This is going to be really boring. I forgot my book in the car. We are in the immigration office in New Orleans. The television is on CNN not Disney. A news woman is talking about the elections again. I don't vote. I'm only nine.
We sit in plastic purple chairs joined together, Mom and me. Dad stands in line for one of the booths. The booth curtains are purple too. They are open like a puppet show is about to begin, but real people sit behind the glass windows, stamping and checking. I hope my parents get their green cards. I really hope we can drive back to Mississippi in time for my soccer game.
Booth A is for information and questions. Booth B is for applications. Booth C is for replacement cards. D is for forms and E is for adjudications. I know these words because I read, especially when I'm bored. What I don't understand is why must they explain the rules in different languages here?
No Smoking is No Fumar
No Drinking is Khong Duoc Uong
No Eating is No Comer and Khong Duoc An
I ask Mom, "What language is that?"
"Spanish," she says. She is not wearing her glasses so she can't see far. She is holding the yellow envelop for their passports.
I should have guessed Spanish. I take lessons in our after school program. Mr. Gonzalez won't let us leave until we get our words right. He is always telling us to shut our mouths or else. Then you should see him at mass on Thursdays, eating the body of Christ and drinking the blood of Christ.
There are people here who look like Mr. Gonzalez. Indian looking people too, like my friend Areeba who left our school because Catholic religion was confusing her. There are people who look Chinese to me, but whenever I say this, Mom says, They're not all Chinese! Sometimes she gets on my last nerves. I'm just a kid. There is one family who looks African like us, but Mom says they must be Haitian because a man next to them keeps speaking French to their son.
A pretty woman comes out of a wooden door. "Mr. Murphy?" she says. "Enrique Morales?" The third name she says sounds like Hung Who Win?
Mr. Murphy is the French speaking man. "A Bientot," he says, when he gets up. No one in the Haitian family answers him. Maybe they are too tired to be polite.
I tell Mom, "Bet that's where the green cards are hidden. Behind that wooden door."
"Like lost treasure," she says.
"Why green?" I ask.
"I don't know."
"Maybe because green is for go?"
"Remember when you ran a red light, Mom?"
"When did I ever run a red light?"
She did. She ran one and said it was too late to stop. I was small and I yelled, "Oo, that's begainst the law."
"Can I please go and get my book from the car?" I ask. "Please?"
"No," she says. "Absolutely not. What if they go and call us?"
Green is for vegetables. I will never eat mine. Green is for Northeast soccer field, especially when it rains. Green is for envy. My best friend Celeste is trying to make a move on my man, just because their names both start with C. His name is Chance. I told Mom my true feelings when she forced me to share. She said if two women are fighting over a man they've already lost. "What if your best friend makes a move on your man?" I asked. "Kai," she said and bit her finger. "I blame that Britney Spears."
Dad hands over their passports to an old woman with orangey lipstick in the booth. When he comes back, he sits next to me.
"How long will it take?" I ask.
"You never know," he says.
"What if it takes all day?"
"Aw man, what?"
Last year, when Grandpa died, Dad couldn't go for the funeral in Africa. Mom said this was because they were out of status waiting for their green cards. If Dad went to Africa, he wouldn't be able to come back to America. Dad cried. Mom said people didn't know the sacrifices we had to make. Then on the day of Grandpa's funeral, a white pigeon landed on our roof. She said that it was Grandpa coming to tell Dad his spirit was at peace, which made me scared, so I sneaked into their bed again, in the middle of the night, even though I really didn't believe that pigeon on the roof was my Grandpa.
"How I wish we can get back to Mississippi before six," I say.
"What's on at six?" Dad asks. "Some Disney rubbish?"
"Never mind," I say.
If I tell him, he'll think I'm selfish. I want to get back to Mississippi in time for soccer. Already he is watching the elections on CNN.
Green is for my parent's passports. Green white green is the color of the flag of their country in Africa, Nigeria.
* * *
The pretty woman comes out of the door again. What she says sounds like Oloboga? Ologoboga?
