There’s a picture of me as a child in nursery school. It was graduation day. I’m flanked by two classmates. Our smiles source from the lack of a uniform — for the first and probably last time, we got to wear our home clothes to school. I’m not smiling in the picture. I never really smiled like a kid. When I see the pictures in which I smile, I know I was coerced somewhat.
Even now, when I smile, it still feels strange to me.
It will soon be a year since I got here. A year since I took my first plane and moved to the place I would now have to call home. I’ve done what I could to describe to you the changes I’ve had to drown in, but I don’t feel satisfied.
I may never feel satisfied.
If anything, the more I think about what’s happening to me in this new world, the less time I have to experience it. The more I experience what’s happening, the less time I get to think about it. It’s in quiet moments of solitude, or bouts of sickness that the storm of change calms enough for me to look towards the past, present, and future, and take in all that has happened and what’s about to.
There are things I have written about that I feel scared to share here; things I’ve shared only with close friends and family. Things I could not believe I had in me to capture and put into words.
Then there are other things that everyone expected me to share that I didn’t. Things the old me would have been ecstatic about as they provided so much input on my view of the world either in terms of first experiences or discoveries about a life I now call mine.
I will share some of both today because this is, of course, the last in a series of pieces documenting my coming to America. I am not lost in the irony of how not enough has been written on the immigrant experience and how it seems to be, like a disease, one of the ineradicable predicaments of man’s existence. Mankind has made sure there will always be immigrants.
Open any history book and find why.
As a conclusion to the trifecta of thoughts on my personal experience leaving Cameroon to the US, I will share more than usual.
I worry I would be colder and maybe even more cynical.
Before I start, I would like to clarify that this is in no way a cry for help or a call to arms. That I am not generalizing the immigrant experience and giving a voice to a group of people who may, otherwise have no voice. Although there is truth in my latter sentence, I am aware that my perspective and my story is all I have and I all I can give you. For that, I will stay as close to the truth as I can.
Close…because memory has a way of rewriting itself when left unexamined.
“Will you be my friend?”
I was telling my wife only a few days ago that I have no childhood friends. It bothered me. I was still recovering from the flu that left me with questions about my existence and for over a week, I spent my waking hours questioning my life in all its facets.
I reached out to a few friends and also talked to my therapist. I haven’t found answers to the questions I had, but I have a sense of which direction to look.
I spend most of my days at home. I still can’t drive and my part-time job allows me to work anywhere with internet access. I applied to a few positions, including the nearby Starbucks but haven’t heard from any. The only way I keep in touch with friends and family is through the internet.
I used to pride myself with how much I didn’t trust people — I have come to find out the root in my childhood and a trend in my relationships: I fear the pain of losing people who know too much about me. This fear stops me from investing in relationships. And when I do invest in one, I am all in in a way that makes me dependent on the health of the relationship.
As a kid, I found it hard to make friends. I’m still that kid. The issue now is that I am better at playing the game of one-sided friendship to the point where most people who believe they are my friends aren’t really. And because I know I’m not fully into the friendship, I tend to think that they aren’t as well.
This, my friend, is not healthy. And when all the strong relationships I have built in spite of my fear of being in any human relationship get severed because of distance or require scheduling and matching time differences, it can take a short while to realize how lonely one can be without the people we’ve considered friends.
A short while or in my case 10 months and 2 days.
I miss my siblings and my friends. I sometimes miss my parents but I had already been moving out of home for years before I finally took the plane. I told you about how I believed I was lied to by other immigrants. One of the things I wish I had been told was how the relationships that had come to provide joy and a sense of community would fade away quietly into the night and there would be nothing I could do.
Nothing except wonder if I ever had any friends and what I did wrong. Nothing except re-read messages and replay scenarios that could have sustained the bond. Wonder if this was what my life was going to be like from now: I had taken decades to build those relationships, how long will it take for me to have people who got my jokes? How long till I find my tribe? How long till I get people who can argue fiercely about fictional characters and punctuation marks?
The quiet answer that I often want to deny no matter how clear it nags at me is that the answer to ‘how long’ is forever. Nothing will ever be the same. Most of the people I knew, or who knew me to an extent, will go away. I will have to learn new skills, build new relationships.
I may even have to learn how to smile because most people will not have the time to chat idly to figure out that we both watched “Your Name” and cried hard at the end. The serendipitous chats in cabs that sparked University friendship may never happen again. The bus ride Howard and I took (where I politely demanded that he pay my bus fare and he obliged even though we had just met 24 hours earlier), that bus is gone. The hangouts at Mac’s house eating pancakes and drinking wine, taking pictures of bookshelves for the gram, that’s gone too. The nights when we’d argue about the relevance of Black Panther for Cameroonians who have no idea how important the movement could be for people who had hardly seen black superheroes ( as though everyone had slyly forgotten Blade). That my father engaging in his funny but true stories about his time at the farm with his father, while my brother would frown on the side because my sister didn’t give him enough food during lunch. My mother’s short laugh when a joke was made she didn’t understand but didn’t want to seem out of the group. The random requests to go to the youth-filled rooftop joint — Twist — and play name games with friends, attract the attention of nearly everyone in the spot, only to leave as a group and walk home tipsy and laughing at the stars.
