“In youth we learn; in age we understand.”
~ Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Being 13 is an important year, the first of the teens, and one that I will never forget. I moved from another country to the US at that age, without my parents or siblings. They sent me to live with close family, while they stayed back until “things got better.” Although I got along very well with my aunt, uncle and cousins, I missed my family. Every so often I was able to call them on the phone, and I remember crying and asking why we couldn’t be together. Of course, I didn’t realize that they sent me away for my own good, especially since being a young boy in a country going through a civil war was not ideal. Many of my friends’ older brothers did not return from the front lines.
Eventually things got much worse in my country, and my parents and siblings joined me. I thought everything would be just like it was at home, just in a different language. But things were not. Gone were all my friends whom I had known since kindergarten. Although I have been able to regain touch with very few of them through social media, those relationships from my younger years ended. I had to make new friends, learn a new language that was nothing like my own, and live in a very different culture from my native one (for example, I was not used to girls asking guys out on dates, as that NEVER happened back home! LOL).
My parents gave up their careers and their whole lives of 40-plus years, for us to live in freedom. Because they had to get jobs right away to support the children, they did not have time to go to school and learn the new language. My mom managed to attend night school and obtain an accounting certificate so she could slightly improve her work situation. But for the most part they worked on low paying jobs during their entire lives. Not knowing the system and having few contacts is a tough combination that many immigrants face.
This meant that we did not have many of the benefits that other children took for granted. For example, we rode a private mini-bus (called “guaguas” in Cuban lingo) to school every day. Every Friday after school the bus driver would stop at McDonald’s so all the kids could buy Big Macs, fries, shakes, etc. I remember watching those kids get down and go inside the restaurant, and come back with the famous McDonald’s bag, a definite status symbol if there ever was one! Meanwhile, I stayed inside the hot bus and imagine what it would be like to savor the apple pie, which was my favorite!
I also remember during my school years never wearing the brand-name clothes that all the cool kids had, never going to premiering movies or cool restaurants, riding the bus to the nearest mall, etc. I am sure this affected my self-esteem growing up, thinking that I wasn’t as good as my classmates because I lacked some of these possessions and experiences. It was not until years later when I realized that missing out on those early events also meant that I had gain some insight on life. Our true character is shaped by the obstacles we face, and if we do it while we are young, we are better prepared for the harder lessons that will come later. If not wearing trendy clothing will crush you, imagine what losing a job, or a family member will do to you? We became resilient by those early challenges.
And then there are the relationships that you make in those formative years! I am fortunate to have made some real true and great friends then, people I met when they and I had nothing, except our will to survive and succeed. We are still friends to this day, and we look back on those days with fondness. We still laugh at our Geometry teacher eating his daily PB&J sandwich with his chalk-filled fingers. LOL When you grow up and move into adulthood, it becomes quite difficult to make new friends. I believe it is in part because we try to project this facade to the world, in which we hide our vulnerabilities, but we also hide our true self.
Being deprived of some material possessions and life events taught me several lessons, and a better understanding of what truly is important. In life, you never can have it all, and especially not when you want to. But what you truly desire and work hard for, will come sooner or later. I can finally enjoy my McDonald’s apple pie, and in so many ways, I am glad I waited.