But where are you 'really' from?
Laetitia Lesieure Desbrière-Batista
VAINE Magazine Issue 06: Place & Identity
This is a question I am never asked, even though in my case it probably deserves to be, even though I wouldn’t be able to formulate an answer that manages to be at the same time coherent, concise and comprehensive.
I am what some call a third-culture kid. My parents changed jobs when I was ten years old and suddenly we had to move, once, then twice and then a third time. Before, I was already the kid who spent the holidays in Belgium or the Dominican Republic to be with family. Now I was the kid leaving our small city in Southern France for Paris, then Bamako, then Montreal.
I remember walking home at age sixteen in glacial streets wishing people would just ask me what it was like, classes starting at 7.30, walking dirt roads in 45-degree weather, eating alloco plantains, spending school breaks visiting Timbuktu, Dakar and Ouagadougou. Maybe if they did, it would get easier to talk about it, to make sense of it. This life.
And yet I also hate when they do ask, who does, and how. I hate how I feel naked revealing so much about myself sometimes to a stranger. I hate when, no matter what I try to say and how much, they will often keep to their first impressions, or the things they think they know about that kind of experience. That this life, this type of travel, is somehow easier and better than a life lived in a single place. That it is a life of financial abundance and fancy dinners with ambassadors and nothing else. These thoughts probably comfort them in the common idea that people with my upbringing truly are brats ‒ army brats and diplobrats, but brats nonetheless.
But the truth is, it was not so then and it is not so now, neither particularly fancy nor easy. To convince them, though, I would have to tell them that there is more to these stories of expatriation, both for the parents and the children who did not choose this life. I would have to tell them how, moving to Paris at 18 after six years abroad, I had no idea how to relate to my classmates. I did not understand the slang they used or their pop culture references. They did not understand my unidentifiable accent or where I was coming from. How, after that, I left again, on my own this time, to Lyon, Berkeley, Paris, New York and now London where I know no one. How my passport is the closest thing I have to a picture of my life these past ten years, and that life has been leaving. And it is my choice now and I have left so many times, but it does not mean it does not hurt sometimes.
I would have to explain that this is how moving feels like: suddenly the smallest things, numbers, become imbued with new significance. You count the days since you arrived, thinking “19 days ago I was sleeping in another city, in another country.” Thinking “85 days ago I didn’t know I would be moving.” The first few days or weeks, especially at night, your mind keeps going a hundred miles an hour about all the things that make this place not home. You want to skip all the days until the time when everything will feel natural ‒ unlocking the front door, finding your way through the aisles at the grocery store. You cannot wait until a month or two or three later when these streets have been walked, these names have been spoken and the way to work or school is muscle memory. Until that happens you just have to trick your mind into thinking this is home.
Leaving is easy, I’ll give them that. And not just because it was my parents’ choice then and now my own. But because it still feels full of possibilities. Realising that you are not bound to one place for the rest of your life is just freeing. Starting fresh does not mean the problems you had before will disappear, but it is in many ways a second, or third or fourth, chance. A journey to becoming a different you, a new outlook on life and the world. It can be exhilarating to know all that is out there, to go and be part of everything the planet has to offer. And it’s also easy because you plan and daydream beforehand. Before you even set foot on the train, plane, car or bus that will take you away, your mind is already gone.
Arriving is always the worst though. It’s having to learn to belong. You are familiar with the concept of living here, in this new place. You are familiar with the theory of it. But your body still finds itself having to learn how to exist in the reality of here. The terminology of life and moving through the world here. The loneliness of having to do it on your own. Arriving is a continuous process. Your body catching up with your brain, pushed back every time you cannot make yourself clear, every time you get lost, every time you look at your phone hoping to become invisible. Your body is at the core of this experience. Unused to the springs of the mattress, the sounds outside your window, the taste of food. Still unused to being so far from all the places that used to be home and the people who know how to love you. Missing touch, kisses, smells, hugs and hands.
How can I tell them that it is expatriation and that doesn’t mean it didn’t shape my entire identity? How can I explain my fear of being trapped in a place and how I always want to leave? That I am the same and different from my grandmother who left her native Belgium in 1959 and ended up living in five other countries after, the same and different from my mother who left her native Dominican Republic and ended up living in five other countries before moving back to Santo Domingo? How do I tell them my body is erasing my Dominican-French-Belgian-Malian-Canadian upbringing, that I am all and none of the above?
How can I talk about it to people who don’t know and not make both the possibilities and the déchirement at the heart of this life visible for all to see? I do not know how to make people understand who I am without having to let them into the intimacy of me, my experiences, my identities. If I do that, will it even be enough for them to get it? That this life is one of moving and leaving and that it’s just a life, with its perks and tragedies, like any other.
Because I have few answers to all of these questions, because the answers I do have take too many words to verbalize, because I both can’t and have to be asked about it, I now find myself seeking people who have a similar experience of life. People with whom I can be quiet or say all of the words and either way I know that they’ll get it. Because they know. Because they too know no other way of living than constantly navigating spaces between belonging and otherness, between being locals and foreigners, drifting comfortably between different identities. But also because they too have felt that very specific type of geographical pain and openness.
Our shared complex history spanning countries and continents creates an immediate bond and a degree of silent understanding that feels like relief and that, since I first left France at age twelve, I have only found with fellow third-culture kids, exiles, immigrants, bicultural, multiracial, ethnically ambiguous diplobrats ‒ Filipinas raised in China living in London with their Italian boyfriend, Salvadoran-Americans studying in Paris, Dominican-French people met in Bolivia, befriended in Montreal and who now call New York home, Lebanese Canadians existing between Montreal and Beyrouth, Koreans who arrived in the US as teens, French girls who had never lived in France before they turned 18. These people are my fellow citizens, the population of an invisible country, connected by our complicated connection to geography. When I catch myself longing for this question, for community and roots, for someone to want to understand the map of me, I know now these are the people I can and don’t have to talk about it with.
Follow Laetitia on Instagram: @solo_leti