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How They Became US
Author's note: This is a memoir as told to me by my father of his initial experiences in American.
“Wake up,” I hear Mama say. I am lying on my big bed, the sheets strewn wildly and tangled up in my legs. I force my eyes open and focus them as Mama flips the light switch on.
“Mama?” my little sister, Hera, whines. “Mama, what’s going on?”
Mama turns and looks at Hera, standing alone in the doorway with a sad old teddy bear slumping at her side.
“We’re leaving today.” Mama says over her shoulder to Hera as she throws a big box onto the foot of my bed. “Don’t you remember, sweet? Please go gather your things and Mama will pack them for you.” Mama turns back and clicks open the box, hurriedly. Hera doesn’t move. “Juan?” I look at her and yawn. “Pack your things, quickly; the truck will be here to pick us up in a thirty minutes.”
My head is still groggy with sleep as Mama flies around the room like a ghost, throwing things into the box.
“Where’s Dan?” I croak, still half awake. Hera stands like stone in the doorway. The light behind her in the hallway is throwing shadows, like flingers reaching out to me.
She looks past me at Dan’s bed. “Dan?” I whisper, and poke the body under the pile of blankets yielding no response. “Dan, wake up,” I growl, and shove as hard as I can at the body that is my brother.
“What?” the body groans. I swear he can sleep through anything, I say to myself, rolling my eyes.
“Get up now!” Mama interrupts, pulling the sheets on Dan’s bed back, revealing his face. Dan is a few years older than I am, and lot grouchier.
“What’s going on?” Dan grumbles as he tries to pull the sheets back over his head.
Mama slams the box on my bed closed and drops it to the floor, wiping her hands on her skirt. “We’re leaving in a few minutes children, now you must get up and move! Ahree!” Mama listens at the window, placing her ear against its drawn, hand-sewn curtains. We all shudder as the sharp, hollow sound of machine-guns, is heard in the distance. Hera runs to Mama and huddles close to her leg. “It’s okay, baby,” she coos stoking Hera’s fine dark hair. “I won’t let them find us.”
Boxes and suitcases packed, we wait to leave, for what feels like an eternity. The year is 1963 and armed government soldiers are patrolling our beloved city of Tehran. Marshall Law has been declared due to an uprising against the Shah and my family and I stand sadly in our foyer, probably for the last time, as we hear soldiers only streets away slowly destroying our city.
“Is everyone okay?” Aunt Takush, my mohrcur, whispers breathlessly, as she bustles hurriedly through the front door, a frantic look in her pale eyes. Her face relaxes slightly when she sees our faces, but tenses again as another explosion rattles close to the house. Things on tables shake and crash to the floor, lights on the ceiling dance wildly, tables thump and rattle against the hardwood floor. I feel suddenly as if the house is possessed, as the roar of a bomb punctuates the breaking of Mama’s favorite dishes. Hera buries her face in Mama’s skirt, as I run across the room to Aunt Takush, letting myself fall into her warm embrace. I feel her rubbing my back as tears, leaving wet spots on her dress, fall from my frightened eyes. I don’t care if she sees me cry.
She whispers to me, “It’s passing Juan. We’ll be okay. I promise. I won’t let them hurt you.” I see Dan trying to be brave, but as another crash shakes the house, louder than the first, I hear him running toward Mama. The gravelly hum of massive tanks roll closer to our house.
We stand clutching each other for what feels like hours, when Aunt Takush suddenly looks at her gold watch and whispers, “Only two more minutes until our friends in the trucks come to take all of you to the airport.” I slowly release my death grip from around her waist. As she wipes the tears from my eyes with her skirt she bends close and whispers in my ear, “Remember I love you Juan. You are my favorite. Carry me in your heart.” I smile and squeeze her hand tight, not really understanding what she means.
She straightens up and says, “Now Hera, Dan, Juan, the Shah’s soldiers will be here very soon. They will take you to the airport where you will fly away to a better life than you will have if you stay here. The insurgents will not catch you, I promise. You will be safe when you get to America. And in time, I will follow and meet you there. So travel safe my precious ones.”
Her words sting me like a whip. “You’re…. not coming with us?” I sputter; my eyes still red from moments ago are now brimming with tears as I make every effort to understand the implications of what she is saying. “No dear,” Aunt Takush whispers sadly.
