Through the Looking Glass

I have heard some say of parenthood that if people knew ahead of time what would be involved with raising a child, most would not go through with it. I am beginning to suspect the same can be said of immigration. As a newcomer, I must conform to adult expectations without having been taught gradually, as a child, how everything works. As a result, I don’t know which signs to read as though my life depends on them, and which to ignore. New drivers in the UK are required to place a particular sign on their vehicle: a white field superimposed with a red block-letter “L,” which stands for “learner.” I feel as though I should have one constantly taped to my back.

The direction of traffic, how doors are hinged, and even the way electrical switches turn on or off are all diametrically opposed to what I have come to expect since birth. Yet I must cross the street, open doors, and turn on lights and gadgets dozens of times per day. If I operate unconsciously for even a moment, I get a shock.  But this is only the beginning. It gets, as Alice would say, “curiouser and curiouser.”
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The Immigrant Experience

“… now there was a match-head in my thoughts.”

-Marvin Bell, from “Wednesday”

I have been in London for one week. On my previous three visits, I never stayed for more than two weeks, and often split the time with other parts of England or other countries in Europe. But this time, I am here to settle. My new job starts tomorrow.

And so, I see everything, not through the eyes of a tourist, but those of an immigrant. Instead of laughing at quaint cultural differences, I take note for future reference. When I discover that the way I have been doing things in my homeland for decades, and which I assumed to be universal, works completely differently out here, I have to figure out the new way and adapt.

Walking along the Thames last night, I felt a sense of connection to other immigrants I met. Some may have fled despotic regimes, others no doubt came to seek their fortunes. For many, English is not their first language (and I am discovering it is actually not mine either!) Few leave their families lightly. And abandoning the cumulative comfort of so many small known quantities has led me to feel like an infant here at times, re-learning fundamentals of language and behavior/behaviour.

After a week of apartment-hunting, bank account setup, and other logistics required to survive abroad, an outing in Brighton yesterday with my new colleagues let me see things as a tourist again, instead of just an immigrant. Returning to the Thames that night rekindled the “match-head” that was placed in my thoughts many years ago, when I first encountered London, and found it at once imposing and familiar, both a great city, and one I could call my own.

“Road Sign on Interstate 5” (Video)

Theater 150‘s “Sneak Peek Writers’ Showcase” brought to light an outstanding lineup of students in Deb Norton‘s prose and play-writing classes earlier this month. As a poetry teacher in their fall lineup of arts classes, I also read a couple of poems.

The following poem received an honorable mention in the 2008 Rattle Poetry Prize, and appeared in Rattle #30 in the winter of that year. While the text and an audio recording of me reading this poem are available on the Rattle website, this is the first time me reading this poem has appeared in a video. Special thanks to Charles McDonald for filming that night.

[Edit: video no longer available]

“Road Sign on Interstate 5” Now Available Online

Immigrant Crossing Sign. “Road Sign on Interstate 5,” which received an honorable mention in the Rattle poetry prize and first appeared in Rattle #30, is now available on the Rattle website both as text and as an audio recording of me reading the poem.

The simplified tale of this poem’s creation is that I wrote it almost entirely in one sitting. But the more complete story is that it actually represents a kind of revision of several previous, less successful attempts at writing about my experience growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border.

I had seen the immigrant crossing sign numerous times during trips through San Diego. But it was not until I began to explain the significance of the sign to my wife, an Englishwoman, that I realized its symbolic power. My explanation of the human circumstances behind the sign and its necessity left her in tears. Sometime later, this poem came into focus on the page. Enjoy.