I was 10 years old and didn't speak a word of English when we boarded our plane to Los Angeles. By the time we landed, my father had taught me to say, "Hello Aunt Susan," and hello to my uncle and cousins.
Aunt Susan had immigrated to the United States 20 years earlier, when she was nine. Her mother sent her to school wearing high-top leather shoes appropriate for a 9-year-old girl in Hungary, but odd and out of place in her new environment. Determined to spare us such embarrassment, Susan took my brother and me shopping before we began school.
I entered my first American classroom in jeans, a T-shirt and tennis shoes, blending perfectly with every other boy. I didn't understand everything that went on that first day, but many of my new classmates said "hi" and welcomed me with smiles and invitations to play with them during recess. Since I arrived before the days of bilingual education, I jumped into full immersion language learning and became fluent in English within months.
Because of time spent in refugee camps, I had missed out on a year of schooling. My parents bought a children's encyclopedia and instructed me to start reading about our new country's history, to catch up with my classmates. I dutifully read a chapter every week.
Five months into the school year, we were going over the colonial period. One day, the teacher asked who could tell the class about the French and Indian War. I alone raised my hand. The teacher asked if anyone else in the class knew anything about that war. Nobody did. So the teacher asked me to speak.
I described the war's importance in establishing English dominance in North America and how it provided military training and experience for many of the future leaders of the American Revolution, including George Washington. My classmates were amazed at what I knew and I was stunned by what they didn't. My role changed that day from a struggling, language-deficient immigrant to a student in good standing, no longer in catch-up mode.
That evening, I told my parents what had happened and concluded that I had caught up with my classmates in American history. In fact, I had caught up entirely. I felt fully American in less than a year.
I didn't, however, sound fully American. Hungarian lacks the "th" sound and my rendition came out like a cross between a "t" and a "d." A seventh-grade teacher referred me to speech therapy. Once a week, I went to sessions with four other kids. We recited exercises designed to help with each of our problems. By the end of the semester, I could say the "th" sound correctly.
My mother marveled that the school provided special assistance to an immigrant student. She said that I should be grateful that this country was so welcoming that it even gave me extra help just to sound like other Americans. She was right, and I continue to be grateful to this day.
Some people lament that Americans treat immigrants unkindly, that we discriminate against them and make their lives more difficult. I never experienced that. To the contrary, Americans went out of their way to help me become one of them.
My family's attitude contributed to our reception. We didn't come here to be Hungarians in America. We came here to be Americans. We made the effort to live and act like Americans to the best of our ability from day one. We all learned to speak English as soon and as well as possible. We eagerly absorbed American culture, history and customs, which we grew to appreciate and love.
I can't even begin to tell you the extent of my delight upon learning about Halloween. At first I thought the other kids were pulling my leg. "Oh sure, you just ring a doorbell, say 'trick or treat' and everybody gives you candy. You think I'm gonna fall for that?" Amazingly, it was true.
Over time, Thanksgiving, that most American of all holidays, became my favorite. I love the idea of dedicating a day to give thanks for our good fortune, our freedom and bountiful opportunities. So on this Thanksgiving, I want to thank that veteran of the French and Indian War, George Washington, and all the other founders for launching a nation that transforms former immigrants like me into citizens who can participate fully in the glorious enterprise that continues to be our United States of America.
Andrew G. Kadar is a physician and writer who lives in Los Angeles (andrewgk@ sbcglobal.net ).