Africa · Congo · Family · Memories · Paris

Familiar doesn’t make you belong

It’s interesting being back after the last few years I’ve had. The last time I was home was in 2005, four years ago, after I left Israel where I’d lived for two and a half years at the Baha’i World Center. I was on my way to Paris.

I would be in Paris for a year and a half, working for a small Baha’i non-profit, dedicated to developing public information resources in communities throughout Europe. Living in Paris would turn out not to be what I had hoped. I had envisioned it being a classy, successful, artistically rich, sensory stimulating experience. In the end, I was unemployed for a year before I found a job, I lived in a nice neighborhood but wasn’t able to transition into a different kind of job. The artistic bit was true enough, but it’s not enough to live on, and I never found a community of like-minded people, and never really made very close friends. Things just weren’t what I had hoped, and I wasn’t enjoying myself. It became old fast.

So I moved to Pasadena, and got a job working for Disney for the next two and a half years. I had envisioned myself in video games making a career for myself, but my imagination didn’t carry me much further than where I currently was. I soon realized I wasn’t cut out for corporate America, and there wasn’t any room it in for me either, so there was no love lost there. In the meantime, I sort of grew attached to Los Angeles.

The sprawling city, the diverse population, the strange Angelino version of Congostyle that I came to appreciate, all were things that made living there an OK experience.

I’ve never belonged in any of the places I’ve lived, no matter how much I loved them or how well I came to know them. Not Israel, not France, not the US, not Haifa, not Paris, not Pasadena  or LA. None of them ever felt like home, which is why even now, when I’ve been gone from the continent for more than half my life, I still answer the “where are you from” question with “I’m from Congo” because, quite simply, it’s the only small, dusty, difficult to like part of this planet that this girl can walk on and not need any explanations for. Everything is second nature to me, and it’s such a weird experience.

Pasadena is undeniably the nicest place I’ve ever lived in my life, with its flowering purple jacarandas, trash pickup every Tuesday, no bugs and hardly any flies, tree-lined streets, paved roads, grassy sidewalks with flowers planted in rows, clean buildings, glossy storefronts, well maintained apartments, people who pick up their dog’s shit, electricity and running water, no bad smells EVER. 

Even if I now know the city like the back of my hand, even now that I can take the freeways to cross the city in less time than it would take to take the streets, familiar doesn’t make you belong. In the end, where you are from is not a matter of choice, it just is.

No one needs to understand or validate it for you, it’s just an internal feeling, and you’re lucky if you know where that place is. Some people come to it later in life, some people never find it, some people never question it, some people never have to wonder. Regardless of where you’re from, I think that it’s obvious to people where your home is from how you speak of it, how you represent it in your art, drawing, writing or photography. There is something to be said about experiencing and sharing something totally foreign to you, because you look at it with fresh eyes, but the way you speak about the place you know the best is the one time I feel you will really get people to connect with you. For me, when I write about Congo, it’s so familiar that the words spill out and I end up sharing my journey, baring my soul with each window I offer on the country and people that molded me.

There are so many theories on identity. Marguerite Yourcenar, a giant of French literature famously once said “ma patrie, c’est les livres”, claiming her identity, and sense of belonging in books. I agree with her, that each person finds their belonging in a place or thing of their chosing, but for many people, the place of your childhood and formative years are often  a very powerful cornerstone of their identity. That’s why I never really found another place to belong to.

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