I have always been fascinated by someone’s connection to a place; a hometown, a bend in the road that was meant to be a pit stop but turned into much more, a place in a movie or a book that takes on a life of its own. I want to know who we are in relation to where we find ourselves in one moment or for a lifetime. This is something I look for and become attached to in the books that I read, and I have found that the older I get and the more that I write, this is something that I do in my own writing; my words gravitate themselves towards where I am, how I identify the memory, and write about it. A place, a home, a backyard, the open road, a room, or anywhere, really do become their own entities, something we attach ourselves to. For me, I see it in a lot of books by South African authors who struggle with their Apartheid-ridden country and a connection to a land that holds their identity, no matter how complex that identity might be. I see it in Joan Didion’s writing, a California dream told through the eyes of a woman who has seen it all and who maybe still doesn’t understand all of it. I saw it once in a Toni Morrison novel, and then another time in a story by David Sedaris, and every book by Adichie. Where we are, who we are when we are in that place, I think never leaves us, it is with us forever. And forever isn’t a word that you can use with people, you can’t be with any one person forever, even yourself. But with a place, it will forever follow you. It might change while you are away and become unrecognizable, but if you checked for sure on a map, you would have to say, yes, this is definitely the place. A place kind of follows you until you come back to it somehow, picking up whatever you haven’t finished. Or perhaps what the place hasn’t finished with you.
I am from a place that has been described as neglected. And dangerous. And dirty. And eclectic. And historical, classic, where we have really really good food. I am from a town that is famous for the best and worst things, and I am from the side where you can find both of those things all at once. I grew up in a small house on a small street that had both its quiet and louder years, a very old house that I really do love. And I suspect I will never be as comfortable in another place as I am in that old, small house. It’s outside porch, the patio that we built a few years ago, the one bathroom that we all share, the beautiful big tree in the front yard that my dad says is my mother’s tree, the one that has pink flowers everywhere in the early spring. The three trees on the front sidewalk that we planted, representing the three daughters. No, I do not think I will ever find a place like that, more simple, close together, almost suffocating, yet the kind of suffocating that settles into you to the point where when the house is empty, you can’t quite put your finger on what feels so weird.
I didn’t think that there was anything wrong with where I came from until I started college. If privilege has a smell, it smells like freshly planted trees surrounded by gates in a run down town not so far off. It smells like nature being forced. I graduated from a local high school to attend a private university in Connecticut, and I don’t think I ever really considered, before starting school, that to the rest of the world, or to the rest of the small world at my school, that I was from an inner-city, a place to only pass through on the train. Class differences became apparent, and what I could talk about this my peers remained superficial and unreachable.
I began to feel a bit ashamed that I had friends who went on vacation to other countries and that I had no stories to share like that. Or that I skipped out on restaurants because I couldn’t fathom working at my job for three hours just to spend it on a chicken salad. I began to resent that it was harder for me to connect with my classmates because all of a sudden I was conscious of class. I read more and more and then found friends who were, like me, from other inner-cities that did not quite belong. I found my little group and we went on our way, with our dreams in tow, slowly forgetting that we were living in a little fantasy as we concentrated on the reality of real life.
That is how I spent the first two years of college, with a new class consciousness and trying to find real friends. Then we all began to realize that we can “study abroad,” something none of us had ever though of before. So what the hell? We always wondered what this or that place might be like because we saw pictures once or because there is that one interesting part of the culture. Some of us applied, some of us went, and then all of a sudden all the shit that we were dealing with as first-gens, inner-city and socially conscious kids became real shit.
Boom. Our new realizations that were realized at college were put to the test, and we had to learn how to budget living in a different country without a job, being separated from our families who, during our time at college, were our backbones when we felt like we were never going to truly understand our classmates the way that they don’t understand us because they never had to worry about money or things like that. We struggled with knowing that our parents never have and never will have the opportunity to travel or have a college education, and the weight of succeeding to show our parents and maybe even the whole world that in fact we ARE the ones who deserve to make it out somehow.
I am in Chile, and all of a sudden I have the privilege of being a person who has traveled. And who has an education. I am not quite sure how to deal with this shift of who I am, or maybe not a shift, but a gradual development. And my hometown for me now is taking on a new form, something I am more comfortable with. Yet it is funny that I had to live so far away to be close to something that will always be my everything.