My brother Dan starts shuffling noisily through his drawers, looking for something that he claims he simply can’t leave behind. He seems completely unfazed by what our beloved Aunt had just told us. Hera inexplicably fell asleep in Mama’s arms, with her head on her shoulder and her tattered old teddy bear hanging from her small hands down Mama’s back.
“Why?” I start, but am interrupted by the low rumble of a truck stopping at our house.
“That’s the truck,” Mama cries excitedly. She shifts Hera onto her hip and gestures to the box on the bed, “Juan, will you grab that for me, dear one?” I nod and hoist the heavy box from the foot of my bed to my shoulder, grabbing it with both hands. However the weight of it proved to be more than I could handle and I tipped over as it went clattering to the ground. “Dan,” Mama’s scolds quietly, “go and help your younger brother with that, will you?”
“Sorry Mama,” he replies guiltily as he trudges over to the great box and hoists it with both hands from the floor. We shuffle out the door following close to Mama. I turn around and see Aunt Takush standing just inside the door waving good-by. I try to memorize her face.
“Go dears,” I hear her whisper. “America is waiting.”
The harsh reality of leaving the only home I had ever known dropped on me suddenly like a thousand pound weight. Going to America? Mama had often spoke about going to America, and how it would give us a better future than the one we had in Iran, but I secretly thought the only reason she said that was because she thought soldiers were getting ready to drop a bomb on our house.
I turn around and run back to my aunt. “Why can’t you come with us?” I say and tug the sleeve of her dress, pulling her towards the open door. “Please, come. There’s enough room I’m sure.” I try with all my might to pull her into the hall, but she resists and pulls me into her arms instead. “Don’t make us go without you, please. I don’t want to leave you behind,” I scream but my voice is muffled by her dress against my mouth.
“Shh, shh, shh,” she whispers, “Juan, I want to you to look at me right now.” I reluctantly lift my head. “Listen to me, I promise on God Almighty, I will join you in America.”
“When will you come?” I reply, suddenly deadly serious.
“Two years at the most,” she replies quickly as if anticipating my question. My face drops. At eleven years, two years is almost a lifetime! “ I promise, sweetie, two years will pass as quickly as the shooting stars we see in the night sky.” I feel the tears reemerging on the brims of my eyes. She catches my chin as it drops to my chest, and wipes my tears. “Promise me something will you Juan?” I nod; numb with the pain of what she is saying. “I want you to go to America and get everything ready for me to come, okay? I want you to gather all the ingredients for our favorite meatball. Get them from the market along with the rice we love. Can you do that for me?” I nod numbly again. “As soon as I arrive, you and I will cook meatball together again, okay?” I nod, unable to speak.
She smiles and kisses the top of my head giving me a squeeze. “I will miss you, aziz, now hurry and catch up to them before your Mama comes back and yells at us both. “
I force a laugh and walk away willing myself not to look back….
The plane ride to America is long. Dan and I spend most of it fighting and Hera spends most of it sleeping peacefully in Mama’s lap. By the time we get to our apartment, I don’t want o celebrate, all I want to do is sleep. But it is Mama’s birthday! We dress in our best clothes and go out to celebrate, just as we would have done if we were home in Tehran.
“Happy birthday, Mama,” Hera whispers, her arms draped around Mama’s neck, as we walk through the empty streets of Chicago.
“Thank you, dear.” Mama smiles and stops suddenly. She hears the hypnotic sound of whhr-ump whhr-ump filling the air. “Children,” she whispers excitedly, as if she’s afraid her voice will scare the noise off, “do you hear that?” We nod and tilt our ears towards the noise. “It sounds like we’ve found an ice cream store!” My heart skips a beat because ice cream was a rare treat in Tehran. And they made ice cream the old fashioned way, in great metal tubs, which they turned by hand, mixing the cream with the ice until it turned into velvety smooth and delicious ice cream. The flavors we loved were pistachio and cinnamon.
“Oh, Mama!” Hera cries, her head perking up as she sees the store. “Can we go in and get some ice cream, please?”
Mama smiles and kisses Hera’s head, “Of course, dear, In honor of my birthday.”
We all skip, even Mama, as fast as we can across the empty street. America is finally starting to feel like home now that we’ve found an ice cream store.
