by Rachel Hicks
When you’ve spent your whole life as a cultural chameleon, you end up not knowing what color you were when you started, who you might have been had you been from someplace, what it feels like to belong fully to a people, a tribe, a neighborhood, a city. What it feels like to nod knowingly at those around you and say, well, around here we all… you know how we do things…in our neck of the woods…
You don’t know if you’re a desert person, or a mountain person, or a beach person. You’re all three at different times, but no matter where you are, you’re never all there. You always realize that you’re on the outside looking in.
I love mountains, you say. But then you go there and you see mountain people, and you know you don’t know or love mountains like they do. You vacation at the beach; you imagine yourself living there, because that’s what you do, everywhere you go: you observe and you think, Could I live this way? What is it like to be part of this community?
And because you’ve been vacationing in Thailand and southern India and Sri Lanka for years and years, the familiar gives you that tiny taste of home: yes, I remember the smell of green curry; I know this taste of fresh pineapple on a stick; the motorbikes racing by and the tuk-tuk horns and the orchids and everyone in flip-flops (which you called chappals for years and years because you didn’t know they had any other name) and the beach vendors and the 80s ballads playing from tikki bars on the beach every night and the all-but-naked European tourists and the lush green hills, the markets, the everything.
It’s all lodged in tiny places all over the body of your memory since you were a baby so that you are a part of it… But, you’re not. Not by a long shot.
And when you’re an adult in your passport country taking your daughter to the dentist and the chatty hygienist begins to pry it out of you in bits and pieces that you’re not ready in that moment to share, you want to bury your head in the magazine you’re trying to read and cry. Because she is saying isn’t that neat and aren’t you adventurous and how was China and you know she’s trying, but it’s not the day for this conversation.
You’re too scattered today—you’re missing your best friend who lives in Doha and whom you only see every three years; you don’t know how to know others and show them how to know you when there is that much difference—all the pieces of backstory, frames of reference, are too different—and you feel needy and misunderstood. The daily reality of wearing the mask to fit into this place, with these people, wears you so very thin.
When you go out to find some authentic mattar paneer and dosas because you just have to taste your childhood again—you close the eyes of your imagination and remember reaching out for glasses of chai through the train windows, eating aloo parathas and spicy omelettes for breakfast, mopping up your curry with nan that drips with ghee—the charade also feels thin, breakable, a farce.
You’re not there. You’re not actually—really—from there. But it’s your birthplace, the birthplace of your first sensory memories, and surely that must count for something? You walked the foothill paths just below the Himalayas as a small child, holding your dad’s hand while he pointed out the langur monkeys overhead. The smell of smoke in the air from woodburning stoves is your earliest scent memory. Your ayah taught you how to wrap your first sari. But you can’t speak the language anymore, and when you pull out your shalwar top to wear with jeans you wonder if people will think you are appropriating someone else’s culture.
And how do you get back there, now? How do you find the funds, the time, the reason to justify both? And that makes you think of all the roads that are—or seem to be—closed off to you now: almost every place you lived, that burrowed into you and left an imprint on your singular soul, is inaccessible, at least in the way that truly matters. Could you secure a visa? Get on a flight? Yes, but what would you find? You’ve tried it a couple of times and you came away feeling twice-exiled. Everything had moved on, and the little lines that tethered you to that place, to people there, were cut and floating free. You’re not from here, you hear in your head. What made you think you ever were? What made you think…?
Recently you realized, with a sort of regret mixed with wonder, that you’ve lived in your current house for more consecutive years than you’ve ever lived in another dwelling in your life. How can it be? You wonder why that realization feels like another mini out-of-body experience: I, lived in this house for 3 ½ years? Shouldn’t it feel more a part of me, then? Shouldn’t my feelings for and attachment to this place be stronger—shouldn’t I feel it throughout my body in more visceral ways and places?
You keep coming back to the sojourner paradigm. There are many days when it helps. Some days it doesn’t, and you have to remember the paradox that place matters to God, and that He expects us to identify as sojourners here, who have no continuing city but await the one to come. He’s put eternity in our hearts, but also shades of home.
You think of all the ways you try to describe your life, yourself: cultural chameleon, mosaic, a river with myriad tributaries leading in a thousand directions, a mutt. Then you think about how most often you don’t even try to describe your life or yourself: you just keep quiet. If you don’t know how to talk about it, how can you expect anyone to listen?
Yet you just wish that one day someone you know in your current physical location would surprise you and pull out the map or photo album, say: show me where you’ve been, what was hard about that, what did you lose, what did you gain, where in this world is the place you love best, the place that feels most like home? Because then she would see your chameleon skin begin to change to purple against the yellow background, and you would emerge, visible, for a brief, glorious moment.
Spread the map on the table with the coffee stain;
put your finger on the places, show me where you’ve been.
Was that California where your teardrops dried?
You drew a circle round Georgia—can you tell me why?
Every tear brought you here, every sorrow gathered,
It’s history, and every mile mattered.
Rachel E. Hicks was born in the foothills of the Himalayas and spent the bookends of her childhood in India, with moves to Pakistan, Jordan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Hong Kong in between. She married her college sweetheart and managed to live in one place for seven whole years (Phoenix, Arizona) before God’s call moved them and their two young children to East Asia. There, they lived and taught holistic ministry alongside a local partner for another seven years. They repatriated to the U.S. in mid-2013 and now live in Baltimore, Maryland. Rachel writes poetry, fiction, essays, and blog posts and works as a freelance copyeditor. A few of her favorite things include: electric scooters, spicy Sichuan food, hiking, and unhurried time to read. Read more of her writing at rachelehicks.com.