"That's you," I say, pulling Dad's jacket. "Come on. Come on."
"Ah-ah, what's wrong with you?" he asks.
"Calm down," Mom says.
Sometimes my parents act like I'm bothering them all the time. I walk behind them. I don't even want to be in the same footsteps with them. The pretty woman says, "Hey Sweetie."
"Stop sulking," Mom says.
"Are we getting your thumb print today, Sweetie?" the pretty woman asks me.
"No, she's the American in the family," Mom says and smiles.
On the other side of the door, I don't see any green cards, only a room with a table and a copier. The pretty woman does Dad's thumb print, then Mom's, and then she writes our address in Mississippi to send their green cards. Mom won't stop thanking her.
"You have no idea. We waited so long. When will they come?"
The woman leads us to the door saying, "By regular post. Yes, you can travel as you like. Yes, yes, you're officially permanent residents." I don't think she cares.
"Can we go now?" I ask, after she shuts the door.
The Haitian family is still sitting out there. The lines for the booths are longer. An Indian boy spreads his arms like plane wings and makes engine sounds with his lips. Brr! Brr!
We walk to the elevators.
"Mardi Gras parade," Dad says.
"Is there one this afternoon?" Mom asks.
"Shall we?" he says. "To celebrate?"
"Do you want to stay for a Mardi Gras parade?" Mom asks me.
Dad is dancing. Limbo. The yellow envelope with their passports is under his armpit. It's so embarrassing.
"Em," I say. "No."
Last year we came for Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The weather was sunny. We watched the Oshun Parade on Canal Street. I was trying to catch the beads people were throwing from the floats. I preferred the golds. My neck was weighed down. Mom kept yelling in my ear, "Oshun is African. People here don't know. She is the Yoruba goddess of love." Her breath smelled of the beignets we ate for breakfast. Dad was saying, "Don't just reach out like that. That's why you keep missing them. See, there is a technique to catching the beads." "What technique?" Mom asked and Dad stepped in front to show us and a huge black bead smacked him in the face. Then we had to eat lunch. I said I wanted Chinese. They said they wanted Thai. Mom said it was all the same. "Chinese is not Thai!" I said, and Mom asked, "How come you know the difference when it comes to food?" We ate King Cake on our way back to Mississippi. It was creamy and glorious. I got the pink plastic baby Jesus inside and Dad said, "That's great," and Mom asked, "What if she choked on it?"
"It's too wet for Mardi Gras," I say.
Mom says, "The American has spoken. Back to Mississippi for us."
Green is for Mardi Gras beads. Green is for sugar sprinkles on King Cake. Green is for green onions in Pad Thai. I had to pick them out last year.
* * *
There is a big lake in New Orleans called Pontchartrain with little bungalows on sticks. Whenever we drive over it, on a roller coaster type of bridge, I know we'll soon be in Mississippi. The car is warm. Dad is going on about the elections again. Gay marriages won't make a blind bit of difference, blah, blah. Mom is yawning. I know exactly what she will say very soon. She will call out the names of creeks and rivers we pass: Pearl, Wolf, Little Black, Bowie, Hobolochitto, Tallahala, Chunky. Then she will say, "It's terrible. Names are all we ever see of Native Americans."
My parents are predictable. Whenever I say this they laugh, but they are. My mom is for woman power. Everything in the world is her right. Even shopping is her right. In Mississippi, she argues in the mall whenever they ask her to show her ID. "That's discrimination," she'll say. "That is dis-cri-mi-nation." In JC Penney, too. At home, she acts like she's the boss of me and Dad. "Eat up. What's this doing here? Can't you flush?" My dad says that's because she is a lecturer. He is a doctor. He gets mad with the President, and still he wants the President to win the elections, to teach the people who are against the President a lesson, because they are not getting it together, especially with Health. Every day, when he comes home from work, he yells at the television because of the elections. Whenever the President comes on Mom says, "Ugh, turn him off. That man can't string two words together." Yet she tells me it's not right to be rude to people who can't speak English.