As we approach, we see not one, but rows and rows of huge ice cream machines; large bins, as tall as Hera. And inside the bins I can see the white blur of spinning ice, milk and sugar.
“Ph-ohr- ise crhee ms- pl-ees,” Mama says quickly to the woman in the store. I know the woman in the store probably didn’t understand that Mama had said, “Four ice creams please,” so I was getting ready to repeat the order when, without warning, the large women in the store, who, by the way, had hair the color of fire, raises her fists in the air and begins yelling at us, gesturing wildly toward the door. She is trying to throw us out of the store, I thought frightened.
I look at Mama to see how she reacts, my heart and head pounding, but she only smiles and gestures with her hands for us to follow her out. The red headed woman comes out of the store after us and begins pointing wildly to the sign on the door. Mama stops and slowly sounds out, in English, the word on door. It says, “Laundromat.”
Mama explains to us what a Laundromat is and we all let go of the breath we are holding and laugh until our sides hurt.
The very next day we start school. I can’t decide whether or not I’m frightened. We’re living in a small apartment where Dan, Hera, and I have to share a room together. We sleep on bunk beds; there’s barely enough room for one person, let alone three. Mama tells us that it’s not permanent, and as soon as she gets a job and collects a pay check, we’ll move into a real house like the one we had in Tehran…but I know that no house, no ice cream, no bed will ever be as good as the one we had in Tehran. I will not be as good as I was in Tehran…at least not until Aunt Takush comes to America…
It turns out schools in America are much larger than I imagined. I walk into the building arm in arm with my brother Dan, the way we would have walked into school in Iran. But as soon as the other boys and girls see us Dan flushes red and stiffens like a board. There is something strange about the other kids, something that I can’t put my finger on, as I puzzle about it, I noticed Dan breathing harder.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. Dan pulls his arm out from mine without looking at me, and scowls. “Dan?” I ask again, “ What’s wrong?”
Dan’s eyes are wildly scanning the building around us. Filling the halls, the same way the soldiers flooded Tehran, children were gathering to gape at us, the two foreign brothers who were just a moment ago, believe it or not, walking arm in arm. I wonder why the other kids are pointing and laughing at us. And I wish that I could understand the things they are whispering into each other’s ears. Not wanting to stay there, I pull a folded piece of paper from my new pants pocket; and try to decipher what the English letters and words are trying to tell me. I sound out the word “sked-jule”…schedule.
I hear Dan start to walk away, never taking his eyes from the pointing people around us; far more bothered by them than I am. He was headed toward the back door of the school. “Dan, where are you going?” I ask, bewildered. He shakes his head; his cheeks still flushed red, and takes another step backwards towards the exit.
“I’m going home,” he whispers. “Don’t you see, Juan? The other children – they’re laughing at us.” His eyes are wide with terror.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because we’re different.”
I realize quickly that Dan is right. I tell him so and somehow persuade him to stay with me in school anyway. I tell him, “Mama is at work and we don’t have a key to the apartment.” This makes sense to him. We both head to our respective class. Because Dan is fourteen and I am only eleven, he has to go to the other end of the building. We can’t actually read the schedule, but we can read the classroom numbers we need to go to. Numbers are the same all over the world and math is an international language.
“Hoo arr yu?” Who are you? A severe woman asks as I quietly enter the room hoping not to be noticed.
The woman eyes me sardonically and turns swiftly to scan a paper sitting on her high desk. I take the time to glance at the other kids in the room; they jitter uneasily in their seats and lean to their neighbors, whispering. Some look amused, while others look almost scared. It takes me another moment to realize that it’s me they look scared of.
“Juan?” The teacher calls, I don’t respond immediately because she pronounces my name wrong. She slurs the name so it sounds like “Wan.” Wan is not my name. My name is pronounced Gzu-ahn.
I turn slowly, because I see the other students staring at someone behind me. “Yes?”
“So you’re the boy from India?” I decide she asks after breaking apart her clipped words.
I shake my head. “Tehran,” I answer.
She squints at me like she just tasted something terrible. For the first time in my life, I feel like an animal; like I don’t deserve to be standing on two feet in her classroom. Frantically, trying to avoid her stone-cold gaze, I look to the kids for warmth, as I would in Iran. Instantly it strikes me, what’s odd about the children here; each one of them has skin pale as the moon, while mine is chalky, and the color of a burnt flowerpot. In Tehran, almost everyone looked the same; we all had the same olive skin, dark hair, and fine eyes. I am an alien. Tears rise and spill down my cheeks.
