A little over a year ago, when I was packing my suitcase to move to Westfield. NJ, from my home in a city called Arnhem in The Netherlands, an American friend I had made there told me not to bother taking my eight year-old son’s swim trunks along.
“He can’t wear those in the US,” she said.
I looked at the swim trunks. I couldn’t see anything wrong with them. My son had used them for two years in Holland to complete a rigorous, state-mandated survival swimming course. They had served him well. No one had ever said anything about them to me before.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, they’re just too…. too…” my friend floundered. “They’re too tight, they’re too short and they’re too European.”
They were, she said, a complete No-No, and if my son made the fatal mistake of wearing them in the States, he might forever be condemned to a life of ridicule as the Boy Who Wore a Euro Swimsuit to the Pool.
“I’m sorry,” my friend said. “I just don’t want it to be too hard on you.”
I didn’t quite get it but I nevertheless took her advice and one of the first things I did upon my arrival into this country was to go to Target and buy my son a pair of the baggy, drawstring shorts, the kind she had told me all American boys wear.
“They feel funny,” my son complained. “They’re loose. They feel like they’re going to fall off.”
He tugged them up.
Indeed, they were the most impractical of garments for a serious swimmer. But this was America and in America, that’s what boys wore to the swimming pool. To be accepted, my friend had said, my son would have to wear the same swim shorts as everyone else no matter how uncomfortable they were.
In other parts of the world that I had lived in, swimsuit styles were inconsequential; on a personal level and in the grand scheme of life, they didn’t matter to me at all. But my friend rattled off a bunch of other things she thought I ought to bear in mind with respect to my children, our family and our move to the United States.
As I listened to her, I suddenly wasn’t sure about the move. Where were we going? We’ve lived in many different places in the world – Europe, Asia, even New York City – but never in a place where swimsuit styles mattered. Whatever we knew of suburban American life, we knew only from movies and TV shows, most of which either glorified it as enviably sweet, mocked it for its insularity or depicted a dark and twisted underbelly that writhed silently beneath a sanitized, homogenized exterior.
Would we fit in?
During our first few days in Westfield, I was not sure. Most of the people who lived here seemed to have been here forever. Their lives revolved around baseball and football, sports that dominated schoolyard conversations and dictated weekend schedules. They had chosen to live in this town for a reason, they had firm roots here and they were not going anywhere. Was there any space here for transient folk like us, people who came from somewhere else and would, after a limited period of time, go somewhere else again?
To boot, I seemed to be one of the few women around with genetically tanned legs and a
small car as opposed to a Jersey Shore tan and an SUV. I had never even lived in a house before – I had only ever known apartments in noisy, urban centers -- and the silence of the streets at night kept me awake till all hours. I was used to jumping on buses, trams and trains and I’d never had to walk more than a few blocks to buy a liter (sorry, a gallon) of milk. The mere thought of a highway terrified me. What on earth was a “Marble Composition Book?” And was hand sanitizer really a school supply or were they kidding?
Like any mother, I cared about the happiness and well being of my children. I wanted them to feel secure where they lived, no matter how short the time they spent here. They didn’t even play soccer, which for all intents and purposes, seemed to serve as a proxy for social acceptance.
“I’m not interesting,” my son wailed after his first week at school. “I don’t know anything about baseball.”
“Hey, you’ve lived in Holland, in Switzerland and in India,” I offered by way of comfort.
“You can speak French, swim and play jazz violin.”
“But I don’t know anything about baseball,” he repeated.
And then my heart sank….. quite a bit. Probably enough to pack up and head back to where I came from, or to attend Baseball 101.
But I didn’t give in. If we were different, we were different, and that was that. We could try and change a few things for form’s sake, but why would we? We were who we were.
So I caught my heart, I held my head up high and smiling, I went out there as I was. A lot of people did not smile back and one year later, they still have not, which still makes me wonder whether it’s okay to be different out here. But there are a number of others who have smiled back, and in my first year in Westfield, as the weeks and months went by, I began to make friends, both from within and without the world of contact sports. Between the saccharine exterior of this town and its alleged seedy interior (I have caught some glimpses of that, yes), I met all kinds of people.
People who made me feel welcome, who made me feel a part of their life and were keen to be a part of mine.
People who told me that it is tough being different out here.
People who really are different and people who don’t even notice that there are differences.
Sometimes, it’s hard being my family -- we come from everywhere and nowhere. We seem to be foreigners wherever we go. We envy those who have lived in one place and will always be there. But our experience of the world has also made us into cultural chameleons, quick to perceive nuances and catch onto them, able to find some little nugget of connection with almost everyone we meet.
It is from that vantage point that I write this column and that I am able to share my experiences of and reflections on life here suburban America. I would like to dedicate these writings to the friends I have made here, and in this first piece, say a special thank you to the woman who solved for us the dilemma of the swim shorts that always fall off, the one who said “all you have to do is wear an underwear underneath.”
Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a freelance journalist based in Westfield. She writes about finance, travel, parenting and food for a number of different publications and websites. Born in India and raised in Switzerland, she has traveled extensively with her family and considers herself a global citizen.