“Some of us aren’t meant to belong. Some of us have to turn the world upside down and shake the hell out of it until we make our own place in it.” ― Elizabeth Lowell, Remember Summer
When my mom finally left my dad, she went to Curacao, one of the ABC islands off the coast of Venezuela. I was still in high school, our family got split up, and we (the kids) were parceled off to family and friends.
My first stop as a child “tenant” was with a family very close to my home. But it was not long before my mom decided I should come to Curacao; I was the oldest girl, and in our culture that meant the one in need of most “protection,” since I was closest to child-bearing age, and needed to be kept away from men.
Living in Curacao was the first time I felt like a newcomer, an outsider, different, other, not belonging. I landed in this strange place at about 10 p.m. one summer night, a bit weary, surrounded by mostly white faces, unable to speak the language, and “sticking out like a sore thumb.”
Prior to my arrival in Curacao, I always wore my hair natural. No chemicals were necessary in my homeland of approximately 2.5 million Blacks, as there were many with similar, “nappy” hair. But that night before going to bed, my mom said to me, “we have to perm your hair. No one here wears their hair like you or looks like that.” My mom had no cosmetology training, but that did not stop her from going to work, and by dawn my hair was still a bit rough around the edges, but I was one step closer to fitting in.
I consider myself an observant, and fairly quick study, and it sure helped as the next day was full instruction mode – to help me further fit in. The one I still remember – with a smile – was my mom telling me not to use an umbrella in the midday heat, as people will be able to tell I am not from “here.” So I took the scorching!
My newcomer status was solidified when I went to a nearby Protestant church later that week, and the songs were in a language I did not understand. I do not recall if it was Dutch or the local dialect, Papiamento; all I recall is that I cried at the thought of so much strangeness, newness, at again being the outsider. But a funny thing happened at the time of the sermon – I actually understood the words because the preacher had a Trinidadian mother (I later learned), so the sermon was in English. (Bless up to all Trinis!) In that moment I became a half outsider.
“Once again she would arrive at a foreign place. Once again be the newcomer, an outsider, the one who did not belong. She knew from experience that she would quickly have to ingratiate herself with her new masters to avoid being rejected or, in more dire cases, punished. Then there would be the phase where she would have to sharpen her senses in order to see and hear as acutely as possible so that she could assimilate quickly all the new customs and the words most frequently used by the group she was to become a part of–so that finally, she would be judged on her own merits.” ― Laura Esquivel, Malinche
Years later I would move to the US, thankfully to a place where I understood the language, if not the culture. On arriving at the Miami international airport, I was struck by the word “restroom.” What a nice place, I thought, a country that provides rooms for people to rest.
My trip from Jamaica had taken an entire day due to delays, bad weather and missed flights, and by the time I landed in Boston, I was so weary, my feet had swollen and no longer fit in my pair of high-heeled shoes (picked out by my mom who thinks everyone dresses up to come to America). I stepped outside on April 1, 1990 into sub-freezing, sub-human temperatures, shivering to my bones, and barefoot. I was further greeted by this thing still on the ground – it looked like the impressions I have always had of manna – and was told it was snow. I wept bitterly for home!
We (my family and I) moved to Milton, MA briefly, and it was there I made the first mistake of saying good morning to a few neighbors. It was the stares that made me knew I had done something wrong. Then it was on to the supermarket where I bought cat food thinking it was tuna, and when fall came, and we had cleaned up the leaves, we lit the pile when luckily a friend happened to stop by, and saved our bacon. “The fire truck would come, and neighbors would call the police,” he told me. “In America, they take their leaves to a compost.” “A compost,” I asked?
There was so much to learn, so much to do, and secretly I wondered, was it worth the price to belong? What is the full price for being an insider? No one mentioned the things you needed to know, and often not knowing became evident in the worse way possible.
For me the most humiliating was my first Thanksgiving invite; I had not yet learned the words that now so easily flow from my tongue, “what should I bring?” In the place that I grew up when someone invited you to dinner, they had food at their house, and to bring any of yours was offensive. “Why would we invite you to dinner if we cannot provide the meal,” I would be asked? And so acting with my old norms, I made one of my first cultural faux pas, as a newcomer. As I stood in that dining room, and watch everyone walk in with a bowl or pot, I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. I have never quite gotten over that incident, almost two decades later.
“Half of the time I don’t know what they’re talking about; their jokes seem to relate to a past that everyone but me has shared. I’m a foreigner in the world and I don’t understand the language.” ― Jean Webster, Daddy-Long-Legs
Feeling like an outsider manifests itself in less dramatic and quite funny ways as well. For my current church and kids’ school life, I feel like I should know about the “East Side,” almost as if it were a second skin. Too often I am the foreigner, the newcomer to conversations about places, water holes, and restaurants on the East Side. Someday I will write about my typical day of conversations on the East Side, which would probably start like this. “Do you live on the East Side?” or “Do you want to meet on the East Side?” followed by “Have you ever been to Eastside marketplace?”
I am beginning to feel this way about Downtown Abbey as well, but I have yet to give in. The same is true of American Idol.
Being the newcomer does have benefits, which can range from being unafraid to venture into new worlds, to marching to your own set of drums. I have a yearly tradition of vacationing by myself, and even though I stand out in most of these exotic or foreign places, either because of my language, race or cluelessness (help, I cannot read this map), for me this has strangely become the familiar. I have gotten lost in more cities than I can count, but there is a certain resonance and comfort in that for me.
My outsider status also gives me a greater appreciation for home, and the places I belong. There are days when I don’t want to know what the cultural norm is, or whether I would be offending someone, and sometimes I do not enjoy different foods, or want to know the foreign exchange equivalent. So on those days, I cherish the familiar, and revel in it.
Looking back, I realize a curious thing happened along the way. In my quest to assimilate, to ingratiate, to belong, I slowly became an outsider. I am thinking about this deeply as I mull visiting my homeland, the place of my birth – Jamaica. It is there I feel – more than any other country – that I am placed squarely in the newcomer column, from the moment my passport is stamped, and I am told, “you can stay seven days,” to the constant reference to the accent I have lost, and the frequent mention of your American-foreign kids. It is in Jamaica that I am most under the microscope, scrutinized for all visible signs of American-ness, alien-ness, newcomer-ness, which will be interpreted as attempts at superiority, while simultaneously confirming my outsider status.
So long before I pack a bag, I need to evolve, to become an insider again.