What does it take for immigrants to make-it in new homes?
How do immigrants cope in their integration journey?
What does it mean to go back “home”?
The second short story in Identities: A short story collection, tells the story of an immigrant couple and their first-generation Canadian-born children. The story tracks how the four family members negotiate their immigrant identities and their journey “back home.”
A family friend spent the Christmas holidays back in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She joined the population of Jus Cams, which literally translates to Just Returned Ones in krio, the broken English and lingua franca spoken in Sierra Leone. She was also a first-time returnee, going back for the Christmas holidays after 15 years away. Like most Just Cams, she chose December, the time of year when Freetown pulsates with the music of revelry, celebration coursing through the streets with each new arrival and every event announcement. The energy is typically palpable. The chatter, a cacophony of excited pitches signaling that things beyond the ordinary are occuring. December in Freetown is an extraordinary time – of long lost family members returning, of new friendships forging, of new loves blossoming. Most extraordinary of all, is that global worlds will join, merge and collide. People like my family friend who have known many travels and met many other worlds will realize that the home they have romanticized in their mind’s eye is, and isn’t, the idealized home they have dreamed of all their years away. The reality is that everything is the same, yet everything is different. She is home and yet not…because she is no longer the same.
Our friend described her experiences to me, her voice laced with confusion as she sorted through her thoughts. There was the way in which she had missed communal celebrations and the way in which she noticed the complete disregard for self that left people drained to their core to create these same celebrations, as they stoically refuse to set boundaries for the sake of traditions. She noticed the way people shared everything – from meals to spoons to water pitchers – a generosity of spirit rare to find, but that can also compromise public health. She told me how she could no longer handle the heat. Then explained how she now revered the white-sanded beaches even more than she had as a child, because she now knew how rare it was to find such raw beauty in other shores. She told me how the debris on the streets made her cringe, while the beauty of the skyline over the mountains at sunset made her heart sing. Our friend was discovering that every new experience she’d had when she left home had subtly changed her. Each square of experience chipping away pieces of her and blending in new fabric, creating a quilt of her life that was now neither fully Sierra Leonean, nor fully Canadian. Her eyes now saw things they’d never noticed before, her mind now questioning what was always taken-for-granted.
My friend was realizing, that she could not just “go back.”
The second story in Identities is about these journeys. It is about the journeys of leaving and returning, of blending in and standing out. It is a story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate and the differences between generations in the new place they call home. It describes the continuum of denial of parts of identity in the quest to fit-in. It highlights that pinnacle moment when one can no longer deny all of oneself and must move toward fuller integration of all parts of their identity. That moment, which is the Sierra Leonean idiom the story is named after, arrives when there is “too much water in the garri” – meaning, the moment when we reach our Waterloo, or when the final straw breaks the camel’s back. It is the moment, when we must face our own truths. Fundamentally, this story signals that while the place of our lineage where we are ‘from’ may always beckon, identity is not a static thing. It is fluid and shifts and shapes with every new life experience we have. This is a journey I believe all of us who are world travelers, journeyers and global citizens are on, and one each of us must find our place within.
For more about Identities: A short story collection, see here.