Blogging for Books: Dreams

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You were always a part of my dreams.

Ever since I saw images of you on our family’s flickering 1979 Telefunken television, I wanted to be with you.

Before I was even old enough to read or understand maps, I instinctively knew to look westward, to where the sunsets mixed with the clouds to stain the sky with ribbons of colour. My childish intuition, not yet honed but also unmarred by reason or logic, told me that I would find you there, far across the ocean.

Even at the tender age of five, I was discreet about my longing for you. I suspect it was partly because I thought I was the only one in the world who felt the way that I did. Little did I know…

So it came as a bit of a shock when I realised that not only were you someone else’s dream too, but that the other person’s dream was about to come true.

I found out on the eve of my graduation from kindergarten.

“What are you all doing for your summer vacation?” Our teacher asked us. Almost in unison, the answer came in a sing-song: “We’re going to the seaside, ma’am!”

I wasn’t a suspicious sort at the time, but in retrospect, I believed she hushed us and told us to speak one at a time – even though she knew full well that a trip to the beach was as exotic a destination as most of the parents in our rather poor farming community could ever afford – because she probably had some administrative stuff to wrap up before the holiday. If she hadn’t given us individual speaking turns, I probably would have been spared a lot of heartache.

It was a good agricultural year, and so predictably, all of us gave the same seaside answer. Except Ashley. Ashley, whose dad owned the only grocery store in our little Bushveld hamlet. That alone already set her apart from the rest of us and made her incredibly wealthy in our eyes. I mean, she had limitless access to all those sweets that we had to beg our parents to buy for us! So she had to be rich.

Even our teacher, who had been absent-mindedly nodding and smiling at the answers the rest of us gave while she scribbled notes and rearranged papers on her desk, looked up with a start when Ashley said:

“We’re going to America, ma’am.”

I stopped breathing. America? America! America…

Our teacher was enraptured and impressed. “What are you going to do there, Ash?”

Ash. Hrmph. I was seized by what I only later in my life would come to identify as envy. My jealousy was just as potent, all-consuming and nasty as hatred.

Still, like the rest of the class, I couldn’t help but also hang onto her every word as she told of their plans to visit places like “Disney World, Cape Canaveral, Washington, D.C., New York City.”

She might as well have said that she was going to the moon, that’s how out of reach it felt to the rest of us.

That night I cried myself to sleep, and two nights later, when I knew that Ashley and her family were flying to America, I crept out of our farm house and squinted up at the night sky, dark as liquid ink and studded with stars. I imagined that she was up there, flying towards America among all those stars. And so I wept all over again.

I was a year older than Ashley, so when the new school year rolled around, I was beginning first grade, therefore I was spared when Ashley took her memories and photographs of Mickey Mouse and all the other exotic beings she’d met and places she had been back to Kindergarten.

It would be years before I would again meet someone who had been to the America of my dreams.

In the mean time, there were occasional postcards from distant relatives who had traveled there for work or – very rarely - vacation. I saved them all. The one with the Statue of Liberty was my favourite. I handled it so often, tracing the picture with my fingers, I eventually managed to erase the writing at the back.

I also learned that my yearning to travel to the United States of America was one that I shared with thousands of other people around the world. It was as common as having a movie star crush.

When I was twelve, my dad sold our farm and our family moved to the big city. For a year after our move, I still went to boarding school in the country, but on weekends, my American Dream took on large, celluloid screen proportions. For two hours at a time, in a dark theatre, my own mundane life fell away and I escaped into the country of my dreams: America. I saw slices of New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans… Along with my fellow South Africans, I glimpsed the gleaming skyscrapers, the white picket fences, the lush green lawns where the children played without a care in the world. If I could have, I would have climbed right through the movie screen to be there too.

I left boarding school to attend the performing arts high school in the city. My world expanded and became decidedly more cosmopolitan. There were actually real Americans in my school! I loved their slack-jawed, easy-drawling accents and in private, tried imitating it without success.

I went to Journalism school. My sister’s college friend, Tish, went away to Washington, D.C. I repeated my childhood offense of stealing and treasuring all the postcards she sent my sister.

At night, my American dreams invaded my sleep. As I saw more movies, the images in my dreams became clearer.

After college, I became a rookie reporter at a community newspaper in Johannesburg.

It was about a year later, when I moved back to Pretoria to begin working for the Egyptian Press Attaché as a glorified secretary, that my dream of going to America at last came true. Tish had since returned from the States and one day she called me at work.

