The New Americans: The first day I arrived my mother took me to Gimbels.

The New Americans: The First Day I Arrived My Mother Took Me to Gimbels

The New Americans: The First Day I Arrived My Mother Took Me to Gimbels

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 2 2016 5:43 PM

The New Americans

Kelebohile Nkhereanye.

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“The first day I arrived my mother took me to Gimbels. I was like, Oh my goodness.”

My name is Kelebohile Nkhereanye.

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Can you tell us how old you are?

I am 52 years old.

Tell us where you were born.

I was born and raised in Maseru, Lesotho, a small country landlocked by South Africa.

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How long have you been in the United States?

1978 I came to the United States.

Tell us a little about what your life was like before you came here and what brought you here.

Maseru is the capital of Lesotho and I grew up in a household where I was the only child for a while. I am the oldest but I have other siblings. Basically my grandmother is the person who raised me and my grandfather, and I learned how to be a girl, how to prepare myself to be a woman, and we lived in a house, that was like three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. My grandmother and my grandfather were living in South Africa for a while and migrated to Lesotho, which meant they were a working family, and they had their basic needs. I don’t know poverty per se. I think it’s important for people to know that because Africans, how we live, and the issues—I wasn’t rich, but I ate, I had clothes, and I had a place to live. I was able to go to school.

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Even now that I’m living in America, I always tell people that my coping mechanism has always been work and school. I always have to make sure that I have a job and I always try to take a course or seminar, anything to empower myself. These are the ways that I function in the world.

You said something interesting about how you prepared to be a girl and a woman. Could you unpack a little what that means?

One of the important things that as an African girl, I have to know that my parents expect me to get married, which means I have to learn how to cook, I have to learn how to clean, I have to make sure I take care of my body so that it’s clean. You know you have to wash yourself. Even though we had no running water in the house, you had to go outside to get water and warm up the water and put it in a basin that’s specifically for washing. And we have bigger basins that you can put the water in there and take a bath. That’s what I mean by you had to prepare yourself to be a woman.

You were careful to say you weren’t in terribly poverty; you had a pretty good standard of living. Talk us through your decision to come to the United States.

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To come to the United States wasn’t my decision. My mother remarried, because she had me when she was young, and I wanted to get a better education, and she was aware that in Lesotho we value education and she was saying it would be better for me to come to the U.S. I will have a free education in high school—when I arrived I was already in high school—and there were possibilities, I could go to college. That was the motivation.

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Charlie Powell

How old were you when you got here?

I was 13.

Did you have in your imagination some picture of what you were coming to?

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The picture I had in my mind was Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, but when I arrived here my parents were living on the Lower East Side, on 4th Street between Third and Second Avenue. It was amazing because you see people living in the Bowery, a lot of shelters at that time. And people were living in small apartments. I’d lived in a house. I was like what’s going on here! [Laughs.] Living next door to strangers, and the close proximity of our neighbors, I wasn’t used to that.

And also different races, the people that were living in our building. There were Hispanics, Caucasians, and we were just a few black families, and I found that very interesting. Of course the things that were shocking to me was seeing how many restaurants and the shopping. I remember the first day I arrived my mother took me to a store, it’s no longer in existence, it was called Gimbels. I was like, Oh my goodness what a big store. And the subway, it was all new and unexpected.

When you first started school what grade were you in?

They put me under ninth grade.

Where did you go to school?

Washington-Irving, it was a girls’ school then. On 17th Street, 16th Street and Irving Place. It was in Manhattan. It was such a big school, I was not used to up and down the steps, changing classes. But I did well for the first year, I was on honor roll. [Laughs.] I didn’t feel out of place. I guess due to the fact that I spoke English. Even though in Africa I didn’t speak English every day you were supposed to speak English when you are in school. But I was able to adjust well to the school system, without any challenges. It was just adjusting to the big school system.

Do you remember how old you were when you started to feel like—if you started to feel like this was home?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I feel that it’s home now, because I just became an American citizen. But before I always felt one foot here, one foot at home. I always wanted to help people at home. I felt that one day I’ll go home. The values that I have, I have to reflect back and give back to people back home, because based on globalization we are losing our cultural values on some level, because everyone wants to be like the First World, Westernized, and I think we’re losing some cultural values—some, not everything—some we have to let go anyway. They’re not always aligned with today’s events or the realization that people are free to do what they need to do for themselves, they don’t always have to follow what culturally they’re supposed to or what their family wants. They have to make their own decisions.

What values do you feel like you still carry from home that are not necessarily core American values? When you say “a part of me yearns to preserve these other values,” can you give me an example of what those values are?

For me, respect, respecting your elders. Knowing that you don’t have to always be in the same room with people who are older than you. In my country, people if they’re older than you, you call them Sister. If they’re relatives, they’re Aunts, that sort of thing—you just don’t call people by their name. Those values take you far. You learn to know your place. It doesn’t mean I am gullible or not aware of who I am in the world, but I know when you speak and I know when I need to let things be, because there’s no reason to argue about everything, especially in my case. I’m a lesbian, I’m an out lesbian, I’m married, and that means I’m not arguing with anybody about my faith, my sexual orientation, and also my gender, in the sense that just because I’m a female doesn’t mean I’m not smart, I’m not business-minded, that I need people to hold me by the hand. It’s a mixed bag, let me just say that.

What’s your occupation?

I am a station agent. I work for New York City Transit Authority. I’ve been working there for 22 years; I have three more years until I retire, so I’m very excited. Outside of that, I’m an activist, I’ve been involved in HIV/AIDS, I’ve been involved in women’s rights, now I’m very committed to food justice. Access to local, healthy fresh food. That keeps me balanced. I don’t have to feel like my job is everything. I’m also a community activist. I am on the community board. I’m well-rounded in terms of engagement with my communities.

You were in this country for a very long time before you became a citizen this year. What prompted you?

Well—Number 1 reason is knowing that Ms. Hillary Clinton was going to run for office. I figured, you know what, she’s going to need my vote. Not only she needs my vote, but I want to participate in the political system in a fair way. There’re a lot of bills that have been passed, a lot of legislation, and I benefited from it. I felt like it’s time for me to participate. And also I’m part of African Communities Together, and it’s an organization that’s bringing Africans together to advocate for more services for Africans, and I also realize that if I’m not voting, I won’t be able to go to Albany, go to City Hall, go to Washington, and talk to the public officials, because I don’t vote. If you’re voting at least you’re saying I support something, I want some money to do something for us. And to me I feel so honored and so blessed that I can say I’m contributing to X because I believe in what they’re doing. That’s what it’s all about: Being a citizen means being engaged, and really for me it’s important because in Africa some people become leaders forever and ever and I don’t think that’s fair. Here you get an opportunity to at least pick someone that is choice. You can have a choice, and you can cast that vote.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.