Dinner with divorced immigrant parents: A meal time horror story

I’m not a great story teller.

Most of the time, I just let the memory of whatever ridiculous shit (which has been a lot lately) happened to me be regurgitated through funny photos, eye witness accounts or mortifying Bart rides.

So in the spirit of embarrassing myself on the Internet, here is my latest bit. If nothing else, I hope this validates any other first-generation or children of divorce’s experience.

My parents divorced around two years ago. Both of them are from Buenos Aires, and somehow managed to find each other in California. My dad was on a work visa as a computer engineer, and my mother was a nanny in Redondo Beach. My father turned out to be my mother’s room mate in the Bay Area, so when she came to visit him, the rest really was history.

They eloped after dating for five months in the Chapel of Love in Lake Tahoe. My mom wore a black wedding dress. It was an accident, she says.

Fast-forward 25 years later. I’m at a dinner table with my two brothers and parents at a Cambodian restaurant. After finally being convinced that I was a professional writer, my parents wanted to celebrate. It was an incredibly kind and humbling gesture, so naturally, I accepted.

Dinner was peculiar for a number of reasons. My parents had a pretty amicable divorce process, although I don’t really think any divorce is painless or fun. I was fortunate enough that the two of them, in their own weird way, are still friends. No one fought over my shitty paintings or the graduation photo of definitely drunk me. No one was an asshole. Like I said, it could have been worse. Which is why dinner was an oddity in our family gatherings, because no one ended up stabbing someone. Since my parents split, the only time the five of us are in the same room is for Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are in itself weird encounters, too.

So instead of my parents taking passive aggressive shots at each other over coconut rice or preaching about their new partners, my parents were acting normal. I still can’t tell if that “normal” was really a facade for the sake of putting on a good face for the kids, or if it was genuine. I’m not sure. They were trying, though.

What I do know is that there was a deep sense of love filled with a lot of pain. My parents clearly still have a lot of love for each other, which I think is beautiful. These two people left their entire lives behind in search of something better. Along the way, they met each other, and built a life together. They bought their first home together. Their first car. They even got their citizenships together (it took them eight years, for the record). And somehow, they managed to raise at least two functional kids (I am definitely not one of them).

What I’m trying to say is that these two humans built their lives together in a place where they had no one but each other. This is the immigrant story, the American dream of making something of yourself. And even though I think my dad secretly works for the KGB, I’m so proud and privileged to be the daughter of immigrant parents. But I am also aware that divorcing the only person you knew in a foreign county isn’t easy.

In a lot of ways, my parents’ connection runs so deep because we’re all we have out here — everyone else is on another continent and time zone. Breaking up with that person can be real fucking lonely. Who else do you have? Who else do you lean on? What do you do when your diaspora isn’t your diaspora anymore?

Like I said, I think divorce blows for everyone, regardless of who and how things go down. But it wasn’t until dinner with my family, that I realized how their divorce was one of many layers. It wasn’t until all five of us were sitting there, plates empty, and with nothing to say, did I realize how their split hurt them on a national, cultural and social level. What the hell are you supposed to do when the only other orange in a room of apples doesn’t want to be with you?

But like most Argentines, my parents use humor as a buffer between that pain and awkward sense of loss. It may not have been exactly horrifying, but it was weird, uncomfortable, and slightly disheartening. It was probably the first and last time I’ll ever not finish my curry.

So yeah, divorce sucks. And divorce between your immigrant parents sucks, too. You’re not really sure where to go from there, or how to go anywhere — at least at the dinner table. And maybe you don’t have to know. Maybe it’s another trail your parents will build along the way. And I suppose that’s the best you can do. I mean, your family is your family. You can’t really break up with them, and that’s something worth noting.

Dinner may be awkward as fuck, but only until your brother shows you the mussel he’s eating definitely looks like a vagina. As long as you chose to continue to sit at the dinner table, you and the people you love will be there too.

 

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