“Juan?” Wan. “Dih-d yu naut heer me?” Did you not hear me? The teacher woman taps her foot, obviously annoyed, her bony hands stationed on her hips. She hisses louder than before and jabs a finger at the sea of faces.
I hurry to the only seat open near the middle of the classroom. The people around me noisily scoot their seats away, like I am a pariah. I hang my head and stare at the fake wood of the desk, waiting for the minutes to pass until I go home.
“How was your day, aziz?” Mama asks as Dan and I slam the door of our apartment and enter. We don’t answer; we trudge back to our bedroom to start our homework. “Hello?” she calls. I climb the bunk bed ladder and flop down onto the old creaky mattress in our shared room. I shut my eyes to the world. “Dan?” I hear Mama gasp. She is looking at his bruised and beaten face. “What happened to you?” she screams.
My eyes open as I listen to the conversation below. “Nothing Mama, just some of the kids at school teasing, that’s all.”
“Don’t give me that,” she scolds, “let me see your face. Oh, Dan, your eye! It’s all swollen. Look at that,” she says in horror. “Come to me aziz.” I hear a creak as Mama pulls Dan up to get a better look at his beaten face. “I’m so sorry that happened to you,” she whispers.
The tears I’d been holding in all day finally flow freely down my face, as Mama comforts Dan. Dan got those bruises protecting me. As we were walking home, a couple of boys from Dan’s class were waiting for us.
“Haay,” one of the boys drones, shoving me roughly to the ground. My knee smarts, as I look to examine it, I see the other boys starting to shove Dan too.
“Stop it,” he says, trying to shrug off their hits with his shoulders. In Tehran, we were taught never to fight back, even when attacked. “Hey, guys, c’mon. I’m in your class –hey!” Dan cries as he twists to avoid their punches.
“Yee-ah. I noh. Yuu’er thuh fureek fur-um Eejipt.” Yea, I know, you’re the freak from Egypt.
“It’s Iran,” Dan says, spitting blood onto the pavement, his eye swelling.
Suddenly they turn and come at me like a pack of wolves. I brace for the pain and squeeze my eyes shut. “I said stop,” Dan growls. Dan begins to hit the other boys, and gestures for me to run.
“I’m not leaving you,” I say, surprising myself with my own bravery. I feel a weight being lifted as I let my small fist fly and thwap one of the boys straight in gut. Every value I’d been taught in Iran, every lesson I’d learned about hitting and violence, is tossed aside as the rage in me builds as I see my brother being beat up for no reason. But, because Dan and I have never been in a fight before, we get pummeled and end up with multiple bruised and cuts all over. Dan’s injuries are worse than mine, which is why I don’t mind at all when Mama tends to him while I try to hide in the top bunk.
By the next morning, my bruises are an ugly yellow and my muscles hurt all over.
“Dan?” I whisper, peeking my head down to see if he’s awake, “Dan, wake up.” He groans and pulls the sheets over his face. Pain stabs me in the chest as I see his swollen eye and the true severity of his wounds. “Dan, I’m sorry.”
“What?” he groans, stretching finally and rubbing his eyes, “ah! God, my arms hurt.”
“I’m sorry, Dan. It’s my fault we got in that fight.”
“How is it your fault?” he says, looking up at me. “Those guys were just rude.” His voice is still gruff as he kicks his legs off the side of his bed and yawns hugely. “It’s just like I told you, Juan, to them we are “different”, and anyone who is “different” is a target in America. That’s why they beat us up.”
I look and see Hera’s bed is empty. “Where is Hera?” I ask.
“She went to go sleep with Mama in the middle of the night,” Dan replies as he begins rustling through his drawer for a shirt, “nightmares or something.”
“Poor Hera,” I say more to myself than to Dan, “she probably had it worse than we did. She’s only eight…she’s so small and…”
“Hera?” Dan says with a hint of a smile. “Nah, she’s fine, in fact, Mama told me that she made many new friends.”
Hearing this, I want to ask Hera how she did it. How did she make friends? Didn’t they think she was “different” too? “Wow,” I whisper, in awe of my little sister, “good for her.”
