We were the only brown kids in the photo. Like the rhyme from Sesame Street, “one of these things is not like the others,” my sister and I looked similar to the other children on stage with our native dresses and braided hair, but at second glance the difference was hard to miss. What was also apparent was that we had no idea we looked like the wrong crayon in the box. The smiles we wore revealed the excitement we felt inside, unblemished by the understanding of race, and not yet familiar with the general appearance of a specific culture; complex concepts that came to light later in life.
My mother was born in Varaždin, Croatia and my father was born on the island of Leyte in the Philippines. Their families immigrated to Chicago in the 60s, leaving cousins and extended family behind to pursue better opportunities for their children and, of course, the American Dream.
My parents met while working in a hospital. My father was intrigued by my mother’s quiet demeanor then captivated by her heart of gold. My mother was smitten by my father’s charm, dark features, and professional ambition.
They were married in their early twenties and had my oldest sister shortly thereafter. They were two young immigrants with a newborn baby, not even fully accustomed to America, yet they started to build a life for their own family.
Being the youngest of four children and twelve years younger than my oldest sister, by the time I arrived my parents had cleared the most difficult hurdles: the cramped city apartment, my father’s first office, and stretching small paychecks to support a growing family; all of which earned them a more comfortable life in a small suburb right outside of Chicago.
I grew up as an American child, attended American schools, and had American friends. But at home my parents had their own ways. From the outside, passersby saw a ranch-style house with a front yard and backyard, a basketball net with our initials carved into the cement base, and a two-car garage. On the inside though, our house looked, smelled, and operated differently than those of my American friends, as our parents held on to their own individual customs and cooking styles, while simultaneously encouraging us to take advantage of American education and opportunities.
My mother left her job as a nurse after my oldest sister was born and dedicated the rest of her life to taking care of our family. She was traditionally Eastern European; making homemade dumplings and baking fresh bread, except she didn’t smoke and her coffee intake remained at a heart-healthy level.
My grandmother was a true Balkan grandma, or “Baka,” and together she and my mom shaped thousands of my childhood memories. They prepared for us hearty meals like sausage and baked chicken served over rice, with salad tossed in a rich dressing made of vinegar and pumpkin seed oil. They listened to traditional folk music composed of string instruments, accordions, and harmonicas and translated the patriotic prose for us as if to invite us into their nostalgic recollections. Hearing them speak their native language, mentioning the names of their family members back home and the sharp “ch” and “tseh” pronunciations of their words, created a familiarity through exposure of the Croatian language, culture, and customs for my sisters and I.
As a child, I knew my parents each had their own ethnic identity, but I never realized the depth of that identity. Maybe it was that I was too young and hadn’t experienced enough of life to have that wisdom. Or perhaps it was my American surroundings and experiences, that kept me orbiting the perimeter of my heritage, without every truly touching down.
As I got older, not only did I begin to recognize my unique upbringing, but my appreciation of having been exposed to multiple cultures grew as I understood that it helped to shape my empathy and open-mindedness toward others.
Having always wanted to visit Croatia to connect with the distant place my mom and grandmother referred to so fondly, when the opportunity arose to travel there for business my decision was easily made. My mother was overjoyed, and her cousins back home were excited to meet me.
Her family planned a dinner for the evening I was traveling through their hometown, but two of her cousins surprised me that morning by attending the conference I was speaking at. Neither of them spoke English, yet they greeted me with a warmth that needed no translation; a white rose, an envelope full of old family photos, and a camera to take photos of me while on stage.
They sat for a half day through presentations spoken entirely in English, not understanding a word that was said, just to watch me and applaud anytime I was passed the mic. During one of the coffee breaks they showed me photos of my grandmother as a young woman and of my mom as a small child. Tears came to my eyes as I saw the moments that shaped their adolescence, forming their own personal memories.
When I was a child, my parents and grandparents were already adults and although they told stories of when they were younger, I only saw them as people with responsibilities and practical thinking; making this glimpse into their early days both insightful and emotional for me.
Seeing those photos and meeting the cousins who knew my mom as a child and my grandmother as a young woman, suddenly shed the veil of adulthood I wrapped around them both.
I saw my grandmother as the strikingly beautiful woman that captivated my grandfather’s heart, but played coy and hid behind her girlfriends when he passed by. I felt the heaviness of the responsibility my mom carried when they came to America and she was just fifteen years old, yet the oldest of three children and placed in charge as my grandparents worked long hours and I recognized it was that early role which founded her selfless devotion to caring for others.
As I imagined about how hard it must have been for them to move across an ocean to a new country, leaving their home and extended family behind, I felt an overwhelming amount of love, respect, and gratitude for the sacrifice they made in hopes of providing their children the opportunities of better lives.
My mom’s family in Croatia welcomed me into their home with such warmth, acceptance, and love, regardless of the fact that we had never met, simply because I was my mother’s daughter. They spent hours cooking traditional Croatian dishes for me, drove me around their town so I could see the place where my mother grew up, and baked a decadent cake in my honor with the words “Dobro dočla” written across it in pink icing, meaning “Welcome.”
When I left they called my mother on the phone and told her it felt as though they knew my whole life.
In coming home I found a part of myself, and left having discovered that kindness and love knows no borders, and needs no translation.
Read the other half of my journey in Part 2.