I realized the other day that traveling runs in my family. I took my first international trip before I was three years old, to visit family in Switzerland. But my mother, the reason for that trip, had also traveled in her own way. She came to the United States from Switzerland when she was in her 30s, to work and to improve her English, with no real intention of staying. But when she decided to leave Boston, her first home in the US, and head to Berkeley, California, by Greyhound bus, she set in motion a chain of events that led to me being born, and in turn, my daughter. At a biochemistry lab on the campus of the University of California, she met my father, a postdoc in the lab and nine years her junior. They worked together, became friends, traveled around California together. And my father realized later, after she’d gone back to Switzerland, that he was in love.
For her, at the age of 37, it seemed like her last chance at marriage and a family, so she took it. They married in the Marienkirche in Basel, Switzerland, had their wedding reception at the Schloss Bottmingen just outside Basel, and honeymooned though Switzerland and Germany, ending up on the SS Rotterdam to New York City to begin their married life in Plainfield, New Jersey. It’s a very romantic story.
My dad always said that he’d married his best friend, and he meant it. He was devoted to my mother, even when things were not so easy. If this were a book about marital strife, I’d go into it more. But as I was just telling Emma (who has several friends whose parents are divorced or divorcing), as much as I wished they would split up when I was in my teens, I was glad they stayed together. They’d been married nearly 46 years when my father died. On the whole, it was a good marriage, though my mother wasn’t always happy.
Stories of heterosexual marriage often become stories of sacrifice. The notion is in the very words of the traditional ceremony, “forsaking all others.” In the old stories of marriage, men give up “playing the field.” Then they sacrifice time with their family to be breadwinners. They may sacrifice expensive hobbies to save for college. But there is often little thought as to what women sacrifice when they get married. For women, the story is a win-win; they get economic support, children, a lifetime partner. There is no sacrifice, unless you dig a little deeper.
My mother was financially independent and embarked on a career when she got married. She had gotten an education (a degree in medical technology) and worked for seven years in the cantonal hospital in Luzern before she went to the USA. Her plans when she returned to Switzerland included running her own hematology lab in Basel, where she’d settled on her return. She sacrificed that, and her country, when she married my father and moved to New Jersey (which she later told me she remembered as a swampy terrain of oil refineries from the beginning of her bus trip across the US; she fell asleep before the bus reached the pretty part of the state). She gained things in return—a life with him, two children, a nice house in the suburbs. But she was often unhappy, and when she finally went back to work as a temp secretary (her degree in medical technology and her work experience having long since become outdated), her life became the interminable juggling of work demands, childcare, and housewifery that are the common lot of married women still.
My father, on the other hand, worked at a job that he loved (though it was demanding) and had a built-in supply of home-cooked meals and clean laundry, as well as someone to talk to at the end of the day. He certainly worked around the house, spending weekends hanging wallpaper or painting the exterior, and there was the long summer project of digging a trench and sealing one wall of the house that kept flooding, only to have it flood again. He eventually managed to seal that wall after he dug it up again. But his primary role was that of breadwinner, and every weekday he could escape to the lab and be a respected professional.
As I’m writing this, both of my parents are long since dead. My father died of angiosarcoma, a very rare form of cancer, in 2007, and my mother died two years later, following a heart attack and heart surgery. He was only 74 and otherwise healthy, which seemed grossly unfair, but she was 85, suffering from dementia, and ready to go. Their voices, their stories, reverberate in my head, but I have no way of checking the facts anymore. When I was getting ready to sell my house before our planned move back to Mongolia, I still had a lot of their things. Boxes of papers, as well as personal mementos, some articles of clothing, even a stuffed teddy bear, now bald with age, that had been a gift to my mother from one of her teachers. All of that is packed and sitting in storage, waiting for a time when I am settled enough somewhere to have it shipped to me. It’s the family archive, and I hope someday to sift through it and write more of their stories, but that will have to wait.