“How would you like to go to America? I have a nanny job for you.”

Two months after my twenty-second birthday and a few months after that conversation, I was on a plane to Washington, D.C.

I’ll never forget seeing the land of my dreams for the first time. We had chased the sun all the way across the Northern Atlantic, and so the November light was already growing dim when we finally reached the American shore. I looked down through the fading light at the quilted patchwork unfurling below me.

“I already love you,” I whispered. “Will you love me back?”

My stay in the States became my first long-term commitment. I didn’t leave (at all!) for nine years, one month and two weeks.

I became an exile, because I simply couldn’t tear myself away from my beloved United States.

Our relationship was complicated, though, to say the least. No matter how hard I tried to fit in, my tongue betrayed me as an impostor every time I opened my mouth to speak. And yes, if you absolutely have to know, for the majority of my stay, I was as legal as a Cuban cigar.

Now that I was actually there, my American dream took on new dimensions. I longed for a Green Card.

It could have been easy. I did meet an American boy who loved me and who wanted to marry me. He was from the South, therefore his mom always dreamed that he would find himself a Southern Belle. South Africa was a tiny bit more southern than she had intended. So when he told me his Mama (from Alabama!), upon hearing where I was from, wanted to know if I was black, I looked down at my pale skin and the spattering of freckles connecting me to my European ancestry, and I knew that I couldn't face the prospect of a xenophobic mother-in-law who would probably always suspect me of marrying her son because I had wanted a Green Card.

And so I chose to do it in the most difficult way: By myself. In early 2001, four years after I had arrived, the immigrant community started to whisper about amnesty for illegal immigrants. It wasn’t. Not in the full sense of the word, at least. You could pay a hefty fine for having been illegal and then be immune to deportation, but in turn, you had to jump through a myriad of fiery hoops.

I thought it would be a small price to pay to make my lifelong dream come true. I found myself a South African immigration lawyer - our shared homeland wasn't at all a requirement, it was purely a coincidence - paid her all the savings I had managed to accumulate over the years, and then I waited...

After five long years of being stuck in immigration limbo, my American Dream turned into a nightmare when I found out that my lawyer had taken all my money without doing anything for me.

And so I had no choice. I gave up my dream. I mourned its demise with an Irish wake at my favourite pub in D.C. and on Christmas Eve 2005, I tore myself away by leaving the country I had loved long before I had even known how and where to locate it on a map.

And now I'm back in South Africa and America has become just a dream again.

Is it childish to hope that it will come true for me again one day?


P.S. This is an entry for this month's Blogging for Books, a contest hosted by Jay of The Zero Boss fame. The topic, in case you haven't figured it out, was 'Dreams'.

1 Comments

Ofcourse America isn't a distant dream. You'll be back sooner than you think. But then again O'Malley is now our govenor & Sheila Dixon is the mayor.( I didn't vote for either one.) But the girls are trying to figure out something. Miss you Soooooo Muuuch...Keep the faith. Laila

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is a South African girl living in South Africa. That doesn't sound very original, we know, but you might find it remotely interesting when you learn that she has only recently returned to South Africa for the first time after a nine year, one month and two week (non-stop!) stint in the United States where she accidentally became an outlawed alien (also known, especially in immigration circles, as an 'illegal immigrant.' We prefer the term 'outlawed alien' ourselves). During her reversed exile from her homeland, she kept herself occupied by winning this website (but only after shamelessly bribing the judges) and thus being unleashed on the web where she slowly, leisurely became the World's Laziest Blogger; by being a nanny and by attending sci-fi conventions in search of other aliens. In the US, she also made her sailing debut, her international acting debut, tried and failed to learn the piano, and never learned to cook. She is hopelessly addicted to coffee, dogs (especially Labrador Retrievers), how-to books (with a particular fondness for her copy of the Time/Life A - Z Medical Encyclopedia), and she tends to grossly overuse parentheses (we're not kidding) during her attempts at writing, which you may - if you really have masochistic tendencies - subject yourself to by reading the words to the right of this column. If you REALLY and truly STILL want to know more, you can read her C.V. here.
Or you can stalk her send her some love via e-mail at: redsaid[AT]gmail[DOT]com

The Wish List (Because yes, she really does need more how-to books. Honestly!)

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  • bookstorediva : Ofcourse America isn't a distant dream. You'll be back sooner than you think. But then again O'Malle... [go]
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