I was 12 years old when I first watched the movie Coming to America starring Eddie Murphy, about a pampered African prince who travels to Queens, New York to look for a wife that he can respect, admire and fall in love with. He and Semmi, loyal servant and sidekick, rent a shoddy apartment in Jackson Heights. One of the most entertaining scenes in the movie is when Eddie Murphy, standing on his fire escape, his breath escaping from his mouth into the cold like hot steam, joyfully shouts for everyone to hear: “Good morning, my neighbors.” In return, they yell and curse at him to “shut the fuck up.” How so very New York.
In the Bronx, huddled together in our parents’ bed because we didn’t own a couch, with the Power Rangers comforter wrapped around us, we laughed out loud at Eddie Murphy’s antics. The comedy made up for the sadness and disappointment we felt at our new life in America. We were poor and we knew it. Each time we asked our dad for a dollar, he sat us down and took out his calculator that the case worker at the unemployment office had gifted him. He computed how much each dollar added up to in one week, a month and a year.
“So, I guess that’s a no?” I would ask.
At school somehow being around a bunch of other poor, newly arrived immigrant kids made us feel less alone, laughing at one another over struggling to speak in English and when all hope was lost, learning to curse in another language. By the end of my first school year in America, I was proud that I could say “fuck you” in five languages other than my own: Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, Bengali and English. But then we would be reminded of our poverty, at stores asking for candy or a new backpack that wasn’t made of cheap plastic material or in the summertime being woken up early to go to the free breakfast programs while other kids went on family vacations to exotic far away places like Florida. Like the protagonists in Coming to America, we too had so many hopes for our move to America. For many years, my younger brother and I thought we were going to reunite with our rich father, who lived in a skyscraper in Manhattan. In the streets of New York, I would meet Madonna, who would instantly take a liking to me and ask me to be her back-up dancer. I would of course take the offer, all but on one condition: that my new husband, blonde heartthrob Zack Morris, could come with me. As a tween, I was obsessed with the show Saved by the Bell, which I watched dubbed on Italian stations broadcast on our upstairs neighbors’ color television. Our television was black and white. Its antenna was broken and it only played one channel in Albanian, which promptly ended at 10pm. I saw America as an opportunity to meet Zack Morris, whose real name I didn’t know at the time and most importantly to be rich and famous. Instead, we landed in a grimy apartment in the Bronx, fighting off cockroaches.
And this is how it happened.
When my mom shared the news with my extended family that we were moving to America to reunite with my dad, my uncle, a cigarette dangling from his lips asked her: “Why would you want to go to the country that invented gangsterism?”
A couple of weeks later, he drove us to the airport. It was dawn and in the horizon a ring of pink, gold and orange appeared over the pallid sky. We each packed one outfit. I was wearing a white sweater my aunt crochet for me. My mom was comforting my brother who was crying from lack of sleep, which everyone else interpreted as sadness over leaving. I kissed my aunt on both cheeks, tasting the saltiness of her tears. I was happy to leave Albania behind. I was failing in math and science. Most of all, I hated our neighborhood, mostly made up of former state socialist (“Communist”) bureaucrats and their families. We lived only four blocks from Enver Hoxha’s mansion. He died from diabetes when I was two years old but his family continued to live there. I only knew him from the photos that decorated government offices, my own family refused to have his picture up anywhere. Up until 1990, no one was allowed to enter the area surrounding the three-storied villa. Security and body guards were a normal day occurrence. I was surprised that they allowed a family of dissidents to live so close to them. Other working-class people were sprinkled in the neighborhood and that made life more bearable. The government kids and their parents lived in villas surrounding our building and it didn’t seem that the new government was going to do anything about that. The student protests that toppled the regime only meant that now we wouldn’t have electricity or running water. The newly elected prime-minister who spoke of democracy would later invent a Ponzi scheme, take our money and lead us into a small civil war. But that was later.
In school, the love of my life, a nerdy 13-year-old with round-framed glasses was regularly seen hanging out with a government bureaucrat daughter, who I really detested. Her dad had sent a lot of people to prison and as a 12-year-old whose own family was blacklisted by the state socialist regime for reasons that seem today almost comical, I took these matters very seriously. Besides, she didn’t even know who Mayakovsky was. What could they possibly have in common?
Looking at my boarding ticket, none of these things seemed to matter anymore. My life was now in America, where my father, who was wealthy lived in a skyscraper and waited our arrival. This was what my mother told me anyways.
Every evening, often huddled around candlelight because electricity usually went out for hours, she made Turkish coffee and read the patterns the grinds left behind. She turned the cup using only her right hand, otherwise it was considered bad luck and your fortune would not come true. She then flipped it and let it dry on the saucer. She put on her reading glasses and picked up the porcelain cup.
Usually the first three minutes were spent in silence. Her shadow moved back and forth. She would either hiss, shake her head in approval, or suck her teeth. These gestures could mean anything. We eagerly waited for her to say something, anything!
