The problem with being a migrant, if you could call it a problem I guess, is that once you decide to up and leave you become a person from nowhere. Doesn't matter where you were born, it does not matter where you are going, or for how long you are gone.
It doesn't matter how well you speak your new language or how well you assimilate. It doesn't matter how long you live abroad or how well you sing your new national anthem. Once you leave you are choosing a life of statelessness, you have chosen to belong nowhere. That is the life of a migrant.
The country that you have left no longer sees you as one of their "own". You become an ex-patriot instead of a compatriot, you are "the other". Despite how Australian I try to be, I will never feel 100% Australian, despite how Salvadoran I know I always will be, I'll always feel like I'm from somewhere else. I still don't know where that elsewhere is.
That's the life of a migrant.
Maybe it's oversensitivity, or me reading something into the genuine interest of others, but to this day the question "where are you from" still rattles me. There's a certain type of xenophobia and racism I detect in someone else's voice when they ask me that question. A type I suspect can only be detected by fellow 'others'.
There's no profile or type of person that triggers off my already sensitive feeling of otherness. Anyone from the drunk man at the football who asked me where I was from and if I had ever really played football and if I could really understand what was going on; or the English lady, herself a tourist, who asked me at a wedding, and in a slow and loud manner the way you speak to thick children, if 'I was liking Australia'.
The question: 'where are you from' is a constant reminder to me that no matter my level of assimilation and no matter my experiences I will always look like a foreigner in Australia, and because of that I will always be a persona non-grata without even having to open my mouth. I will always be an immigrant.
When I was in high school I would be asked where I was from and I would say I was American, which strictly speaking is true, America is not a country but rather a continent. My desire to claim some sort of Americanism was to defeat any shame I had at being from a Central American country that no one had ever heard off; an impoverished war-torn Central American country that most people cannot place on a map.
Conversely, when I was travelling through El Salvador, when asked by customs at the airport or by police at checkpoints I would tell them that I was Australian. To say otherwise didn't feel right. I have lived most of my life in Australia, and this is home. I paid for that assertion by being treated slightly differently, I felt like I was a walking reminder to my fellow Salvadorans that my luck turned out better than theirs. I felt like a walking reminder to my family and friends in El Salvador that I had been rolled a good hand and I was fortunate enough to be educated abroad and return home as a tourist.
Now I just tell people I'm from Dandenong, which is true to a point, the City of Greater Dandenong in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne was my first home in Australia.
I guess leaving home is never easy, not for anyone, particularly when leaving home means travelling to a place where you don't know the language, you don't know anybody, and you're fleeing a war. This didn't really concern me though. I was five when we left El Salvador, I turned 6 during my first week in Australia.
I remember the furniture had been packed or packed up, some would be gifted, some was sold and the rest was probably divided amongst the last set of neighbours or family friends left standing once our plane had departed. I know there wasn't much in the house on that last night, the couch remained, some mattresses, I remember I had this green plastic soccer ball, for some reason it has escaped the cull and I was kicking it about. I imagine that everything that we owned and could take and carry had been packed up somewhere. There were boxes with my father's very neat handwriting: "NELSON DAVID MEJIA DESTINACION: AUSTRALIA" or something similar.
The little townhouse in San Salvador was packed with family members who would come with us to the airport the following day. The kids, meaning my siblings and my cousins and anyone else who could fit really, crammed the space upstairs.
There were bodies everywhere, sleeping or trying to because the day after we would make a sizeable and bleary eyed convoy to the airport. Before we were ushered upstairs to sleep there was a small commotion amongst the adults. I don't remember the details but it revolved around my grandparents feeling that they would never see us again. My mother tried to make light of the situation assuring them that they were wrong and asked someone to take a polaroid photo of them sitting on the couch together for the last time.
That photograph is very faded now, but it's historic. My maternal grandparents, sitting with my mother, my mother's eyes bloodshot with tears, my grandmother's eyes much the same, although you can never really tell because of her glasses. My grandfather, an impressively built, solid figure. Commanding, as you would expect from an ex-sailor, fully buttoned up shirt and a wide brimmed hat, sitting stoically, distressed but defiant. My green plastic soccer ball wedged under the couch peeking back at the viewer.
