Immigration and Legacy

A beautiful thing about humanity is that we are a species of migration. Globally, we share a birthright as descendants of migrants, but for those of us who are first-generation Americans, with at least one parent an immigrant, we may feel that heritage of migration more acutely.

My dad's Greek identity altered my American heritage. One time, when I asked mom what her ethnic background was, he interrupted me: "You're Greek. That cancels everything else out."

Rhodes, Greece: 1980

In kindergarten, when another Maria and I introduced ourselves to each other, I couldn't understand why she kept correcting me, "No, it's Maria. Ma-ri-a." Befuddled at the time, now I realize I must have been saying our name with a hard R. That was around the time my little brother, Dino, was first learning to speak, and I noticed he indiscriminately mixed Greek and English. I guess I did, too.

Dino picked up Greek the fastest when my brothers and I spent our first entire summer in Greece, unchaperoned by our parents. Our aunts would send Dino on errands where he needed to issue Greek commands, and he always returned successful. That was the summer I turned 14 and my older cousins took me out with them to the bars and dance clubs. No one batted an eyelash when a White Russian cocktail became palatable to me, a Campari and orange juice being my palette-breaker. Dino, jealous he couldn't join his older siblings and cousins on their nightly escapades, drank ouzo out of our uncle's fridge. He then hung from the balcony like a monkey. A tipsy 11 year old watched us go out for the night while he stayed behind. Dino continued hanging out with the elder family members at night and built on his Greek vocabulary. Meanwhile, Packy, my older brother, and I continued to run shenanigans in an environment our birth country's laws deemed inappropriate for another several years, helping our cousins and their friends improve upon their English.

Right before I could legally enter a bar in my birth country, it seemed boring to me. With the door to learning a second language more elusive, I left for Greece again.

A few months into immersion, I realized my learning style contrasted with my little brother's. It turns out he learned aurally, and I learned visually. A book made more sense to me than a conversation. I started to read a lesson a week out of an instructional book, and learned to spell Greek words. Once I could see the words - literally see the spelling of words I heard in my head - I could tell where one word ended and another began. Prior to that, every sound in my ears was simply linguistic confusion. After attuning my ears, music complemented books. I could learn Greek words in songs. It took me about a year to become conversational.

Witnessing genes manifest in unique ways amongst the family is amazing. The way I expressed our shared genes may have been more evident in the way I conveyed cultural preference. I suspect that influenced my longing to live in Greece when I had the choice to go to Costa Rica instead. After studying Spanish for 8 years, it was the desire to learn Greek which won out, even though I had to start with just a handful of words in Greek. In Spanish I was already writing essays. And maybe wherein language prompted my move, it was migration that altered my brain and prompted other genes out of the dust.

Hours of walking a day, swimming, eating seasonally, not taking shortcuts to accomplish mundane tasks, and suddenly, I lost the baby fat a lot of people carry into their 20s. As if my body was built for the land and the sea, my musculature sculpted easily. Most of the women on my Greek side inherited insane calf muscles. I assume it was due to fetching the day's water for the family, even though that legacy ended with my grandmother. Although, my wide shoulders are good for swimming, it is Packy who swims deftly as a fish. His muscular memory is reborn after diving into water no matter how many years he has spent sedentary building code for clients' websites. It's his genetic talent to bullet through the water, and even if I spent years practicing, I couldn't swim as fast as he could. The same genes seem to be in repose for some members of the family, but immediate or on the surface for other members. The way my swimming genes manifest is simply a love to swim.  One summer I was the only one rewarded for hard work on our neighborhood swim team. But, effortless work - the kind that won Packy 1st place over and over - is prompted by genetic makeup. On another note, I often joke that if Packy's talents and my talents rolled into one person, that person would be the perfect contemporary worker. But, design is certainly not my forte and writing is certainly not his.

Genetic patterns emerge and disappear for a time, like ethereal deities. Blue eyes skipped my generation, but reemerged in our children's. My dad permanently changed his residency, and although he gave us lots of travel time, his offspring settled in their birth country. Maybe our children will cross continents again. But, in the meantime, his immigration prompted me to rely on (at least) two different cultures for grounding.

Now that my future is enmeshed with my child's, it takes more muscle to envision the future, maybe, than to envision the past. I see that birthing a child, like migrating, is an act of bravery. I have played both of those wild cards.