“Well,” she would start by saying. “We are definitely going to America. That is clear. You see that plane?” Neither me or I nor my brother could see what she was pointing to but we nonetheless nodded our heads in agreement.
“Ah, you see this trail right here?” She jumped up in excitement. Her right index finger would point to the coffee that had managed to escape the cup, a stream of brown splattered in a downward motion looking like a small trail.
“This means a long trip. Don’t you see? The plane, the trail, it’s all coming together. Are you practicing your English?”
It was 1994, three years following the toppling of the statue of Enver Hoxha by protestors in Tirana and my mom was so obsessed with going to America that she had me transferred out of French to English class. There, I learned British English and the phrase “how do you do?” taught me some valuable lessons about how to fight in Bronx schoolyards.
My mom even shoved and threatened to slap the neighborhood kid who punched my brother in the stomach for lying about having a rich father. She told us not to worry about what people said, the coffee cup did not lie. Whenever we expressed our hesitation over her ability to forecast the future, she would remind us of her powers, dreams and premonitions. I mean, how could she be wrong? She predicted so many things that had already happened to us. Like for instance that my father would one day make it to America.
When the borders opened up in 1991, my dad was one of the first to leave for Italy. Within the year, he left for America, first to Philadelphia and then finally settling in New York City. This was a great surprise to my family especially since my father was a shy man with a penchant for the routine, not a go-getter by any stretch of the imagination. Most Albanians stayed in Italy, many of them constantly discriminated against, taking shitty jobs for little pay, hoping to save some money and return back home to their families. Others went to try their luck in Greece. According to my mom, the fact that my dad left for America was proof of his aspiration for wealth. During these three years, we spoke with him sporadically on the telephone. When we asked my mom what my dad was up to she would say that he was busy making a fortune for us. She told us elaborate stories of his newfound wealth. He was apparently so rich that he lived on the top floor of a skyscraper and this is why he didn’t have time to talk with us. At first I didn’t even know what a skyscraper was and I had to consult my older cousin who showed me postcards that a Catholic charity organization trying to end childhood poverty had given him at school and I was deeply impressed. I didn’t ever think that we would ever escape poverty or that my father, who spent most of his life behind a typewriter pouring over words that to me looked upside down (which I later learned were Russian), would get us there. But I looked forward to my new life nonetheless.
In the meanwhile, my dad sent us money and small gifts with people that were coming back to Albania. At that time, as is the case now as well, you couldn’t rely on mail, it would be opened and your stuff would get stolen. So, I looked forward to these moments of happiness. When I was ten years old, the wealthier girls in the neighborhood had Barbie dolls, like the ones I saw advertised on Italian television stations. While they no longer played with them, they collected them and flaunted them to our faces. Two of my friends and I didn’t have such dolls, we were often forced to invent our own collection, usually of weird things that no one but us cared about. But I was getting tired of them too. I asked my mom to relay a message to my father: I needed the new Barbie dream house. This would put my collection at the top. My mom assured me she would.
Weeks later, a package arrived. With great excitement, I clawed open the cardboard box. Wrapped in some tissue paper were two smaller boxes, each with a doll inside. I was so happy. I opened it up and held the doll in my hand. I opened the other one. Another girl doll. Where was the Ken? Where was the dream house? I scrutinized each doll closely. They both had on shiny outfits, one was green the other was pink. I checked their hair, remembering that Barbie had beautiful long hair that you could comb with a small tiny pink brush. I touched the doll’s hair. I tried to put in in a ponytail and long behold, a huge bald spot was revealed to me. This doll’s hair was incomplete. Once you lifted the hair up, the back of the head was bald. I was shocked. What was I going to tell my friends? What sort of doll collection was this?
I quickly swallowed my disappointment. I had to think quickly on my feet. Along with the dolls, my dad sent me a jean jumper. I put it on quickly and looked at myself in the mirror. This was more acceptable. I left the apartment hurriedly and went across the street where my friends were gathering to hang out. Usually, we rotated between the different girls’ houses, each would show us her doll collection, talk about how passé it was to even collect them anymore, and then we would move to maybe trying on clothes, putting on makeup and dance to Madonna. The apartment belonged to one spoiled brat whose mother was secretary of education. My mom hated her family, and often went on long tirades about this particular woman so I often had to lie whenever I went to the girl’s house. The apartment was a loft and the girl even had her own bedroom. As soon as I showed up, I noticed their eyes staring at my jumper. Not even a few minutes had passed and they asked me about it.
That day, in the bedroom surrounded by Barbie dolls, I told them about the gifts I received from my father, who was now a rich American man. Their eyes opened wide like the cups my mom read us in the evenings. As I spoke, I tried to hide the threads that were coming out of my jumper. I talked fast and waved one hand around while I tried to undo the thread with the other. I made up elaborate stories about my dad’s life in America. I lied to them and told them that he sent me gifts weekly. I couldn’t stop myself. I told them about my plans to meet Madonna. They gushed. They pleaded with me to remember them and to write to them when I was a famous dancer. To celebrate my newly found Americanness we dressed up, put on red lipstick and danced to Madonna and Ace of Base.