Dan snorts. “Yeah, for her. While we’re getting beat up in back alleyways, she’s making friends?”
“It was just that one time,” I reply.
“Ha! You can be so stupid sometimes.” Dan turns to me suddenly and lifts his eyebrow, “You really think that was a one shot deal?” I stare stupidly. “Juan, they’re coming for us. Yesterday was just a preview. It’s about to get a whole lot worse.”
Dan is right about that. Every day that week is the same. The teacher, whose name I learn is Mrs. Kowinski, continues to glare at me, my classmates continue to laugh at me, and Dan and I continue to get beat up every day on our way home. We try looking for other routes home, but no matter where we go, they find us and leave us unable to stand.
Homework is another problem altogether. I’m not like Dan or Hera. Hera’s homework is easy, and every night she sits down with Mama in the kitchen and they finish it together. Dan, on the other hand never does his homework, in fact he never even tries to get it done declaring, “There is no point to doing the homework if the teacher is going to give me a bad grade anyway.” I guess he has a point, and I pretend to agree with him every time he and Mama argue about it. But as soon as he falls asleep, I always pull out a flashlight and do my homework anyway.
And doing homework is challenging; the letters frustrate me to no end. The teacher hits me whenever I mistake “U.S.” with “us” because to me they look the same, one is simply taller than the other, I tell her this, but she always marks my homework with a big red “X” (which I am now aware is a letter as well as a sign,) and hits me with a stick in front of the class. By the end of the day I’m loaded with what she assigns to the class, and also whatever penalty assignment she gives me for my mistakes. I dutifully try to do my homework every night; but every night it gets harder and harder. Sometimes I want to rip the hair out of my head or stick my head out the window and scream. I want to kick the wall and break the lamp that Mama brought with us from Tehran.
“Aunt Takush,” I whisper to myself, after everyone has gone to sleep, “I wish you had come with us. No one here understands what I’m feeling. Hera’s fitting in with all the other schoolgirls, Mama has a job and since she learned English back at home she has had no problems making friends. Dan has it the hardest, because even though he tells me they stopped bullying him, I know it never really stopped based on the bruises he still comes home with. So, I know he’s lying to me. I heard him talking to Mama in the kitchen the other day. He told her that the other boys in his class made a deal that they wouldn’t beat me up if he stayed after school and faced them instead.” I’m staring at the ceiling, speckled with stains from all the previous water leaks. “I wonder if the other people that lived in this house were like us, Aunt Takush? Maybe they came to America looking for a new start too.” I sigh and roll onto my side, pulling the blankets over my shoulders. “Things would have been different, Aunt Takush, if you had come with us to America.”
Mrs. Kowinski hit me with a ruler in class again today and I’m not sure why. I am concentrating very hard when suddenly; I become aware that she is speaking to me.
“Wan? Wan! Wood yu lie-k to sha-er yuer ans-er with thuh cla-ss?” Would you like to share your answer with the class?
I scrunch my face to decipher the words, and then when I finally understand what she had asked, I shake my head violently.
“No?” she gasps. Mrs. Kowinski cocks an eyebrow, as a cruel smile creeps across her face. She talks to me about something I don’t quite catch because she says it too quickly, so I just nod to show her that I think I understand. “Arr yu eevan lis-ening tu mee?” she yells in my face, her face growing redder by the minute. I can do nothing but stare, stupefied, as her words don’t mean anything to me. Suddenly, as her voice reaches a peak, she grabs me by the ear and drags me to the front of the class. I am nearly blind with pain, and use every ounce of strength I have not to scream for help. I realize no one would come to help me.
She beats me with her ruler hard on the palm of my hand, each blow like a lightning strike. Just as I think I’ve built up a tolerance, she yells at me again and whips my hand harder still. I wince and grit my teeth. After a while, I see the angry red flesh on my hand grow moist with blood. “Stoo-ped chai-ld,” she hisses again.
Class is dismissed and sweat is beading down my forehead. Mrs. Kowinski releases my good hand from her iron hold and I fall to my knees in front of her. I am clutching my injured hand to my chest as I hear her sharp footsteps disappear into the hall. I scavenge around for something to clean my hand with, remembering Aunt Takush’s cautions about cleaning cuts so they don’t get infected. I end up waiting in the empty classroom, running my injured hand under the water fountain until the water runs clear. I sigh with relief as I splash my face with the cool ecstasy of clean water.
