My daughter was pulled reluctantly from the womb. It took nearly forty hours of labor to coax her into her new habitat. With oxytocin, fentanyl, and an epidural coursing through her veins, she still wouldn’t give. While her mother swooned in a hospital bed, drugged into oblivion, the siren refused to budge. Strong as a bull, she held her own and won. The doctor had to cut into her home to pull her out, screaming, then frowning, with frightened, watery eyes. When her father placed her in my numb arms, I lifted my head from the operating table and looked straight into her dilated, ebony pupils. She stared up at me, quiet and scared, as if asking me to claim her in this cold, bright place. It’s okay. You’re mine. You belong right here, as hard as that may be to understand right now. It’s going to be okay. I’ll see to that.
I can’t blame her for putting up a fight. It’s a lot easier to stay in the places we are from.
I’m reading a book everyone I know has already read, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It was trendy here in the Netherlands when I saw the Dutch translation on my mother-in-law’s living room table at some point in the last year or two. That means it was trendy in the States a few years back. So I’m late. But that’s to be expected. I almost never read popular fiction. I made an exception for this book, because it found me at the right time.
At this point in my life, I am able to cherish many of Hosseini’s details, especially those in tribute to the protagonist’s father. He reminds me, ever so softly, that it’s never easy to emigrate to a foreign country, even out of choice. It’s parents like Amir’s dad who get ulcers, cancer, and diseases that pay the price of sacrifice. While the Afghan mogul ends up selling cigarettes at a gas station in Fremont, the Japanese mom finds independence at fifty working the night shift at a sushi bar in Los Angeles. Having followed in the footsteps of my mother, I am now an immigrant to the Netherlands. I read about Amir’s dad, think about my own mom, and pray I have the grace to do it well, this task of living abroad – in such a way that doesn’t cost me too much.
Last month we took my daughter to the U.S. Consulate in Amsterdam. She became an American. The first thing her other grandmother said in response to this report came in the form of a question. “Will she be getting her Dutch passport as well?” It’s the same question her son keeps asking me, half-seriously. The serious half irritates, because its redundancy parades a petty insecurity. She was born here, in the Netherlands, and her father is Dutch. For the time being, at least, she will not share my expatriate fate.
I love going to the U.S. Consulate in Amsterdam. I love the notion of being on a patch of ground that is geopolitically invincible, excepting to the ever-advertised threat of terrorists. It’s my home turf, that crowded, fenced-in house off the far edge of the Museumplein and kitty-corner from the Rijksmuseum. The security guard beyond the buzzing door is always Dutch but insanely friendly. He has adopted American customer service but delivers it with Dutch pronunciation, the paradox of which is eternally amusing to me.
“Congratulations,” he says, after admitting the “citizen with a minor.” I quickly understand that his well wishes are in reference to the “minor.” In Dutch, he would have said “Gefeliciteerd,” which is what you say when someone has just had a baby. “Is she getting her passport today?”
“Yes, she’s going to become an American! Whoo hoo!” I’m grinning from ear to ear. I was never this patriotic when I lived there.
Inside, I am urged on toward the side of the building where citizens are told to wait. I am proceeded by a black man with dreads and a do-rag. He’s wearing a crisp new tee shirt with a photograph of Native Americans holding oversized rifles. “Homeland Security,” it reads. “Fighting terrorism since 1492.” He starts a conversation with a very effeminate, petite, frat boy who gets tired of his slapdash sense of humor. The former loves to hear himself laugh, and I imagine he is the type that doesn’t usually hang around compatriots. He is surprised he has missed their company. He is going on and on about his last-minute visa for Russia.
We get called to the window. My husband is freaking out because I’m leaning on the counter. This started outside. He got stranded with the guard by the gate who emptied his cell phone and frisked him with a metal detector while me and my “minor” were ushered in ahead of him. I saw him through the meshed glass, lost, hovering among aliens, wondering where we had gone.
“You’re going to have to let my husband in,” I’d said to the overly friendly concierge. “He’s lost.”
“I’ll do that ma’am, you just get in line at window five.”
The look on my husband’s face when he found us a minute later had brewed and festered into prickly agitation. “Can you please stand up straight?” he said, muttering under his breath.
“Can you please lighten up?” I retorted, glaring at him. “What are you so uptight about?” We’re in America, for crying out loud, you can relax here, remember?
I ignored the fact that we were arguing right into the microphone, in full audio disclosure to the Dutch woman on the other side of the glass. She had a crazy nail job – rhinestones, stripes, neon – and was busying herself stapling our papers together. She looked so bored, I wondered if she’d heard other mixed couples argue similar dialogues.
The Consul came and asked us to swear that we were telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He was dashing, dressed in a suit, very clean cut, and smart. He saw from my paperwork that I had studied German, and whispered that he’d also come into Dutch through the back door. We bonded immediately. My husband said something about the poor state of the Germans in the European Soccer Championships.
“Your daughter is beautiful,” the Consul said, cooing at her through the glass.
“Thank you,” I gushed, wanting to reminisce with him about Starbuck’s, Target, and Borders all at once.
“No, I’m serious. You can’t say that about all babies, believe me. I mean it about this one.” His eyes grew big and his chin pressed into his neck, pleading that we believe him.
I was so pleased to have spared him the necessity of polite hogwash. He needed to know that I understood. “Have you seen that Seinfeld episode about the ugly baby?”
The Consul of the United States snorted and giggled simultaneously. “No, I haven’t,” he said, while deftly accepting an envelope from a minion to his left. “But I believe it!” he tittered, and in the same breath, stacked our application against the counter and slipped it under the glass. We held our right hands up and gave him our autographs.
Outside, while walking to the tram, I bellowed to my baby girl. “Are you an Ameri-CAN, or an Ameri-CAN’T? You’re an AMERI-CAN! Whoo hoo!”
We celebrated that night with all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. My husband had been given a book of restaurant checks for his Christmas bonus, and we had one bill worth fifty euros left in it. We spent the last check, noting that the best way to celebrate anyone’s becoming American was to stuff our faces. But my Dutch guy wasn’t used to buffet-style dining. I had to go and get his plate for him, because all the islands and places to forage had rendered him thoroughly confused. Happy to indulge and pile his plate high with goodies, I picked my daughter up, propped her on my hip and shimmied to the buffet area. We leaned over the sneeze guards. We gazed at the fried rice, won-tons, and lychee pudding. We got in line to sizzle stir-fry vegetables.
© 2008 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.