A Woman Without a Country

07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Yolanda Reid Chassiakos Fellow, American Academy of Pediatrics; Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA

My skin is fair, sprinkled with golden freckles. My eyes are hazel. My hair is blonde. (Well, gray really, but I'll never tell.) I've been tagged as Irish, German, English, Dutch, and Russian. When I'm introduced by my professional name, "Linda Reid", nary a soul guesses I'm an immigrant from Greece.

The rusty scow Laconia brought me, as a youngster, and my parents to the shores of New Jersey many years ago as passengers in steerage. Fortunately, the ship remained afloat during our voyage, before finally diving to Davy Jones' locker a decade later. Keeping our family afloat was a harder task for my father, whose English was non-existent, and whose family fortune consisted of $35.00. Their story, like that of so many immigrants, belies a remarkable journey. My parents succeeded in "America, America" beyond their wildest dreams -- my father paid for his education that led to his success as a NASA scientist by broadcasting in his fluent Greek at the Voice of America, sharing a microphone with Gus and Telly Savalas.

My individualist parents never embraced the motto, "Who loves ya, baby?" But, growing up in America as someone "different", those words were never far from my lips, albeit without the cocky chutzpah of the confident Kojak. I desperately wanted to fit into American society, and struggled to do so in a day when diversity meant alternating chicken and fish with beef and pork. But the chubby ("Eat! Plumpness is healthy and fights off TB"), hairy ("you can't shave your legs, you're only 13, what kind of a girl will they think you are?") young woman with the unpronounceable name always felt like an outsider feeling trapped in a culture at home that was welcoming, but not permissive; eager to assimilate into a culture at school that was permissive, but not welcoming. My own diversity was not embraced by my teachers, peers, or me--I was teased by my classmates and embarrassed by my parents. My idols were the Twiggy's and the Elizabeth Montgomery's; slim, sophisticated, with pale skin and blond hair, and upturned noses that could twitch and magically call up an Anglo-American heritage that I envied with my face pressed against the window glass eyeing the unaffordable treats.

By my 20s, with a talented beautician, a drastic diet, and an English surname (courtesy of an ex), I had finally achieved my goal to melt into the pot. Superficially. But inside, I still called native born US'ers, "the Americans," from whom I was grateful to hide my self-perceived "second-class" Southern European ethnicity in the costume of an Anglophile. It took me years to come to terms with the experiences of my childhood, and my own challenges in handling the cultural distance and social consequences of my environment's unworldliness and my own internalized prejudice.

The new waves of immigration in the 80s, 90s and aughts, finally erased those British Empire distinctions in the US. Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Japanese -- immigrant groups identified as "the Other" in the previous century--were now eased up the societal ladder and replaced by new ethnicities from poorer countries around the world. The Mediterranean had become a luxury vacation destination, and being Greek was now a cachet drawing audiences of the nouveaux riche with cruise tickets in hand.

I hadn't realized the full effect of these changes until I participated in a "cultural competency" training program at a renowned local university a few years ago. In one exercise, we were asked to sit at tables according to our "of color" categories. I and about 10 others of European ancestry were seated at a table together and asked to reflect on our status of privilege as "whites." I felt very uncomfortable sitting across the 21st century Twiggy's and Samantha's, quietly reliving the ostracism I'd experienced as a child, and "pretending" I was now "among the social elite." The table where the Latino/a immigrants had gathered I felt more accurately reflected my own history. I had made it to the other side of the "glass," but did not feel at home.

If I were to drive my Prius into Arizona, I expect that the state troopers would probably wave me on with a smile, perhaps allowing themselves a chuckle about those "green" Californians. I was a legal immigrant and am a US citizen, and, as the right so ingenuously reassures us, we have nothing to fear. But, like so many who cross the border, legally or otherwise, I feel as if I am masquerading as an "American", and only my "passing" appearance stands between me and the handcuffs of exile.

In the end, my immigrant experience has been my country, a country I share with other immigrants which remains foreign to both "native" Americans and "native" Greeks. I now return to Greece every summer with my Greek second husband, where I am praised for my fluency in the language and my very good Greek accent, and asked when I emigrated to Athens from the former Soviet bloc. Again, I am in a pleasant world (at least before the economic meltdown...), but I am not home.

Our global environment demands that we study, analyze, and understand the immigrant experience, rather than use it as a political tool to divide populations and discriminate against those who seek a better life. Arizona's war on "gastarbeiters," guestworkers so valuable to our manufacturing, service, and agricultural industries, returns us to the social divisions that kept me and my fellow first-generation Americans isolated and displaced. Appearance is no guarantee of citizenship or culture -- or lack thereof. It is what we carry inside that determines who we are. Under our hair and skin, our physical bodies, our DNA, do not carry these bureaucratic distinctions--we are all the same. But our souls are scarred, forever branded, by the superficial differences among us we exaggerate for political ends.

As Americans, as humans, we need to find "another way."