The biggest contrast between my parents always seemed to me to be the way my father was basically content with his lot and my mother wasn’t. My father pursued work that he enjoyed and was good at, though eventually he got promoted out of the lab and into administration, which he wasn’t happy with, though it enabled him to take a golden parachute during a period of downsizing in the early 1990s. He loved his wife and children. His granddaughter was born shortly before he became aware that he had cancer, and he was completely over the moon about her. He was basically a happy man. My mother wasn’t always unhappy, and she loved her family too, but I know it was difficult for her, nearly halfway through her life and well into her career, to abruptly change her plans, marry my father, and move to the US permanently.
My mother often spoke to me of not having a country, and especially of not having a language. When we would visit Switzerland and she would speak Swiss German, people would take her as a Swiss person, but after years of living in the US, she wasn’t anymore. She didn’t know how day-to-day aspects of life changed there, and her spoken language remained stuck in the ‘60s as the decades passed. Increasingly, people there would be frustrated with this woman who seemed to be Swiss but didn’t understand the most basic things, like how to buy a bus ticket or use a public telephone. And she wasn’t American, either. Her English would always be accented (and she faced discrimination accordingly). Her sense of humor was often not understood even by her own children. And there were aspects of our way of life in suburban New Jersey that made no sense to her.
So I grew up with these parents, one solidly rooted where he was and the other caught between two worlds and not really part of either of them. I can see both of them in me. I have the capacity to make everywhere I go feel like home. But I retain the feeling of not belonging anywhere. A permanent outsider who feels a strong attachment to wherever I am. I think this is why I have loved traveling and living overseas so much. Being in the USA makes me feel like I should understand things better, because I am an American who has lived here nearly her whole life. But I often see things from another perspective, and I am unable to accept what many of my fellow Americans consider to be normal or common sense.
When I am in a foreign country, though, it’s “normal” for me to occupy the position of outsider. It’s normal for me to not understand people, to have a different perspective, to question everything. Because it’s normal, it’s less alienating and less exhausting. I can recognize the parts of me that fit into where I am living but also accept more easily the parts that don’t because there’s no expectation that I am an insider. I also learn so much more about myself in the process. At the same time, I fundamentally accept that there are many different ways of living in this world and none of them are “the best.” None of them are perfect; none of them solve all problems. But none of them are inherently superior to all the others, either. And we all have something to learn from other ways of life, no matter how comfortable we are with our own.
I think this was the fundamental lesson of my childhood, of my family. No matter how “right” or “true” something might seem, there is always another way of seeing it. I’m not arguing for a radical relativism, where everything goes and there is no right or wrong. (That’s not what relativism is about, anyway, though it’s detractors often claim it is). I’m arguing for the understanding that other ways of seeing the world than my own are legitimate, and that I can learn from them. That this is the position that every person should start from. No culture, no society, no individual has arrived at the singular truth of existence. We all have something to learn.
This is what I have tried to pass on to my child. Not an unshakeable faith in herself and her own opinion, that bedrock of “self-esteem” in early 21st century America, but a confidence that she does not know everything and will always be able to learn from others. She’s still more comfortable talking to people she agrees with (most people are), but what going to Mongolia gave her was the opportunity to encounter other ways of life on a daily basis for a prolonged period of time. Other ways of seeing things. Other ways of moving through the world. Other possibilities of relationship. And when we came back to the US, back to our house, our town, her school, she realized how small her world really had been, and how much bigger and more interesting the world out there is.
What has been shocking to both of us is to have that world seemingly snatched away just when we were both on the verge of embarking on another journey through it. The COVID-19 pandemic was declared by the WHO just weeks after Emma and I had decided to go back to Mongolia again. Mongolia had already closed its borders and wasn’t allowing foreigners in. They still aren’t. I don’t know how long it will be before we can go back there. Hopefully it’s only a matter of months. But it could be longer. And there could be a point where we’ll have to reassess our options. Our country’s current “leadership” is doing its best to make Americans unwelcome everywhere, too. This is my biggest fear now. That we’ll be trapped in the US, just when we’ve decided to let go of it and move on.