Later, I stumble home, still weak from the pain. To Mama, who is sitting at the kitchen table with Hera, I must look drunk. My hand is clutched close to my chest, as if it is an injured bird, my eyes are red and swollen, and my hair is disheveled. Every drop of composure I tried so hard to hang onto was lost…. the first time that ruler came down on my hand.
Mama tries to get me to talk about what happened as she carefully washes the wound, but I don’t tell her. Not because I’m afraid to, but because I’m too beyond words to vocalize what happened that day. She leaves me curled up on my bed as she gingerly lays the sheets over my body and leaves. This surprises me, as I hoped she would hug me and sit by me for a while until I could find the words to explain. No sooner did she left than she returns.
“Here you go, aziz,” Mama says as she tucks a piece of paper under my arm. “I think this will help you more than I can right now.”
“Is Juan going to be okay, Mommy?” Hera’s little voice floats through the air.
“I hope so, sweetie. He’s resting now,” she explains.
“Here, Juan.” I feel another gift being placed at my side. I don’t look to see what it is.
“That’s very sweet of you, Hera, dear. I’m sure it will make him feel better,” Mama sighs. “C’mon, let’s go in the kitchen and finish your homework.”
Their footsteps echo down the hall, leaving me in silence.
“Homework,” I whisper and snort. “I’m never doing homework again. I’m never doing anything that has to do with that school again. I quit school. I hate America. I’m going to go out and find work somewhere and make money, enough money that I can go home to Iran.” I’m shaking and clutching my injured hand to my chest so hard it hurts. “America will never be my home!”
After a while, Dan comes home bruised. I can hear him asking Mama what was wrong with me; she told him that I needed to be alone. She invites him to sit with her at the table in the kitchen so they can do homework together. I am amazed when he actually accepted her invitation; I can hear him pulling up a chair and unbuckling his backpack for the first time ever.
Feeling a little better, I reach behind me to grab the gifts that Mama and Hera left for me. My hand sweeps against something soft and worn; Hera’s teddy bear. I pull it to my chest and for a moment, I feel young again, younger than Hera. I feel like a young boy and remember when Aunt Takush would bounce me on her knee and tell stories about how her mother taught her to sew. I love her stories. Second, I reach for the paper Mama had left. Squinting in the dim light, I see it is a letter. I open it carefully, it reads:
My Dearest Juan,
I am writing this to you the night you left. Not moments ago you and your family took off to America – without me. I wish very dearly that I could have come with you, but I have lots of unfinished business I need to attend to, loose ends that I mustn’t leave untied. I hope you understand and I hope you keep your promise to buy ingredients for our favorite meatball dinner and ready a place for me to stay when I arrive in America.
Aziz, I understand that it might be hard for you in America. After all it is a new place with new people and new things that you haven’t yet experienced. I only hope that when you read this letter, it finds you with your heart open to everything that America has to offer.
I roll my eyes. America has nothing to offer. All it’s done is raise my hopes only to beat them back down with a stick…a ruler actually. My hand stings at the thought.
Yes, yes I realize that a smart boy like you might find it hard to fit in, but I believe that you have the strength to work through anything. Anything that America can throw your way, I believe you can handle.
Maybe it’s best that I didn’t come with you right away. That way when I do, I will have the pleasure of meeting the man you are becoming. I know that you might miss me now, as I miss you and your brother and your sister and your mother, but I hope that in my absence you will be strong and learn, learn everything. I hope for you to become a man – but in order for that to happen, you must suffer a few blows. It is what you learn from the scars, that truly makes you a strong man. Even though it may hurt now, I promise, aziz, that by the time I come to America, you will no longer be a boy, but the intelligent and kind man I know you are capable of becoming.
I wish for you happiness, until we meet again,
Your Aunt Takush.
For the first time in a long while, I feel something warm inside my chest; something powerful. Is it pride or maybe it’s hope? A hope that all the pain I am withstanding now will somehow help me be someone Aunt Takush could be proud of, someone she could call a man.
“Okay, for you, Aunt Takush, I will be strong.” With that I kick my feet off my bed and pull out a piece of paper and pencil from my backpack. I print two letters, “US.” and smile.