choosing to leave Beirut. He applied for a green card for the sake of the option. In the late 1950s, America was seeing a second wave of Arab immigration, but acts like the Quota Act of 1917 and the Immigration Act of 1924 had placed a restriction on the number of immigrants from all countries other than northern and western Europe.1The green card took longer than expected because of the rise in applications—though there were exceptions in the limit for particularly well-educated, middle-class immigrants, of which there were many.2 Ishan was a part of this generalized group—while having the significant advantage of having graduated from an American institution.

He continued working as an engineer and began cementing a career in Boston. He grew accustomed to the American life. He drove across the country. He still missed home. He established friends.

About this time, George invited Ishan to his first ever football game, a pivotal moment in his absorption of American culture that ignited a lifelong hobby and partnership between the two. Today, Ishan still recounts that story with excitement: “We drove the 5 hours to Bangor, Maine to see a game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers—I didn’t have any idea who the hell the New York Giants were, nor the Green Bay Packers, but I figured ‘hey, you know, I’ve seen a little bit on TV’—it was very different from the football I knew of, what they call soccer here. We got there, and George’s friend, the quarterback, brought us in and we ate lunch with the New York Giants” he laughs, “But to me, at that point, I had no clue what I was involved in.”

Papa’s first exposure to an American football game was from the inside out. With George, he had been swept into an American brotherhood, not far off from the cowboy camaraderie he’d once seen in the old Western movies. Football was America—big, muscular, wild, shiny, loud, spectacular. “There’s nothing like football in the world,” he says, “it compares to the old lion fights.”

In Boston, Papa met Nana, Carmen, a young and beautiful Colombian woman, born in Bogotá. In 1961, the two married at the ages of twenty-seven and eighteen. Two years later, my mother was born, Laila Alice Haddad, at a tiny four pounds (my mom was so small my grandmother used to buy dolls’ clothes to dress her for the first few months). When asked if his new family played a role in his reluctance to move back to Lebanon, Papa replied, “I never really thought about it. But I always assumed that whomever I did marry would live with me wherever I’d end up going.” At first this seemed harshly direct. But Papa didn’t mean it that way. To him, a culture doesn’t seem to be such a precious thing; stripped down, it is people living to do exactly what every other people lives for: to survive and live comfortably. He goes back to numbers: “Some people I graduated with went to work in California, others went to Alaska, others went to Chicago, and these are probably just as far as Jordan, or Lebanon, or Syria, or Iraq. There’s a lot of mobility here [in the States], so I really never thought that it would be any different.”

And here I am using my grandfather as an example of someone defined by a shift in culture. For many years, I knew he had lost touch with his home country—he had lost his Arabic long before I was born, lost contact with his extended family, and had only visited his country three times since leaving it—yet, I still view him as a relic of my roots. Even though he had severed himself from his, I treasure him in my mind for being the bridge to a truer source of myself. When he seemingly reduces travel to hours on a plane, canceling out the value of culture, language, and history, I struggle to understand, but try to sympathize with his logic.

The five years after Papa graduated consisted of waiting and making decisions that would only postpone the importance of making the final decision—whether to stay in America or go back to Lebanon. At first, my naïveté saw a certain passivity in this method, especially after the determination he exhibited in his decision to go to the United States in the first place, as well as a denial of a choice to be made. In reality, he was torn between his past and his developing future, something I’ll never understand until I find myself between my own. That being said, I also see Papa’s refusal to admit that he had made the decision to not go back home years ago, in Lebanon, when he first found a way to live in the United States.  I believe he knew he was always destined to stay in America.

