“The problem about living all your life in the place you were born is that you’re never really given the chance to formulate your own character. You’re always your grandmother’s kindness, or your father’s ruthlessness, or your mother’s sharpness, or your grandfather’s humour. You’re always going to be the name, the religion, the address, the number on your birth certificate. You’ll make friends who look like you, who believe in the same god, who know your parents, who think they know everything about you that you inevitably can’t see yourself through anything other than the eyes they see you with. I guess home is nice, until your old wardrobe’s clothes don’t fit you anymore.”
–Mohamed Kassem’s Facebook Post on the 11 September 2016
Growing up in a different place helps to form the person that you are. Your thoughts are no longer insular ones because you know better. Or perhaps better is not the right word to use here. You just simply know more about people.
Growing up in Nigeria, the outside world stopped at our neighbouring countries of Ghana, Cameroon and Benin. After that came the abroad countries- the golden milestones for any Nigerian. I didn’t know words such as Europe or continents back then. All I knew were London and America. And I knew that to get to these places meant that I had made it in life somehow.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy in my home country- we told fireside stories, watched the stars burn brightly on summer nights, played football barefoot with the boys, until my feet were coated with the dust of the red soil and wore thick sweaters in harmattan season to stop the onslaught of the dreaded nasal congestion that we called catarrh. And the food! I remember wishing I had eaten more whilst I had had the chance because I had always been a picky eater.
I even had a crush that I was sad to be leaving behind! I can’t help but cringe when I realise that my 10 year old self had a much more eventful love life than I do now!
But the allure of going abroad just meant so much to everybody. It didn’t matter if you were going abroad to study, to work, to clean other people’s toilets- the very fact that you made it out granted you an almost royalty level status.
It is fair to say that I didn’t know what was in store for me when my bags were packed to start this journey. In fact, in my pre-teen mind then, America and London were sister countries and I would be able to walk from one to the other and get an all around, full and excitement filled experience of living abroad. All I wanted to do was to eat pizza and meet Harry Potter. Because Privet drive was going to be just around the corner from me.
Imagine my surprise when they told me that I was coming to Dublin. Dublin. The word sounded weird in my mouth as I had already practised saying London so many times. I remember telling my classmates back then that I was leaving them to go to Dublin. I can still hear their laughter to this day!
And imagine my further dismay when I was later informed that neither America nor London were within walking distance to Dublin? And that I wasn’t even going to Dublin either? I was going to somewhere that sounded even more bizarre than that. Cork.
My mind was blown even more with the realisation that there were just so many places in the world and they all sounded so funny- Slovakia, Ukraine, all places that I had never heard of before. And I also had to accept the fact that I would never get to meet Harry Potter or go to school in Hogwarts! Not only were they fictional but I was on the completely wrong island. You can only imagine how disappointed I had been.
I hadn’t realised it then but I had been given the opportunity to reinvent myself. True, there wasn’t much to reinvent in a 10 year old, but it must be remembered that previous to the move, my existence had already been shaped by my Lagos environment.
I had a plan in place even then- I was heading into secondary school with my friends, we would all sit our exams together and we would all become doctors and pilots together. I always struggled with whether I wanted to be a full time Doctor and a part time athlete or a full time Athlete and a doctor on the side. It never occurred to me, that 11 years later, I would be neither!
I remember the first time that I saw white people. I was fascinated- the majority of my life having been surrounded by people who looked just like me. Now, I was the oddity, kids whispered when I walked past and adults just plain stared at me wherever I went. It was a strange feeling to get accustomed to- I always stood out.
As time went by, I learnt to be inconspicuous, talk more quietly, attain an accent so that I sounded more like them and less like me. Assimilate. It was easy for me because I was so young, because I was a chameleon and adapting was easy for me. They said write like this and I did. Talk like that and so I did that too.
I learnt so much more about the world than I would have if I had stayed home. I learnt about people- that just because they looked different to me did not mean that they were any less of a human being. I learnt that we are all humans, regardless of what language we speak and where we come from. I learnt that some people would dislike you without knowing you and that that was their burden to bear. I learnt not to judge others because everyone had their own cross to be carry- that cross may be different to yours but that did not mean that it was lighter. I also learnt that no one was better than me just because their skin was lighter than mine.
I learnt to love people.
And I grew too. I grew to love this small island and even began to call it home. Of course I miss my other home, but without the experience of moving away, I would never have been granted the opportunity to see that there is so much more to life than making it abroad.
I was given the opportunity to redefine who I was. I didn’t have to be the person that I was back then anymore, or the person that people expected me to be. My future didn’t have to be what my grandfather foresaw nor did it have to be the one that I had envisioned for myself.
It could be anything.
And for that I am eternally grateful. Because I like the person that has come out through the fire. This person is in no way perfect. She can be cruel and kind simultaneously. She can be giving and selfish in the one instant. But she is an amalgamation of all of her experiences and not what society had predetermined. And that I am grateful for.
Growing up in a different place gives a different perspective on life itself, it helps to shape who you are and adds dimension to your character.
And now I am 21 and haven’t been home in such a long time.
Of course I miss it, but I feel at home here too.
But home is always nice and for some reason, it becomes nicer the longer the time spent from it stretches.
I guess absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. But it makes the mind forget as well. But that’s a story for another day!