When you move to a new country, you have hope that you will keep relationships. You know you lie to yourself and you act surprised when people’s attitude change towards you.
You act surprised when after a few weeks, someone asks you to find out how much an item costs and what it will cost to send it back home, even though you don’t even know how to get to FedEx by yourself.
You’re surprised when people ask you to search for schools “since you’re there now, you can give me adequate information”. You’re even more surprised that when you let them know that you have no idea where to get this information even for yourself, they don’t believe you.
You’re in America now, how don’t you know such an American thing?
I tried hard to keep relationships. I had no idea how hard I was trying until I found myself explaining to my wife what I missed and I caught tears welling.
Because of the change in status, there’s a new rift that needs to be bridged. Where a different outlook existed, now there are psychological and cultural differences that cannot be explained away. Questions like: “How is America?” become a pop quiz with chances of getting fired as a human.
“How are you?” becomes a re-visitation of the state of flux: fears, hopes, changes, dreams, ideas, reality.
I no longer have simple answers to simple questions.
“Who am I?” became days of conversations with my wife trying her best to get me to focus on what I could really do at this time.
I was the kid who didn’t smile; the one who built a tribe by being odd and liking anime, books, and existential jokes. I found my people where I was born. Grew to like them and they grew to like me. I could tell Howard how ugly he was because I knew that he understood that I was envious of his good looks in that way one can only be envious of a brother they love. I could take my siblings to a restaurant, knowing that we could make jokes about our parents and laugh to our hearts’ content. I was the kid who was scared of losing the people who loved and trusted.
Now, I have lost so much that I’m learning to smile again.
“Funny thing about home is how once you leave, you realize it was never a place but a state”
To be completely honest with you, I knew this all along. I just never had to accept it in such a crude way.
My wife and I will be moving again next month and we’re gearing our goodbyes. She’s lived here since was 16. We will be only a few hours away, we say. But I have a feeling that, like me, she’s aware that everything she’s known will change.
If I told you that I have gotten comfortable with moving, I’d be lying. I’m not.
I used to romanticize the idea of travel and seeing new places. Now, I know tI love having a place to return to. I love having a location I can anchor memories to. A place I can run to. A place I can hide in. A place I would always be welcome no matter what. This place — home — I now know changes.
You either change it, or it changes itself.
When I moved to Buea, I knew it was a temporary stint. Yet, after 7 years, memories, friendships, heartbreaks, and deaths, Buea became my home. Then Buea changed. At some point, someone told me that because I was a francophone, I had to leave Buea. That was 2016 — after I had built a family at IYA, and discovered what I was capable of as a host and poet.
Someone, in Cameroon, had the guts to tell me that a place I called my home wasn’t.
At least, they ‘said’ it. Here in America, where I am struggling to build a home, they don’t say it that much. It’s in the actions. In the laws. In the looks. In the expectations. I would prefer overt racism all day to the subtle type.
When someone says you should leave, they’re doing you a favour — giving you a head-start.
You don’t walk into a country where when you admire the new building in your neighborhood, you find out that your rent has gone up. That the old neighbors couldn’t keep up and had to switch to new neighbors whose smiles don’t feel right. When the first time you find the meaning of ‘gentrification’, you have images of the big bang in your mind because for an infinitesimal moment, you sort of realize that you’ve been royally fucked.
Home is not a place, I’ve come to think. But it can be. Home is not a people, but it can be. Places and people change. Which is why you must be intentional with what you define as home. Because if home is your place, your people, your refuge, when you lose that, there’s little left.
My home is my wife. Wherever she goes, I will. After what I just said about home, this may sound contradictory. To me, it isn’t.
My home is not a country, it is a community. My home isn’t where I am, it’s where we choose to go and what we choose to do and how we choose to be.
I was born in Cameroon and now that I may never meet what I left, it is my prerogative to build my home here.
Until you have to build a home somewhere, until you leave a place that was your default home, you will never understand what it’s like to feel unwelcome wherever you go or the joy of an open arm and a genuine human.
If you look hard enough in any country, you’ll find a home. It will take your growth, your acceptance, your refusal to be reduced to labels or color.
It will take throwing away what you thought you knew about homes, or countries, or people.
If you come to the table with assumptions, you will leave with surprises.
Come with courage. But also, come with resilience. Because you have to deserve it.
