Pain is not real, my kung-fu sensei would say. Pain is in your head. He has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and would often interrupt a training session to give his soft-limbed, panting, red-faced kung-fu warriors a pep talk on neuroscience and strenuous physical exercise. I do believe him. I also believe pain is good, pain always has an expiration date, and one should acknowledge pain and promptly decide what to do with it. But the ultimate reason my thoughts even dwell on pain is change. Change is often painful, because change we resist. And change I have always believed in, even before Obama rubber-stamped it.
When I landed in Austin in May of 2000, my first breaths of non-air-conditioned Texas air unquestionably testified to a change I had light-heartedly subscribed to. A change that ultimately put me hanging in between two oceans, two languages, two cultures.
Immigration hit me like a summer storm. I never cradled the vision of it in my heart, yet change was inevitable as I followed my life’s rites of passage. Somehow I made it through the heat-invoked heart murmur, the daily meals of French fries and popcorn, the only American foods my palate would find acceptable, the peevishness with which I responded to the ambiguities and quirks of an alien culture. Eight years and three kids later, I am looking back and finding it incredulous that I resisted change so bitterly and took on the pain that came along – the heart-wrenching nostalgia, the unbearable loneliness of the spirit, the many instances of miscommunication. Until one day something clicked. Pain was not real. The molds of identity that had conveniently wrapped around my body and spirit were not real. I was hanging in between two oceans, and I could be whoever I wanted to be. I had more dimensions than ever. The pain that was in my head suddenly evaporated, and I saw the skyline, and I was the bird loving the sky. And as I was changing, so did the world.
2000 was the decade’s last innocent year. Eleven years earlier, Eastern Europe, the place I come from, went through its own reptilian skin-shedding, changing regime rather superficially, declaring the fall of communism and the dawn of a new era, one that theoretically changed fundamentals, yet swapped one size of shackles for another. Little did we know that the freedom we finally won was a freedom free of ethics and would soon bring out the worst in people: mafia marrying politics, lies masked as good intentions, doctors demanding bribes, judges letting murderers go… A change for the worse, even as more people started to live better, travel more, and follow their destinies. Simply because the demons from the past never left, were never chased away.
Here and now, in my new home, I see America changing in a way I never imagined. It is banishing its centuries-old demons, and most of its people are embracing pain with humility. And although pain is not real, I believe in its cleansing effect. It will grow on us, like wings on a nestling. So bring it on, change and all. After all, this is not our first BBQ.
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