A lot of tears were shed by the adults; I can only imagine their fear at not seeing us again. We were going to a place that not many of them could pinpoint on a map. Had we said that we were going to the moon I think they would have felt safer, at least they knew where the moon was.
I guess there were causes for tears. My mother would never see her father alive again. His death two years later of a stroke would subsequently cause her a nervous breakdown of sorts that lead us to eventually return to El Salvador. Yet, in late May 1989 my sisters Lupe and Mariella, my brother Giovanni, my mum and my dad all boarded a Pan American flight bound for the great southern land.
It must have been early when we left San Salvador. I know because we were all woken from our slumber just before dawn. There was excitement in the air, we were going to another country! There's something about that time of day where not many people are awake, the air is still cool and it feels like anything could happen. To this day, if I'm awake at that time (a time which I coincidentally call 'airport time') I still get that feeling of excitement, the feeling of an upcoming adventure.
There were two airports that we could have flown from, they aren't foo far apart from each other, like most distances in El Salvador, a country only 21,000 km2. It feels important to note that one airport, the Aeropuerto de Illopango, was largely a military airport also used for civilian flights and the other was the Aeropuerto de Comalapa, which at the time was a small airport handling some international flights and has now become a large modern airport serving as a hub for the whole American continent. I love the irony that we could have fled El Salvador as political refugees from a military airport.
I remember boarding the plane and looking out of the window, we couldn't see much or maybe I don't remember seeing much. I do vividly recall seeing the tarmac roll underneath us, slow as we taxied, faster as the engines roared into life and then quickly disappear as a thin grey ribbon into the lush, green, tropical landscape of El Salvador.
Our first stop was Guatemala City, a flight only 45 minutes long and then on to the City of Angels, Los Angeles where a stopover of 8 hours awaited us. As a child, eight hours feels like a lifetime, I remember wandering around the departure hall, a little stunned, a lot confused. My mother would walk us around the departure gate one way, then another. We must have made quite a sight because somewhere along the way we had joined a group of other Salvadoran migrants bound for Australia. It was easy to spot us all, we were the ones that had great big white plastic bags that said: INTERGOVERNMENTAL COMMITTEE FOR MIGRATION. A telltale sign that we were people fleeing one place in the hope of a better place.
After taking us for yet another walk around the departure gate, my mother took us to a deck where we could see the plane we were about to board for our new home, a Qantas 747 painted with that unmistakable red kangaroo logo. The plane looked enormous, beyond enormous. It was the biggest thing I had ever seen, and we were about to board it.
The flight from LAX to Sydney, our first stop was as long as long can be for a five year old. I remember my little sister Mariella was really sick and my parents had to make do with getting her needs met with air stewards who spoke no Spanish. She vomitted for what seemed like the whole way there and all I remember was seeing that the plane displayed on the cabin's main screen showing our progress across the Pacific didn't seem to be getting any closer to our destination.
What a remarkable feat it must be to uproot your family and take them to another place on a prayer and a song. I look at the dependents I have, my husband, two fish and a pot plant and the thought of taking them all to another house would be daunting, let alone to another continent. It takes more than guts to rip your life out of one orchard and plant it in another. I admire anyone who has that courage, my parents included, I could never do it. Yet I owe my education, my social mobility, all the opportunities I have today on that decision that they made in 1989.
My parents are deeply, deeply, flawed people, and this decision to leave was an enormous sacrifice for them then, a sacrifice they are still paying for now. As flawed as they are, I cannot thank them enough for having the courage to move us elsewhere, not for their sake, but for ours.
We landed in Melbourne, eventually. Our trip that was quite literally halfway around the world took us from Guatemala to Los Angeles, to Sydney, to Melbourne but we were home. Well, we would be home soon I guess.
I asked my father if it were at all possible to see any kangaroos in the street, and he just told me to look very carefully on the drive from the airport and to tell him if I spotted any. I'm sure he was calling my bluff, but I wouldn't be surprised if he half meant it.
Unfortunately, the only kangaroos that I saw were on the livery of the Cobb & Co coaches that took us to the Enterprise Migrant Hostel in Springvale, a hostel that by the time it closed in 1992 had provided a welcoming home to Australia for tens of thousands of migrants.
Australia did once upon a time provide a welcome to refugees. The Enterprise Hostel was the manifestation of the promise embedded in our national anthem:
"For those who come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share."