Immigrant hoarding

A couple of years ago, when I was fresh out of college and living in my first apartment, my parents came to visit from Hungary. Opening a kitchen drawer, my Mom was surprised to find months’ or even years’ worth of Hungarian snacks, spice mixes, and other food stuff stashed away.

“Why do I keep sending you all this when you don’t use them,” she asked me. I didn’t really know the answer — or didn’t want to admit — that it just felt good to have all those familiar flavors right at hand, even if I didn’t want or need to use them. The shiny packages of meatloaf mix, the crinkle of the chocolate pudding powder package, all reminded me of home.

Eventually I began to understand that all of us immigrants are hoarders in a way. We might be well-adjusted, we might fit in, and there might be nothing about us that screams “I am not from here.” But I bet that every immigrant in every part of the world has a drawer like mine, packed with stuff from home.

It doesn’t have to be food — I also hoard magazines from Hungary, crossword puzzles, a package of tissues my childhood friend’s mom gave me when I had the sniffles during a visit to Budapest, and a sweater that was last washed in my parents’ washing machine at home. I haven’t worn it — or washed it — since in hopes of keeping some of that familiar smell intact. It’s fading now, but if I burry my nose in it for a couple of minutes, I can still get a faint whiff of the detergent and the room where it dried on a clothesline.

Another characteristic of this behavior is buying common, everyday things in your home country and smuggling them in to the U.S. because you believe that your country’s product is superior. Now that my parents are living in America, I think they are slowly beginning to exhibit traits of this secret immigrant behavior as well. They just returned from a visit to Hungary and they brought back things like pots, dessert forks, shower gel, and deodorant. Because, you know, there are no dessert forks in America.

OK, I admit — the deodorant was for me. (So what? The American stuff is just too flowery for me!) That, along with bags full of Hungarian cookies, chocolate, and spices all made the trip in suitcases only to be stuffed into secret drawers and cabinets for weeks and months.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with this hoarding. But I feel silly admitting the melancholy I feel when I eat the last cookie from Hungary, or when I run out of my favorite deodorant. So I try not to eat or use everything. And I think this is how the hoarding starts: I purchase and transport products because I truly believe that I will use them. But then the emotional attachment to these products prevents me from actually enjoying their existence. So I end up with expired chocolates and spice mixes, three-year-old magazines, and sweaters that don’t fit anymore.

It feels odd that my identity and how I define who I am are somehow tied to such ordinary objects. I mean, what does an old plastic grocery bag from the Kaiser grocery store chain has to do with who I am? But somehow, it does.  I have bunches of them hidden in the bottom of my closet in a big, comforting pile.

I try to treat my secret hoarding drawer and the stuff in it matter-of-factly: it is there, it serves a purpose, it makes me feel better to have one, and anyone who doesn’t like it can get over it. All right, so I am a little defensive about it.  Maybe it’s because I know that there’s only a very fine line between keeping things for sentimental reasons and having to cut a path from the door to the bed through piles of old plastic bags.

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