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Returning To The Homeland Emigrating Will Change A Person - The Pride And Curse Of Moving To A New World

Sun., Nov. 9, 1997

The baby sitter is going home for the holidays. She hasn’t seen her mother in seven years. In just a few weeks, she and her children will board a redeye to Guatemala. As they doze, stars will fly past the airplane windows and an entire continent will turn, like time itself, below.

Seven years ago, the baby sitter’s brown-skinned daughter was a toddler, and her teen-age son was a bashful 11-year-old. Her mother - their grandmother - did the traveling on that visit. The children don’t remember the arrival of the little old lady from the jungle colonia as she stepped into the carpeted vastness of Los Angeles International Airport.

The baby sitter’s mother’s first act upon arrival had been to hit the bathroom; some expert in her village had told her that people who used airplane toilets risked being sucked bodily out into the clouds. After takeoff, she had crept to the little cubicle at the back of the airplane to see for herself.

When she reached down to gingerly touch that devilish chair of metal, her hand accidentally hit the button that said Flush. She shrieked so loudly, she reported later, that the flight attendants thought she had hurt herself. She bolted back to her assigned seat and didn’t budge for the rest of the flight.

That had been the baby sitter’s mother’s last trip to America, the baby sitter laughs, and now the time has come to bring the family to her. She has tried to warn her children that there will not be television or toys or, frankly, flush toilets in some of the places they’ll be visiting. But there’s no way to prime someone for culture shock, even when the culture is your own.

She has spent the past few months gathering gifts to take back with her, little pieces of her new life to colonize the old: face creams and CD players and shoes that say “Made in USA,” fancy dresses and boxes of Advil and Sweet’n Low.

They are just Christmas presents, but they seem to add up to something, in the way the giver is always revealed by the gift. When the baby sitter tells me about them, they seem to form themselves into a collage of clues, a map of the territory between where she’s come from and who she’s become.

The space between our pasts and our present is the signature turf of Greater Los Angeles. In this immigrant metropolis, two-thirds of the people arrive from elsewhere, their histories stuffed into suitcases or stored in stucco garages or displayed like decorative accents on end tables or living-room walls.

When they visit their families, it is for millions an international affair - something that’s particularly noticeable in this year of the rebounding economy. To experience November and December in a good year in “fin de siecle” Los Angeles is to glean new meaning from the phrase “citizen of the world.”

Even for people who aren’t prepping the kids for Christmas with crash drills in Spanish grammar or Japanese etiquette, though, the next few weeks will be a time of reconciling old lives and new. Whose recipe will you use when you stuff the Thanksgiving turkey - yours or your mother’s? Or will your L.A.-raised kids persuade you to go vegetarian this year?

Moving here is like washing up on a desert island: Even if you want to re-create your old life, you have to do it with indigenous materials and jerry-built tools. L.A. is big and it’s isolated and, unless you want to die of loneliness, you have to pull together an existence, just as a survival gift to yourself.

This means that nobody leaves here without finding out what they’re made of. The gift reveals the giver. It isn’t like moving, say, to New York, where, if you aren’t sure who you are, the city will let you sidestep the question, and fill in the blanks. Here, only the self-sufficient survive.

And that kind of self-sufficiency will leave a little mark on a person, alter her in subtle ways that only those who love her can see. Then they’ll rib you. “Oh,” they’ll say, “she’s gone Californian. Where are her sunglasses? Where’s her cellular phone?” They’ll be laughing, but in their hearts there’ll be this little sliver of betrayal.

She’s a stranger, they’ll be thinking. She’s left us. She’s changed.

This is the pride and the curse of the new world. The baby sitter accepts this, and so do we. We have relinquished the past for the present. We have let the stars speed past. We have let the planet spin inexorably below.

And if we are traitors in our desert outpost, there’s always the comfort that the world also needs pioneers - people who’ll map the uncharted territory between where we come from and who we are. People whose changes will mirror the changing world itself. This is our revelation, our homecoming, our gift.

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