Caught Between Two Worlds

I’ve been spending a decent amount of time reminiscing with family members about our early days of good ol’ American living. It hit me: September of this year will be 19 years since yours truly first set foot on the United States’ gold-paved streets. At least that’s what we thought they would be like. As it turned out, Detroit’s streets needed to spend a good deal of intimate time with a couple of cement trucks and a competent road crew to look as though they were paved at all — to this day, potholes one could run into would make the Grand Canyon blush.

One of only a handful of photos I have pre-America. This one is from a refugee camp in Croatia.

One of only a handful of photos I have pre-America. This one is from a refugee camp in Croatia.

I was one of the lucky few third culture kids (TCK) that came to the United States young enough to start with Pre-K and make a run through the entire U.S. school system. I was lucky enough to end up in an extremely diverse part of the country. I was also introduced to the amazing, confusing, and awe-inspiring culture of the United States by the TV show COPS. Looking back, that’s probably not the best way to jump head first into a country you just moved to. According to the show, everyone in the promised land was a drug dealer, drunk, or naked and hated the police.

I didn’t hit my first “wow” moment until I started going to school. I remember walking into Mrs. Jackie’s class like it was yesterday. It was Pre-K. She was teaching the alphabet and spelling and decided to focus on the letter “M” that day because I was new and it’s the first letter in my name. I cried like a baby. I was in a room with complete strangers, and my mother was completely OK with leaving me there. I didn’t know what those smiling weirdos were saying (I still don’t have the slightest clue), but I managed to scare them all into leaving me alone so I could sit by the class goldfish and vent. Surely goldfish understood me if nobody else did. Those two shiny, orange-yellow fish were my best friends for the first few weeks. I cried more in the first few weeks of school than I did at all other points in my life combined. My “wow” moment came during lunch. I thought everyone was so weird for eating chicken nuggets (little did I know, chicken nuggets would later become my first love) and drinking chocolate milk. There I was with my homemade lunch. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but we were poor refugees, I can guarantee it wasn’t special. I do remember that I got hell for it. Every TCK goes through this. As a matter of fact, this is the first run in with any form of bullying any TCK had.

I ended up being pretty cool.

I ended up being pretty cool.

I remember how badly I wanted to fit in with those kids. It would have meant the world to me. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t help. My first real Halloween was coming up later that year. I was so excited to go out and beg for candy, a luxury I hoped would soon become a staple. Like any boy growing up in the mid-nineties, I wanted to be a Power Ranger. My dad took me to Shopper’s World, an enormous, three-story clothing and furniture store located on Hamtramck’s aorta: Joseph Campau. Hamtramck, itself, was a small, extremely diverse town surrounded by Detroit. I ran to pick out the blue Turbo Ranger costume, but they were sold out. I cried, probably. I walked home, defeated, with my dad. To my surprise, he had gone out the next day while I was at school and bought me a Power Ranger costume. Did it fit? Yes. Was it a Turbo Ranger? Yes. Was it blue? Nope. It was pink. Completely normal, my dad thought. Either way, I felt more joy than humanly possible in that one moment. Did the kids at school think it was cool? Not a chance. I was wearing a pink skirt and made karate noises. I had an incredible time in that costume, but I was still far from being cool. Every TCK wants to be accepted, and it all starts with appearance. It’s too bad for us our parents don’t understand that.

Who wouldn't give me candy?

Who wouldn’t give me candy?

I could go on and on about the experiences my friends, family, and I had during those initial assimilation years. Let’s fast forward to 2005. I arrived in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the black heart of Winter. My parents made me go to school the next morning. It all felt so foreign again. It was like I had not been living in the U.S. at all and had just arrived. The biggest shock: white people. I’m talking about homegrown way down in Dixie, bleed red, white, and blue white people. Except this version of red, white, and blue featured a white outlined, blue “X” on a red background with stars crossing in the middle. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was simply a face of America I had not encountered before — a different brand, if you will. A different sense of pride in all things Americana. It was the first time, however, and keep in mind at this point my family was already well assimilated into American culture, that I took a moment to ask myself a question: where the hell am I?

