This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
My mother loves to tell the story about a four year old Maya, riding a bus in Bucharest, Romania and loudly giving her opinion about the other riders on the bus. Romanian was my first language and my parents always told me that if I had something I didn’t want anyone else to hear, I would say it in Romanian. No one in Maplewood, NJ spoke Romanian so I was in the clear. At four years old, it was impossible to comprehend that there was a whole country full of people who spoke my secret language. As I remarked on how large the woman squeezing into the seat next to me was, my mother turned beet red and pulled me from the bus at the next stop. My parents immigrated from Romania several years before I was born and now here I was, embarrassing them, back in their homeland. I’ve only been to Romania once.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey and their story became romanticized and remains one of the most overused and hopefully, still powerful stories that I tell today. My parents became successful in their adopted country, they built a family and secured their version of the American dream and positioned my brother and I to do the same.
My secret language and my parents' story have shaped my life in many ways. I ask accented taxi drivers where they are from and ask about their family history, I interject in every Romanian conversation I hear anywhere in the world, I learned different languages, I traveled the world and my children will learn Romanian; right now they think the Romanian phrase “te poop” (I kiss you) is hilarious. I am the person I am today because of my parents. I have everything that I have because of them, and the person they made me into.
I attended a dinner in December with some executives from Silicon Valley and a family that had just arrived from Afghanistan. The goal of the dinner was to encourage cross-cultural understanding and connect the refugee family with resources and friendships in their new community. In this beautiful home in San Francisco, I sat across from the father, as he bounced his not yet one year old daughter on his lap. One well intended tech executive shouted a question across the table, in the “if you speak louder, they’ll understand” voice that I had grown accustomed to as the daughter of immigrants. He asked the father, “What’s your favorite part of America so far?” The father, a translator for the United States Army in Kabul, answered in near-perfect English, “I don’t have a favorite part yet, but I hope that one day my kids do.”
For the first time, I saw my parents sitting across the table from me. It wasn’t the polished, successful, American version that they had worked hard to become, it was their faces in those first months in New York City. Uncertain of their choice, uncomfortable in a world of new customs and strange people, unsure of how they’ll be able to pay rent but willing to do anything and everything to take care of their families. I saw my Dad clinging to his own daughter, who embodied his hopes for the future in this new country.
I composed myself and looked at the father and said to him; “If you think about it, in 32 years, your daughter will be my age. She’ll be – like I am – the daughter of two brave parents who did everything they could and things that they were certain they couldn’t do, for her future. In 32 years, and hopefully sooner, she’ll thank you and she’ll be so proud and grateful. It will be hard, I can’t imagine how hard it will be, but there will be kind people who help you and you’ll tell her about them and she’ll be kinder, braver, stronger and more compassionate because of you.” He translated to his wife and then turned to me and said, “You answered her biggest question about America.”
I’ve tried to write this blog three times already today. I’ve cancelled a call and ignored too many emails. Finally, as I get it right and finish this blog in Starbucks with 13 minutes before my next conference call on a hectic day, in another hectic week of a hectic life, I remember this story and take a moment to slow down and feel grateful, grounded and hopeful. I was asked to write this blog about my practice of perseverance and it is simple; when you are moving yourself forward, make sure you bring someone else with you. On the days when you can’t move yourself forward, move someone else.
Maya Enista Smith obsessed with sushi, coffee and thank you cards. She is proud mom to Hunter and Logan and happily married to Dave. Maya has the pleasure of serving as the Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to building a kinder and braver world.