The only time I ever feel like I really belong somewhere is when I am home with my partner and three kids. “Home” is a word laden with so much meaning, too much, mainly because it has no permanence for me, and because it has multiple interpretations. I don’t have a childhood home where I grew up in to look back on, and at this point I don’t even know if I have a country to fall back on in times when I feel completely disjointed. My heart jumps between oceans and seas, pulled into places that no longer look the same as they do in my brain. People identify me as British from my accent, which despite 31 years living outside of the UK I have not lost, but I’ve always felt as British as I feel French. Nowadays I feel more of a mishmash of everywhere I have been rather than a strong tie to one country, even if it is the country where I was born, and where generations and generations of my family members lived and died.
I moved to New York City in 2005. Before that there was rural England, town England, The Netherlands, city life surrounded by mountains France, a year in Israel, a few months in California, and London. I moved from Streatham, London, to Spanish Harlem in NYC, by way of the Lower East Side. I’ve been in this country for 14 years now, longer than I have lived in any other country. I never asked for French citizenship, even though I am eligible and France was home to me growing up, because it didn’t ever feel necessary. I applied for Canadian citizenship because I could, even though I had never set foot in Canada at the time, and had no ties to the country at all. Canadian citizenship and my multilingual skills gave me temporary status in the US, a status laden with so many restrictions, while my permanent resident application inched through years, decades, of time. Nowadays I am pondering on whether I should apply for US citizenship. Do I want it?
Pondering on it, not because this country feels like home, and not because I have fallen in love with this country, but because I want my US-born children to feel safe. I had a difficult, long, and very depressing immigration process that involved a lot of tears and heartache, and also choices that I may not have made if I actually had had a choice. My children’s father, my partner in life, is also an immigrant, and although he is native to these continents we call America, doesn’t come from Norway, or any new “desirable” country name the current president decides to tweet about this week. I often think about the concept of the “good” immigrant and wonder what you have to “be” to fit into that mold. We probably don’t fit into it, neither of us really wanted to be here, we just ended up in NYC, and fell in love with the city (and very much later with each other once our paths finally crossed). I think about citizenship because for one I am finally eligible to do so, but mainly because I don’t want my children to have to worry about us, or be separated from us, now or ever. I know what it feels like to not be allowed to live in the same country as a parent and siblings, and it’s not something I plan on revisiting, ever.
Is citizenship meant to feel like a transaction rather than actual belonging? My blood is undoubtedly very English and Welsh (and apparently Scottish), but I feel like a mix of England, The Netherlands, France, Israel, NYC, and now California, with a little bit of India thrown in, and a lot of Polish heritage, collected through my mother’s second marriage to a man I called Tatuś for part of my childhood. I love parts of all of the countries I have lived in, but do I belong to any of them? I have no idea.
Living for New York for a large part of my time in the US made it easy to pretend I lived on an island slightly apart from the rest of the country, skipping between relocations of England, France, Mexico and Israel faster than it would take me to walk two blocks on my beloved Lower East Side. Languages were everywhere, it was never too difficult to find a shakshuka that tasted like my uncle’s or a packet of Walker’s crisps, or even a perfect French omelette that reminded me of time spent in late winter on the slopes of a mountain in the Alps. I spoke French as much as I spoke English and while I still felt out of place in certain parts of my life, I was able to rectify that by quickly running to Orchard St. Of course I missed so many things from all of my different homes, but NYC made it easier to consolidate all of them together under one roof. That was the beauty of the city for me: I could be at home with parts of my multiple homes and feel like I belonged for a while.
Belonging... Is that not something that we all crave somehow? The need to belong with someone, to belong somewhere? For so many years I prided myself with the statement that I never belonged anywhere except NYC (or the Arava desert, or Grenoble, or Empingham, or Paris, depending on my mood). I would however still be plagued with days, weeks, of deep yearnings for home, a home that didn’t exist anymore. But I belonged on the street I worked, and I belonged amidst my ragtag group of friends from all over the world. I didn’t think I craved that sense of belonging until I actually came close to feeling like I belonged somewhere.
NYC was in no shape or form a bubble. Not for us immigrants anyway. For me it did often feel like I was hovering between the US and Europe, but I was fully aware of what was going on in the world, in the country. I always have been. It felt safer somehow, you could disappear into the streets and be swallowed up by the city’s protective arms. The only airport where I never had problems in when coming back from abroad was JFK. Every other border control has been a story I would euphemize to those around me because I was embarrassed, upset at letting myself be treated like that. Niagara Falls and Phoenix were the worst. Border control agents are obviously trained to diminish you as a person, reduce you to tears, to saying things in a tone of submission despite your intents to remain stoic and strong, and to make you feel guilty even though you are not. Guilty of what? Wanting to go “home”? In the end you really start to wonder why you are fighting to be there so hard: is it worth it?
My own personal answer to that is that it was, because I met my partner, another immigrant but from a very different part of the world, and we have three amazing children together. We have made our own home together, here. Neither of us feel at home anywhere anymore, after years of living in places we never quite imagined ourselves living, but together we are home. Our children are growing up American, and Mexican, and Native American, and English, and French… Isn’t that what America is anyway? We already make the US great, no need for an orange-faced despot to tell us the opposite.
We haven’t lived in NYC for a while now, and it’s harder for both of us to find the same sense of belonging in our current city. But still, it’s “home” for now. We still don’t know where to find fresh tamales first thing in the morning, and I have given up on finding HP Sauce anywhere accessible, or a proper pain au chocolat, but they are just minor inconveniences, aren’t they? I miss the sense of family that we had in NYC, the sense of community, and I doubt we will ever find the same here. But our “home” in NYC has changed, moved on, and evolved too. As you can see, home really does not have permanence for me, except when it comes to my family.
And belonging? It’s a fleeting sense. I feel it during certain marches and rallies, surrounded by other people who I know have a similar sense of floating here and there, digging in roots in a new place. It’s a feeling that starts in my stomach and rises, ending in spontaneous tears as my voice becomes one with other voices. But then we disperse, and that feeling is gone. It pops back up again here and there, a smell, a voice, a thought. It never will be a permanent feeling, but always a surprising one. Oh wait, I belong here in this moment!
There is nothing wrong with never quite feeling at home, never quite belonging to a place. As human beings our nature is to keep moving, to explore, to find each other. Borders are arbitrary and unnatural, barricades are really just a last ditch stand against our nomadic drive. There is no “other”, there is just us.