Jean Luc Godard said, “A Story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”. Tim Burton, on the other hand, has a version that says: “Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. But not necessarily in that order”.
One recommends; the other affirms.
Who — between these amazing storytellers, us in this room, and the world at large, really knows what’s in a story?
And truly, who gets to decide how our personal, individual stories get told? Except, maybe, us.
Thank you for taking the time to hear a portion of my story. I have no idea if this is the beginning, the middle, or the end. I will do my best to maintain a semblance of order.
But I’m African. So…
My name is Kamga Tchassa. I am twenty-nine years old. I moved to the United States of America 10 months ago to marry my high-school sweetheart and I am the first-born son of loving parents. I have a brother and two sisters who cried the last time they saw me at the airport.
My wife is a medical student who graduates next month. We just got the approval of my residency interview date and Queenie-my wife- is an amazing planner who has been able to take care of us both without the need for me to find an illegal job or starve.
Right now, you must be wondering what else I have great going for me, yeah? Life seems particularly terrific.
So, why am I here? Why should you care?
Because that’s what we all do, don’t we?
We’re all curators. Even when forced to share the worst parts of our days or our lives, we can’t bring ourselves to let go of the mirage we’ve told ourselves over and over and over.
You tell a story long enough, and you start believing it.
At least, I did. Until I met my therapist.
Like you, my therapist doesn’t know much about being a member of the Bamileke tribe from Cameroon. Bamileke’s are known for being very entrepreneurial and pretty good with money.
I think those genes missed me.
Being the first-born son of a Bamileke family comes with a lot of privileges. For example, were my father a king or some sort of noble, I’d expect to be his dedicated successor. Which means whatever wealth he’d accumulated in life would be mine at his death( knock on wood). I would have to lead the family, and everyone would be under my authority — including my mother.
My father is NOT a king, and I am NOT of noble lineage. But all my life, I was reminded that I had to be a good example to my siblings because whatever I did, they’d copy.
As the first child, no one ever wondered if I wanted this authority. No one ever asked me how I felt about being a leader or even if I wanted to be a leader. It was just expected.
From kindergarten to College, from losing my virginity to picking a major — and almost quitting — twice — no one ever asked for one moment and truly meant it:
“How are you?”
I guess I learned fast what my place was and what it meant. I had to be the example. I had to figure out life by myself. I stopped expressing anger or worry or love.
How dare I?
So, when I say I am the first-born son of loving parents, it’s only part of the story. Because they are also children of loving parents. Children in a country that has shared implicitly that emotions are not necessary. That the economy doesn’t care about your passion. That the politics of a divided nation doesn’t give a shit about who deserves a raise.
You must know someone to get something.
That’s why when I came to and started telling my own story — life changed. I quit school. I stopped dating for the sake of dating. I started reading. And like the good fake American I was, I started listening to podcasts.
This is the part of the story where I say 10 years later.
Because I get engaged before I tell my parents. I move out of town without needing their validation. I write everything online that a proper first-born son shouldn’t: about love, about heartbreaks about depression, about fear, about dreams, hopes, and about being human — vulnerable and all.
And with Deus Ex Machina style, my wife finds a way through the heart I didn’t have, after 12 years of digital connection, one grueling year of hoping I wouldn’t have the jump over the wall- I get here.
June 23rd, 2018. Denver airport. Two boxes. One of clothes. One of presents. I am with the love of my life.
But who am I?
It’s the question that hits daily. Every time I realize I can’t work until I get papers. Every time I see my 19-year-old brother-in-law driving a car he owns because I have never driven, every time I open Amazon and can buy a book, and have it shipped…in days.
Every time a friend asks me from Cameroon: so, how is America?
How can I know what America is when now I have no idea who I am? What my role is? What is required of me?
I am the first-born son. My father and mother are getting old. My siblings tell me about their needs even without wanting to. I am married. I now see a therapist. I now know I am black. I now need to listen to my wife as we plan for a child.
How can this child have a child?
I find myself in the middle of my story: finding out that where I come from constrained my emotions, and that I am not ready for where I am going. That my money story, my love story, my parenting story need to be re-rewritten.
I find that love is not about sex or kind words and feelings. Love is all that, and it is every choice we make.
I find that I am biased. That I am scared. That I need boundaries. That I am worried about my parents dying and leaving me in a role no one ever asked me if I wanted.
But that ultimately, no one cares.
Not because we’re all heartless…you certainly aren’t, I mean…you’re all sitting here trying not to cringe at my accent. You’re probably all good people.
Except for this guy/lady here. (Points to the audience)
No one cares. Because we all are struggling. We all have our stories our worlds, broiling within us, permeating each act, each thought, each decision.
We all have our fights.
We all are in the middle. This has to be the middle.
I don’t want to believe I’ll never get over my daddy and mommy issues, how will I raise my own child?
Or if I can’t stop being selfish from years of having to do it all alone, how can I be a loving husband and life partner?
If I don’t stop thinking only about me, my story, my life, my pain, how do I connect with others — with you — how do we then become part of each other’s story?
When is a Story Mine to Tell?
What is the Line Between my Story, and The People Involved in my Story?
Today, right this moment, you have become part of my story. Another layer on every story you know about yourself, about others. About the world.
Would you know, for example, that every time I pay for an Uber ride, I think of how this 19-minute trip was once a monthly payment for my services?
Would you know, that each time I see an avocado, I can only picture how the entire fruit looks like the seeds from those in Cameroon?
Would you also know that I speak three languages?
Now, I ask you, what do you know?
What do we really know?
Turn to the person beside you and ask, seriously: what do you truly know about yourself?
Because that’s what my life has revolved around for as long as I can imagine: doubts, confusion, mistakes, inconsistencies, judgment, sin, lies, hate.
I have felt things I had no name for, things I now call: resentment, anger. Things I never learned as a child.
I have felt things that have guided most of my decisions. I now know them: fear, insecurity, need for validation.
My story is not special. Not to me anyway. As I sit here and share this beautiful moment, many are dying in my birth country because of a shared history some chose to bury, and now, in the parts of the country where I was born and schooled, hundreds of thousands are hurt, dying, driven from their homes, while the remaining 80% of the country doesn’t give a shit.
Well, maybe some of the 80% do. But who’s upset?
So, each time I think of Uber, or now go to Walmart or kiss my wife in our air-conditioned basement, or hang out with beautiful people who wonder where I am from, I find myself in a position where I need to pick one story out of myriads.
Do I tell you about the time when my wife predicted we’d get married when we met in high-school? or the time when I almost called off the wedding a decade later?
Do I tell you about my father and how I hope to be half the man he is? Or how I hated him for most of my childhood?
Do I tell you how I left the catholic church and my mother has no idea she influenced my decision or how I secretly do everything for her to be proud of me?
Or do I tell you about being in the middle of my story, because that’s the only way I have to go on?
If this is the beginning, I don’t know what I’ll do with what I know.
If this is the end, I have so much more I need to unlearn.
This has to be the middle.
This, my dear friends, has to be the middle.
Thank you for your kind attention.
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