Last election, we voted in school. All my friends voted for the President--before he became president--because the other guy killed babies. "Who said he kills babies?" Mom asked when I told her. Your teacher? Your friend? What kind of parent says such a horrible thing to their kid. Well, they must have heard it from somewhere. Well, I think grown ups should keep their political opinions to themselves." I told her I voted for the President. She said, "What! Why?" "Everyone else did," I said. She said, "Listen, I brought you up to stand your ground. To stick up for what you believe in." I said, "Oh, please."
First of all, it was her ground not mine. Number B, I believe in fitting in.
"What's it like being African?" my friend Celeste asked when we used to be friends. "I don't know," I told her. I was protecting my parents. I didn't want Celeste to know the secret about Africans. Bones in meat are very important to them. They suck the bones and it's so frustrating I could cry. My mom is the worst, especially when she eats okra stew. Afterwards she chews the bones to a mush and my dad laughs and asks, "What was that before your teeth got to it? Oxtail? Chicken Wings? Red Snapper? Crab?" I'm like, get some manners.
Being African was being frustrated again when my teacher showed pictures of clothes from all over the world. When she showed the pictures of Africans, that lame Daniel Dawson asked, "Why are they wearing those funny hats?" and everyone in class laughed.
Green is for the color I like most--yellow. Green is for a color I can't stand--blue. Green is a mixture of blue and yellow. Green is for confusion.
Dad is still talking about the elections. "Where are the weapons of mass destruction?" he asks.
Mom points out of the window and says, "Pearl River."
"You guys," I say. "I have a soccer game tonight." They start yelling.
"For goodness sake!"
"I don't remember that being in my calendar. . ."
"Why didn't you tell us before?"
"Soccer is meant for the summer. Only the British play in the spring. . ."
"Only Americans call football soccer."
My parents are so predictable.
"These people are crazy," Dad says. "The weather is not conducive."
Mom says, "What people? Don't put prejudice in my daughter's heart."
"I didn't mention any race," Dad says.
I'm like what, in the world right now? "You guys," I say. "If you're going to live in this country you might as well get used to soccer. It's part of life. I'm American. How do you expect me to feel?"
"You know," Dad says. "She's right."
I can't believe he fell for that.
"What time's the game anyway?" Mom asks.
"Don't cuss, Mom."
"Sorry, baby, but I hated sports in Africa and I hate them here."
* * *
We've passed Chunky River. I've finished my book. I think we'll make it in time for my game. Mom asks, "Are you still mad with us?"
"A little," I say.
"Sorry. Today has been a bit. . ."
"I know. Are you happy about your green cards?"
"You have no idea."
"America will soon be number one in the world for soccer," Dad says. "You wait and see. Look at the way they organize themselves. From the grassroots level. Everyone involved."
"Girls too," Mom says, and raises her thumb at me.
I'm not into all that. I know what girls like Celeste can do.
"Even if they don't have any talent," Dad says, rubbing his chin. "They have the money to import talent. Did you hear of that fourteen year old? Highest paid in the soccer leagues. Freddy Adu. His family came from Ghana. Immigration will save America."
"Because of soccer?" Mom asks.
Green is for the Comets color. I hope we beat the Comets tonight. I really hope we beat them.
* * *
We made it to the game. Mom and Dad stayed, maybe because of guilt.
You should see me. My color is red. My number is 00. I'm ready to blast those Comets to kingdom come. I'm dribbling down the field. The lights are like stars. The grass is wet. I have to be careful because Mississippi mud can make you slip and slide. Everyone is cheering, Come on! Get on it! Get on it!
I kick that sucker. It zooms like a jet, lands in the corner of the goal post, neat as my bedroom when I get two dollars for cleaning up. Girls in my team are slapping my back, "Way to go! Good one!" My parents are cheering with other parents. This is it. Me, scoring. My mom looking like she loves soccer. My dad looking like he really loves the President. Three of us, looking like we really belong. It's better than finding the baby in King Cake, and my team hasn't even won yet.
* * *
Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria and lives in Meridian, Mississippi. This story is dedicated to her daughter Temi.