Essay: A mother lands in the US

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The night before I moved to Argentina, my mother had a party. The party wasn't for me, but it ended up being a great chance to talk to her. Not about dad, my sister, the house or the dog. But for once, about her. She told me the story about how she first moved to the United States.

"It was just like the Peace Corps in reverse," she said. The Peace Corps sent Americans abroad to learn about other cultures, but my mother was sent to the U.S. as Sri Lanka's first cultural ambassador in 1971. "We were supposed to learn all about American culture."

Mom has always told us that back in Sri Lanka, she always felt like an American. Sri Lanka was under British rule when my mother grew up. Mom says that most people she knew who moved abroad would go to the United Kingdom.“I just didn’t want to go there,” she said. “I was like born an American.”

Still, Mom admits she didn't know much at all about America before she came. In fact the only thing she knew, she had read in Zane Grey Western novels. "I used to love reading those," she giggled. "Wyoming, out West! I read all the stories about the West."

Now here is where I start to protest: My mother has spent the last three decades or so in the wild plains of suburban Florida. The idea that wide-open plains filled with cowboys and Indians inspired her to come to America is kind of ridiculous."That wasn't the only thing," she relented and both giggle uncontrollably. "I don't know it was just a feeling."

And so with that feeling, she jumped at the chance to be Sri Lanka's first cultural ambassador at the School for International Training. The school was founded in 1964, out of a program called the Experiment in International Living, which specialized in cultural exchange programs. It ran training programs for the Peace Corps.

After 24 hours of flying and a five-hour drive from New York, she landed in Brattleboro, Vt. There were no cowboys or Indians. It was farm houses and orchards and teeny tiny towns. This is where the School for International Training brought people from all over the world. It was like a mini-United Nations, but in the middle of New England.


"We had a representative from each country — South Africa, Brazil, Peru," said Mom. "They train you for living in America."

The idea seems simple enough, but it was rather daunting. One of her assignments was called "The Drop-Off." This is an exercise developed by the school for international training. They dropped my mom in a small town in New Hampshire with a quarter and drove away.

"They just drop you! I was in sari at that time, you know," she said with her eyes wide. Mom was supposed to find out all about small town life — how people live, what they do. Yet she had no idea what to do, she felt just awkward and lost. Then she got an idea — everybody has to buy food, even in America. "The grocery store!" she whispers still excited by her cultural survival epiphany.

So she went into the corner grocery and walked up to the owner at the counter and said: "Listen, I don't know what to do, but I'm supposed to find out all about this — about you."

When the grocer found out she was from the School of International Training he got excited. "My wife loves that place," he said. He called up  his wife and she took my Mom to her house. To her first American home. When they walked in the door, my mother got a big shock. She asked her hostess, "Is that a TV?" It was 1971, and my mother had never seen a television. "I had heard about it, but I had never seen one," she said, "It was all fuzzy."

And that's when it hit me. There I was, moving to Argentina. I had never been there before, but I had read a million things about the country online. I had been in touch with people before I landed via email and Skype. I had craiglisted an apartment and could even get satellite images of the streets in my neighborhood-to-be from space. Yet when my mom landed in the U.S., it was like landing from space. Or in space for that matter.

People tell me it's brave to have moved to a different country, but in so many ways it's not. Not compared to how it used to be. Before the internet, before television even. Back when all you had was your imagination. My mom was so much braver than I imagined, long before she was my mom.

Julia Kumari Drapkin covers Argentina for GlobalPost.