I later learned that the National Department of People Who Take The Time To Gather Opinions About These Things voted Birmingham, Alabama the 7th most dangerous city in America. Stunned by such findings, I called the place that many Americans feared, “home,” a surrogate abode from my native China.
Just six years old, and “fresh off the boat,” I instantly noticed the incongruity between the America of my imagination and my rather disappointing new surroundings. Dilapidated housing, racial tension, and émigré dreams abounded in our Birmingham neighborhood, a notorious immigrant “holding area.” Nonetheless, Alabama remained my home for the next seven years, a place I intimately got to know, and with whose inhabitants I shared moments of laughter and darkness.
We inhabited a discounted housing development, a primarily immigrant neighborhood, reserved exclusively for the University of Alabama employees. Ours was a common story in the area, the one with a hard-working and rather naïve couple, having left the familiarity of their past to pursue American meritocracy and self-determination. However, my parents discovered only the elusive promises of work visas, long hours, and dismal conditions. They had left China with nothing, and made close to nothing, but enough to have bought a one-way ticket for their daughter to join them in the American dreamland.
Far from picturesque, our community compensated for its material need with cultural richness, laughter and strength offsetting missing shingles and peeling paint. The unsupervised children stormed the small neighborhood in a mix of dialects while parents toiled long hours at UAB. Prime recruiting opportunities occurred on moving days, with the roaming clan of children hoping to initiate new members in different tongues of “Hi, welcome to the neighborhood. Do you have kids?” Together, we roughhoused, clashed, and shared with one another our grandiose dreams. I remember my next-door neighbor Ahmed most vividly. For some reason, he possessed a fervent desire to become the next Crown Prince of England. (Despite the fact that such positions were hereditary and Ahmed’s family was from North Africa)
Moving out days proved more grand affairs, though infrequent. The entire neighborhood, especially the small and elderly, crowded around the crooked porch of “the chosen ones.” Staring hungrily at the company-assigned moving truck, we wished that we were as lucky, and hoped that if we worked harder, we, too, would fulfill our dreams –a job offer in the north, a higher university position, anything other than the $10,000 starter job that only the desperate would take.
Our turn came in ‘99, “just when we were getting settled,” my dad joked. With his company position in the Mid-Atlantic, we had made it; we had arrived. Our new life certainly had its ups –more money, more prestige, more stuff, more everything –until my dad got laid off. My family’s misfortunes only confirmed my deepest suspicions that we did not belong.
So, despite its disappointingly low ranking in the polls, Birmingham, Alabama, with its people with whom I shared unspoken dreams, will always remain my home –this I will always believe.
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