Remember this: when it’s time to go, it’s time to go and nothing will ever be the same.
“Aww. He’s! So! Cute! What’s his name?”
His name is Scottie (that’s not him, but I the resemblance is uncanny). He’d spent 4 months at the mall; we could see ourselves in him: no one wanted him. He’d been there since he was 2 months old and I didn’t feel like he liked me. As you can imagine, I didn’t think we should get him. I had been saving all my Medium earnings to surprise my wife with a pet and that day, I finally got through to her.
My wife lost her dog a few months after I moved and she never really got ever him. I have mentioned in the past about Jake and how my wife always jokes of not being sure who saved who.
Just thinking about that day makes me feel sad.
We had to put him down because he had been sick for a while and everyone, including my brother-in-law who had been caring for him the last year of Jake’s life (and my mother-in-law who is as African as my own mother), everyone felt the weight of his loss and grieved deeply after his little heart stopped beating.
Getting Scottie was a moment’s decision that we’d been considering for months. I knew I wanted a pet, but until we got him, I had no idea how much it would expose me. I had no idea how much work it took to have a pet. Anyone watching would have assumed, with reason, that it was an impulse buy.
In all honesty, it sort of was. I was scared.
In Cameroon, our pets always died. We never had any bond and they always lived outside. I had no idea what I was getting into on that drive back from the mall, but I knew my life was about to be flipped over. And boy, it was.
I think my flu had roots in how early I woke to take him out to do his business. I was stressed out for that first week. I took him out every hour. Watched YouTube videos ( Thanks Zak George!) researched his breed, played with him, got headaches from his nervous barks.
I found out that I love dogs: I talk to Scottie even knowing he can’t talk back. Or maybe it’s because I know he can’t talk back that I talk.
I love discovering how intelligent he is. Or how stubborn. To realize that training a dog is hard. Or the pride I feel when I get him to go on the grass many days in a row and when I understand what he wants when he wants it.
The weekend after we got Scottie, we had to get out of town. We left him with our friend and the stubborn white ball of cuteness sprained his ankle. I felt pain in places I didn’t know I had. We nursed him back, watched his progress, massaged his ankle, had him rest more in spite of his need to jump around.
You should have seen the joy in our faces when he felt better and how happy I am to run around and have him skip with no pain or limp.
Now by 6 am, I know I have to wake up no matter when I slept. I know he can have accidents in the house no matter how careful I am and that all I can do is pick up the business and carry him to the grass. Learning, when it comes with pets, happens with consistent positive reinforcement and zone control.
We may never get him to do tricks, but I’m proud every morning I wake up to an unsoiled crate.
I didn’t know how much patience I still had to learn until we got Scottie. He’s dragged me from foul moods and made me feel that I was capable of caring for another living being and that maybe, maybe I could get better enough to care for a child.
Back in Cameroon, I’d feel terrible for trying to build a relationship with a pet. Now, I honestly don’t care.
I live in a country where it’s not only acceptable but encouraged to have an animal companion(except for the many people who don’t feel the same way like on almost every single subject on earth) and the past month has been a series of events that have shown me that I actually care about something…no…someone other than myself.
I will be back with stories about Scottie.
I can see how awkward it can be for you the first time you see someone cry when a dog dies. I can hear your muffled surprised at someone carrying a puppy like a baby. I can see your shocked face when the bill comes for hundreds of dollars for a dog’s food, toys, blanket. or when someone says its time to walk the dog and that he or she does it twice or more a day.
I know all this because I have been you. And now, I do all these.
Scottie has become an integral part of our family and when I think of the time before he was, there’s a difference in my sense of responsibility.
There’s a picture of me as a child looking to my left. I don’t look like myself in that picture: it’s a genuine smile, I’m smiling with my eyes and my head is cocked in the most comfortable way a 2-year-old can muster. I also have lighter skin and chubby cheeks. I think I was looking at either my mum or my Dad.
It’s the same smile I have on my wedding day pictures. Or the group picture with my siblings. My real smile is usually the remnant of my laugh. We have a distinct laugh in my family, from my Dad. It’s very mocking in nature. It’s the kind that really pisses you off if it’s directed towards you or infectious if we find something funny even if you don’t.
It’s the laugh my real friends know.
The one my father can recognize when his joke lands. It’s the one I can’t fake with my wife. It’s also the one you will never experience unless we meet face to face.
Scottie sees it all the time because I tend to laugh at myself during awkward moments when he escapes with a sock in his mouth.
My true smile takes decades to become a gift. It only comes with my friends, or when I’m home, or when I’m with a companion I never knew I needed until I did.
It just so happens that for the rest of my life, and maybe yours too, I’ll have to hold on to the memories of smiles more than I create them.
Or maybe I’ll just have to keep building home here, forever.