After a few hours, we all parted. I remember leaving with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. Maybe my dad wasn’t as rich as my mom made him out to be.
Two years, two planes and eleven hours later we arrived at JFK. It was a cold winter afternoon. In the baggage claim area, my dad greeted us, his gloved hands holding two huge cups with the red letters Coca-Cola printed on them. I was looking at him for signs of wealth. His jacket looked normal to me, a little worn perhaps. He had a huge smile on his face. He had aged and his hair was now completely white. Ripples of wrinkles ran across his forehead. He hugged my mom, my brother and I me, squeezing us together tightly. I took the Coca-Cola cup in my hand, happy but cold. The icicles on his beard touched my cheek. He ushered us towards the exit. I loved the sliding doors. They had the same thing in Rome where we previously stopped to switch planes. It was the first time in my life I had taken a plane and also the first time I was made aware of my mortality. I promised that if I didn’t die on the plane ride I wouldn’t care if my dad was rich or not. After a turbulent flight, we landed in Rome. There, I encountered sliding doors which took my mind off the anxiety about flying. I was amazed by the ability of the door to sense my presence. I kept annoying my mother by stepping in and out. At JFK, she threw me one of her infamous looks, biting her lower lip and squinting her eyes as if to say “wait until we get home.” I hugged my dad. He smiled and pointed at a red car with a missing bumper.
My face scrunched up. What the hell was this? Where was my entourage? Where was my limousine? We got in the car. The man driving was from Kosovo and my father’s friend from work. We passed through roads, trees and then came the skyscrapers. I waited the moment the car would stop. I tried to imagine which one of them was my new home. Every few minutes, the car jerked and sputtered along the bridge, the biggest one I have ever seen in my life. I thought surely its wheels would fall off and I would plunge to my death, head first into the icy waters below. My throat tightened because I remembered that I don’t even know how to swim. Snow had begun to fall. It was the second time in my life that I had seen snow. I liked watching the snowflakes land on the car window. I tried to spell out the first initial of my first name, Z like Zorro, one of my favorite movie characters. After more than an hour journey and having passed all the skyscrapers, the car stopped. The driver parked in front of a four- story brick building. My dad got out of the car to get our luggage. I was too shocked to say anything. Why this building didn’t look any different from the one we lived in Tirana. Down the block some people were arguing and I heard the noise of a bottle hit the sidewalk. My dad rushed us inside the building. We climbed the narrow staircase to the second floor.
“Here is our new place,” he exclaimed.
One by one we entered a tiny apartment. I wasn’t sure how we would all fit inside it let alone sleep there. I was shocked. The whole time I tried to make eye contact with my mother, who was busy talking with my dad and generally seemed to be avoiding me.
I felt like I was hit by a ton of bricks.
“Look, you two will have your own room,” I remember my mom telling us. I stepped into a half -painted room with two twin beds.
I stomped around and fell on one of the beds. I don’t remember much else of that night. I remember the feeling that this new life was disappointing and very cold. No skyscraper. How was I supposed to meet Madonna? What about my life with Zack Morris?
Months later, after my anger had subsided, another piece of news hit us. My dad confided in us that our visas had expired and we would have to apply for citizenship. It would be a long and drawn out process and for the time being we were without documents.
“So, you shouldn’t really try to get in trouble,” I remember him saying in a brisk voice. “And tell me if any of your teachers ask you to sign paperwork or ask you any questions about us.”
At the time, I had no idea what any of that meant. I just knew we shouldn’t talk around government officials.
“Well, that’s a relief,” I remember telling my brother as we listened to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song. “For the first time in our lives, we are not surrounded by them.” We both laughed. It was bittersweet indeed.
So passed our first year in America. Those that followed were spent accompanying our parents to various government offices, translating documents and being scrutinized by various disgruntled employees. Did we qualify for welfare? Why couldn’t my mother find work? Did she think she was too good to clean toilets?
One spring day, the whole family was kicked out of the immigration office downtown because they said that my mom tried to attack a security officer guarding the doorway.
“I was only trying to get to the guy in charge of our case. The security guard was in my way. It’s not my fault,” she told my dad, who was dressed in a suit and tie for the visit. The caseworker assigned to us apparently sent our documents to Nebraska (a mistake, he assured us but to my family, especially to my mother it was definitely a well thought-out and planned government conspiracy). At the end, no one could find the missing documents, so we had to reapply for citizenship all over again. But that’s another story.
Once in a while, usually during winter break, I re-watch Coming to America with my brother and mom and we laugh at the ridiculous dreams we too harbored about this country.