It’s time to put my heart in my new home

Exhausted after two flights from the US to Norway, when I saw the bustling streets of my neighborhood for the first time in over a month, an unexpected feeling hit me: I was happy.

The small tinge of excitement to be back in Oslo nearly knocked me off my feet. My goodbyes in the US were still gut-wrenchingly raw. When I left my parents at the airport and crossed security I actually had to talk myself out of running back to them. Yet here I was, a few hours later, giddy to be back in Norway. Even though the streets were icy and unwelcoming, the brightness of the sun that afternoon seemed to know about the exciting spring I had ahead of me.

Maybe Oslo is home, after all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what “home” means. I instinctively refer to the US as my home, but that’s not true. Oslo, where my husband, son and I live and work and play, is my home. It’s where I’m happy and it’s where I can see the future – at least the next few years. Yet when I tell people I’m heading to the US, I say that I’m going back to the States.

America becoming home for my parents is proof that the US is truly a melting pot.

Part of the reason is that my husband and I eventually plan to settle in the US. It’s where I started and it’s where I want to end up, although I’m not ready to go back just yet. Oops! There’s that word again, back. And another interesting one, settle. That’s the crux of it for me – I haven’t really let myself settled in Oslo.

It’s hard to settle in a place that is so incredibly foreign. London quickly became home partly because we bought a flat, but also because before moving there the UK was already part of my family history. I grew up hearing about my parents’ trips to Oxford Street and Kew Gardens from when they lived in England in the ‘70s. Then there was the time I went to Buckingham Palace with my mom when I was in second grade, and several years later to the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street with my dad before I spent a semester studying at Cambridge University.

On the other hand, I barely knew where to find Oslo on a map before I moved here. None of the train station names or historical figures mean anything to me. Trying to make this place home has been a very different journey.

melting potI asked my mom, a serial expat, what the meaning of home was to her. She was born in India, lived in Pakistan for a few years, hopped over to England for awhile and then settled down in Ohio, where she’s been for nearly 40 years.

So where does my mom consider to be home? America. And it didn’t take long for her to feel at home there. Culturally she identifies the most with Pakistan, which is strange since she spent the least amount of time there. And although she thinks about her five years in England fondly she said it never felt like home because of the divide between the born-and-bred Britishers and immigrants at that time. But the US, she noted, is a country of immigrants. It becoming home for my parents is proof that the US is truly a melting pot. American food, culture, traditions and even language is all borrowed, so my parents’ migration to the Midwest wasn’t an intrusion but instead a welcome addition to the melting pot.

So where does that leave me? Maybe I just need to see where my journey to make Oslo home takes me.

Gap-toothed and tongue tied

Yesterday I had the side of my head pressed up against an Iranian immigrant.

He was taking out my wisdom tooth. It was pretty routine as far as tooth extractions go – one swift yank and we were done. What was not routine was that the dentist coming at me with a periodontal probe didn’t have the best English. This made me very, very nervous.

What if he took out the wrong tooth? I’m sure he knows the words for “right” and “left” in Farsi and Norwegian, but what if in English – his third language – he occassionally got confused? Grasping the vocabulary and grammar of three languages is a tall order, and on top of that he’s a dental surgeon, so there’s even more crammed into his brain. So much so that knowing “right” from “left” in English might just fall out of his head.

I convinced myself of this. I started making frantic gestures with my left hand to my left cheek and to the left side of the X-ray I had brought with me.

I’ve had plenty of practice communicating with people with whom I don’t share the same mother tongue. My parents, for one thing. Not to mention most of the friends I’ve made since I came to Norway.

Sometimes speaking the same language isn’t enough. When I first moved to London I headed to the hairdresser to get 6 inches of hair chopped off and I ended up with a stylist who was from Newcastle in northern England. As soon as I walked in she said “set reet doon therr roond the tehble.” That ain’t English! (What she meant was “sit right down there around the table.”)

But that time a language barrier mishap would have grown back. Incisors don’t do that. Yet here I was in Norway at a dentists office where a man with broken English was aiming for my gums with a very long needle.

He mumbled a few words and then I heard him say “swallow.” Did he say that I should or shouldn’t swallow? I looked at him wildly but I didn’t want to ask too many questions and annoy him.

The procedure went just fine. Competent dentist that he was, it was obvious to him that it was indeed the wisdom tooth on my left that needed to go. I calmed myself down, let him push my head into his side to get a good grip of my tooth, and it was over.

The experience was a lesson for me. Having lived in the US and Britain I take for granted that English is the western world’s Lingua franca, but for many people its not even a close second. Despite that, the world keeps turning.

After my tooth was removed the dentist gave me a prescription to calm my nerves. I think I came off as the nervous type and he figured I’d be better off sedated for a couple of days. I think I’ll save those pills in case I have to go to the gynecologist.

Tubed fish eggs!

My two-year-old son likes caviar.

His lunchbox came back untouched for several days so I asked his nursery teacher what he was up to during meal times.

“Oh, he really loves caviar,” Bogusia told me.

Come again? Maybe she used the wrong word – Bogusia is a Polish nursery teacher living in Norway so English is her third language, which means she has lots of words to sort through before she gets to one that I can understand.

She pulled out a thick toothpaste tube from the fridge. Caviar is spelled with a “K” in Norwegian so not only did I not know how to pack a lunch for my own kid, I also couldn’t spell whatever it was that he apparently loves to have.

It turns out that he wants his lunch to look like everyone else’s, and everyone else is eating tubed fish eggs.

It sits next to the cheese at the grocery store. And it’s cheap too, little more than the cost of a liter of milk. Clearly this wasn’t the luxury brand and although fish is cheap in Norway, I never expected kaviar to be a popular kids snack.

Squeeze that tube and out comes a pink paste with the little eggs visible, accompanied by a pungent fishy smell. So now my toddler comes home smelling like he spent the day setting shrimp traps by the seaside.

The first time I spread that pink paste over a piece of bread I realized something: I am an immigrant parent.

I speak to my child in a different language than his friends’ parents do and when I speak their native tongue (Norwegian) it’s with a heavy accent and jumbled grammar. At lunch time when my son opens up his lunchbox his food looks different than what his friends Oscar and Eskill are eating.

Is this what it was like for my Pakistani mom when my brothers and I were growing up in America? Was she horrified the first time she saw a hot dog? Or a slice of bologna? I’ve never seen her eat either.

I know what it’s like to be raised by immigrant parents. My mom convinced me to be a “Pakistani Princess” for Halloween several years in a row just so I’d wear the fancy clothes, while my friends bought their witch costumes in the Halloween aisle at WalMart. Pakistan doesn’t even have princesses!

Now, in a country that’s so far north of everything familiar, I’m learning what it’s like to be an immigrant parent.

I always feel a little bit behind. If I was raising my son in the US I would already know the songs and nursery rhymes he’s learning at this age, but when Bogusia told me he’d learnt to sing the “hei hei” song I had to look it up online and study it before I could sing along.

Just like my mom was determined to maintain a Pakistani influence in my life, I’m determined to hold on to the American traditions that I grew up loving. Halloween is next month and while the locals aren’t tuned into the holiday, I’ll find my band of American ex-pats and we’ll find a way to celebrate.

I’m already working out how to fashion a ninja costume out of my kid’s Norwegian wooly winterwear. If all else fails, he can trick-or-treat as an Indian Prince. One thing is for sure ­­- I won’t be swapping candy corn for kaviar sandwiches.