The agent at the car rental shop left with my paperwork. Had I written in the right address? Could I have skipped it altogether? Will the agent wonder what I’m doing here in Los Angeles with a license from Washington? I took a seat.
To make this trip to the car rental office, I’d switched my regular morning shift to the graveyard hours, boarded a bus I hoped I’d never see again, and signed a pile of documents at the counter. Address: Which one? Social security number: Blank.
For me, driving required schemes. As teenagers, while my friends passed driving tests and laughed at license photos, I worked and saved enough money to fly to Washington, “borrow” an address, and come back to California with a driver’s license from The Evergreen State. It was completely illegal but absolutely necessary–or so I thought at the time–for people living in a car-dependent city in a state that didn’t allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. My parents were uneasy with the idea. I just want a normal life, I explained. I want to drive to school. Have an ID to go to bars.
I just want a normal life.
My attention returned to the present as two men who were just helped sat down beside me and carried on a conversation. The foreign ebbs and flows were a familiar white noise in this part of America that was home to people from all over the world–people like my family who live here but don’t necessarily belong here.
There is so much involved in living a “normal” American life. Normal here in the US is privileged basically everywhere else. As undocumented immigrants, my family and I could not keep up with these standards. Many American norms, like going to college, opening a bank account, and driving, were complicated and even unreachable for me. My parents were simply grateful to be living in the land of opportunity and plenty and often blamed themselves for bringing us to America only to be “illegal aliens.” If only we’d gotten by okay back home, they pined. If only we hadn’t trusted those lawyers. If only our case had been approved the first time or the second time. If only, if only, if only…
Your way didn’t work, I pointed out. Let me try mine. Even as a memory, my words wound. My parents eventually consented.
When I passed the driving test, I flew back to California on a cloud of bliss. But the good mood was short lived. Having a license was one thing; having access to a car was another. After getting my driver’s license, I started the process of saving up all over again, this time for a car. That was already two years ago.
Just then I heard the two men share a laugh. I felt like laughing, too, as I recalled the chaos of my youth marked with a seemingly endless rotation of ups and downs. How happy I’d been when I rode past the 16 bus in my new car. How quickly that happiness ran out, faster than a $5 gallon of gasoline.
A single collision that happened in less than three seconds depleted the rest of my happiness and put me back on the 16. And there in the rental shop I saw myself again: an immigrant who lied to drive. Every document I signed and filled out with addresses, names, and numbers were loose strings that could be pulled right back to me.
There in the rental shop I saw myself again: an immigrant who lied to drive.
I nearly jumped when the agent called a name. One of the two men sitting beside me stood up and walked over.
I was looking at the agent when the man next to me spoke.
“Are you here because of an accident as well?” he asked in an accent I couldn’t place.
I explained that I was rear-ended and needed a rental car until my car was repaired. I realized just how ordinary my situation was as I put the words together and said them aloud.
He nodded. “It is good that you are not hurt.”
“Yeah,” I responded. “That’s what my parents said, too.”
We exchanged names and brief comments back and forth. I learned that his friend had been in an accident and he’d come today to accompany his friend. I wondered what he did for a living and how he afforded the luxury of being a good friend on a Monday, the most demanding of days.
Just as his friend made his way back to the seat, he asked me another question. “So, Julie, I would like to know. How do you feel about the culture of your parents?”
How do you feel about the culture of your parents?
Typically, these questions bothered me. I’d so often been asked, “Where are you from? Where are you really from?” and its many variations (e.g., “Where are your ancestors from?” “Where do you trace your lineage to?” and “From whence do you hail?”) that I developed a kind of mental tick regarding the topic. I’d long bumped into the glass ceiling of what an American is and isn’t, and questions like these inflamed the bruise on my head. One person’s small talk is sometimes another’s trauma. But this man’s curiosity didn’t irritate me. Maybe it was his wording or his own foreignness that disarmed me. It could’ve been because his conversation helped silence the tireless interrogator in my brain. I paused. Sorted through the automated responses, tempted to offer the half-truths, white lies, and shallow remarks which were most suitable for chitchat. But sometimes strangers extract the best of our candor–the kind we don’t always recognize as truth.
“My parents’ culture is my culture,” I said. “I love being who I am. I’m very grateful to my parents.”
My words smoothed out his narrowed brows and gaze. His delight was as palpable as it was unexpected. He hadn’t asked what the culture of my parents was, nor had I specified it to him. Perhaps what moved him was the hope of knowing that it can happen: that children can know their parents’ sacrifices and love them and honor them for it.
“Thank you for saying that, Julie.”
I’d done nothing more than say three short sentences, and it set off a small burst of familiarity and gratitude shared between two strangers, two foreigners.
The agent came back to escort the three of us outside where the rental cars were parked. After signing the final documents, I turned to him to say goodbye but he spoke first. “It was very nice to meet you, Julie. Before we go: may my God bless you and your family.” He extended his two hands from his heart out toward me with the final words.
May my God bless you and your family.
I stopped. I had never received a gift from an unknown god. Having grown up in Southern California ingesting forms of Protestant fundamentalism, I had been taught that it was better to be cursed by “false gods,” like Allah or even a Christ-less YHWH, and their followers than to be blessed by them.
Yet I could not deny the grace he had shown me, for like a son of Levi he heard my confession and declared me restored. I received the sweet benediction. I fumbled to pass the blessing. “Thank you. I hope you have a good day.”
At that moment, I decided that any god that teaches people to help their friends, rejoice with others, and keep “thank you” close to the tongue must be a good one.
I pulled out of the lot thinking about the exchange. Up ahead in my lane, dozens of city travelers climbed on and off the 16 bus. I spoke a secret blessing over them knowing our gods, families, and even strangers are watching over us all.
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