I will always be proud of the quarter of myself I can call Lebanese. No matter how much Papa brushes over his origins, it still lives on in his name, his accent, in his dark hair and light skin, and his eyebrows and eyes—my eyebrows and eyes. Papa’s story for me is an answer; one I happily include when responding to the question “Where are you from?” I love being transported out of a country that I feel has no core culture (unless you count the noun freedom) through his fading stories of Beirut. I rewind his journey to Boston in my head so I can travel on the plane backwards: back to Lebanon, back to his parents, to his relatives, his culture, to my ancestors. As each generation of my family further melts into the sweeping American landscape, my grandfather’s comprehensive ancestry is comforting. While he dilutes the distinction of cultures, I categorize them. I write research papers about them.

An only child, Ishan was always very close with his parents, despite the many years away from them. When he was twelve years old, he was sent to live with his uncles and aunts in Beirut, a decision his parents made at a time when the area where they were living, near Jordan, witnessed a lot of unrest. Before leaving Lebanon four years later, he had grown used to the turmoil that had always surrounded him—bombs in the distance during World War II, or political and religious tensions causing the Lebanon Crisis in 1958. When he left Lebanon for what would be his entire life, Ishan had escaped the most difficult environment he’d live through. Looking back on his early adulthood, notable struggle surfaced only when it involved Lebanon. In many ways, he left conflict behind. The Atlantic Ocean was a sort of shield between him and the turmoil at home—as much as it also proved to be a barrier between himself and his family. He was always scared for his parents while he was away.

Shortly after their first child was born, Ishan traveled to Beirut with Carmen to introduce his family to his new one, and baptize Laila with water from the Jordan River. Ishan’s parents were disappointed in his choice to not marry a Lebanese woman. It was the first time my grandmother would go to Lebanon, the first time she’d meet his parents together, and the last time. At that point, there was already a lot of political turmoil in the country, and when they took the plane back home, my grandfather knew that he wouldn’t be back. Though his parents never complained about the unrest, my grandfather was informed of its effects through Lebanese friends—one, who had annually visited Lebanon with his American-born children, told stories of why they eventually stopped: gunshots in the distance, random explosions heard from the city center. He said shopkeepers learned to quickly cover their shops when violence broke out, while citizens emptied the streets, but once peace returned, city life would too, even for a brief moment, and as suddenly as it had vanished.

It became more and more difficult to head back to Lebanon, but the moment of decision never happened. The external conflict in his country and the need to protect his new family had outweighed the pressures of his inner conflict. In the end, there was never a choice. His country’s political situation had made the choice for him: “The thing is, Zoë, if you are living in a town and there’s always problems around you, after a while you become acclimatized to it and you can deal with it, and then all of the sudden you go back and you see this turmoil, and you’re not used to it, it affects you in a very different way. It becomes very difficult when you have more than one person that you’re trying to decide for, and obviously you want to decide the least traumatic path.”

My romanticism finds defeat in the face of his experience.

It wasn’t until his father died in 1967 that the only remaining member of his immediate family—his mother—came to him. She left Lebanon right before she wouldn’t have been able to. She would never go back. She moved in with Ishan, Carmen and their three children in a small apartment. It was tradition in Lebanon for the parents to live with the eldest son, and since Ishan was the only son, his mother had nowhere else to go. In this case, tradition was more powerful than distance. She lived for nearly one hundred years, even until I was old enough to somewhat remember her; I still see her praying in her bedroom in the basement of the house my grandparents eventually built in Concord, Massachusetts.

I was born in 1994, Ishan’s first granddaughter, and in this lifetime, we meet in Boston. More than half a century after Papa moved to America, we overlap at the extremes of our cross-cultural dreams. His story includes both the beautiful and tragic elements of a cultural transition—the pull and push of fate, the division between old and new family, the conflict between hope and sensibility. His journey has taught me not to prepare life, but follow it. Although the decades since Papa first landed in America have caused the impression of cultural conflict to fade, I continue the narrative. From the house I grew up in Boston, I watch planes take off from Logan Airport, one by one, continuously. They fly all over the world in a number of hours: Japan, Ireland, Brazil, Australia, Lebanon. One day, I’ll find myself boarding one, maybe not knowing when I’ll be back, but realizing how exciting it can be when fate is in control.