I had to start all over again. This time it was so much worse. Apparently, at 11-years-old, my name meant I had to be involved in terror plots, and Bosnia was in the Sahara or the Middle East — the two were often thought to be the same place. I should note that not all people I met were like this. I met some of my best friends during this time, and even some I fell out of touch with were kind, friendly, and genuine. Regardless, I was at square one. The TCK cycle had started again. My name, language, food, music, and clothes were all as foreign to these strangers as their culture was to me. In the end, I like to think that life in this little southern gem situated just below the Michigan border worked out.

This is probably my favorite childhood photo.

This is my favorite childhood photo.

The best thing about being a TCK is that every immigrant or first generation “x”-American one meets has the same story. I’ve found that location doesn’t really matter. Each story is the same. Everyone of us yearned to feel included in our new homeland as we struggled living in a different world within the four walls of our houses. In retrospect, I am angry with myself for trying so hard to feel “normal”. Embrace what makes you unique. Embrace the “weird” foods, music, and clothes from your native culture. Being a stranger in a new land is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s definitely not something one should ever forget. The day will come when  you’ll be as American as apple pie, and you’ll look back and wish you tried a little harder to stand out.


The Happy Hundred

I remember it fondly. It was the middle of the night. I was sitting on the couch in my living room, my XXL t-shirt was a snug fit. I, after briefly exchanging looks with my reflection on the television, decided to go weigh myself. I stepped barefoot on the cold, glass scale in my garage. Three hundred and twenty. In fact, I remember the dial on the scale surprised me as it sped past its maximum 280 pounds and kept going until it stopped on 40 pounds as if the red arrow had hit a wall on its second spin around the wheel. I couldn’t believe that my 6’3” frame was carrying the weight of two human beings.

The look on my face at that moment is an image of myself I wish I could see now. Sadness and shock overcame me. Instead of running from it like I had been, I faced the fact that I was essentially killing myself with food the same way that a smoker slowly and willingly gave up entire years from the end of his life to feel relaxation in the here and now. At that moment I finally admitted that I was disgusted with what I had so gladly allowed to happen to me.

Dude. Yikes.

Dude. Yikes.

I stayed up all night, and I consumed every bit of information I could find on a variety of diets and miracle weight loss supplements. Diets, it turned out, are crazy. I needed something I could hold on to long-term. Paleo was the answer. I removed grains and refined sugars from my diet. I limited all carbohydrate intake, strictly monitoring it to make sure I had not surpassed my daily allowance of 25 net-carbs per day (a number that I found out later on was unnecessarily low and a method I learned was called “keto”). I lost 100 pounds over the course of one and a half years — 80 in the first nine months until I relaxed myself a bit, sneaking in a cheat day here and there. I have kept the weight off for one year.

I used to think happiness came from the material goods I surrounded myself with. I found myself frequently buying the latest video games, computer parts, and books. I was cavalier with my money — this, I had found, was a huge mistake — but I saw immediate benefits from my actions. Video games kept me occupied, and books kept me entertained.

I still couldn’t shake off a strange air of melancholy. I thought I had so much, yet I felt so little. At this time I was still severely overweight but told myself I was okay with that and I was happy. The truth was that I wasn’t happy. I firmly believe that anyone claiming that he or she is “fat and happy” is a liar. It was difficult to be happy when all my favorite activities involved sitting down — alone, I might add — with my hoards of stuff. But that’s all it was: stuff.

During my weight loss, I discovered that deep down I yearned to truly feel alive, and I found out the hard way that life began once I stepped, one foot and then the other, outside of the massive comfort zone I built up over roughly 10 years. I realized that loving who I am was central to the idea of happiness. If I couldn’t do it, how could I expect anyone else to? With every pound I shed, I was more comfortable with myself and more open with others. It’s hard to believe I have come this far in the last two and a half years. There is no better feeling I have felt in my short 21 years than the feeling of honestly saying: I am happy.