Family, friends, familiarity
Catholic, Northerner, N’Yorker
I had never seen myself as “the other”- in Buffalo – in the neighborhoods and worlds that I knew, we were all Buffaloneans. Inhabitants of a mostly snow covered region who represented a mix of first and second generation Americans and newly arrived immigrants. The “Germans” and “Polish” lived in East Buffalo, the “Italians” in West Buffalo and “Irish” in South Buffalo. There were more groups, but these were places where I roamed in my childhood world.
I remember my world being one of loud voices, hot spaghetti, kielbasa, steamed up windows and lots of people with accents who were born in other places and times.
Working class Buffalo was a world unto itself. A world that was a blend of the old and the new, of first and second generation Americans and of immigrants who still retained customs and cultural rhythms of their homelands. It was a world of neighborhoods, of shared values and traditions, of familiarity. A world that had been my grounding. But when I was 9 years old, opportunity knocked and my small family of 3 moved. My father was offered a promotion, a chance to “move up.” We all got new clothes from JC Penny’s and took our first airplane ride to visit the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Our move was an adventure. A drifting away from the familiar, where everyone was either Roman Catholic, Jewish or Greek Orthodox to a new landscape of varied religious beliefs and new ways of viewing the world. The Civil War was still an operative topic in the south that we entered. I had never lived on the losing side of the war divide and I learned of a culture that felt misunderstood and wronged by the events of the Civil War. How could our views of the world be so different? Maybe it was just that we had been sitting in such different seats for so long. We were looking at the same historical vista, but from very different points of view.
I felt a mixture of fear and excitement. The new and the old melded together to form an unknown landscape that was rich in its newness, yet echoed known contours. The “scapes” of family, love, care and friendship were still with me, just in new forms, with new tones and words.
Mountains replaced concrete and new accents filled my ears. What is it to be an outsider; a view from a window that is unfamiliar, as others look in at a person who is new to their vista? I was often asked if I had “been saved,” if I had “taken Jesus Christ as my personal savior.” I had no idea what this meant, but tried to find some parallel lines between my new friends and myself. When one of my classmates described the “pool-pit” in her church, I understood pulpit. Two very different concepts in a way and actually very much alike in their metaphorical function. The pool-pit was literally that, a pit that was filled with water for full emersion baptisms. This was a common practice in the Southern Baptist churches that lined the roads out to my new country home in Upper Hominy, NC. I, on the other hand was referring to the pulpit in the Roman Catholic Church where the priest stood to give his Sunday homilies.
In effect they are meant to be the same thing, a place where one finds salvation. They just operate in different ways. In context, my identity was embedded in my surroundings, out of context, I found myself seen with adjectives attached. Catholic, Northerner, New Yorker, and your mother, where is she from, is she a light skinned black woman? The adjectives did not always carry a negative connotation, they were file folders for people to organize their perceptions vis-à-vis their experiences, pre-conceptions and current realities.
In the end what I discovered was that I was always on the outside looking in. Looking in to a new world, one that I embraced and grew to love, but one that always eluded my grasp. I came to thrive on the lack of grasp. On the view from the outside, that did not exclude my participation and engagement, but kept me from becoming too much a part of that place.
Boxes filled up
Places to go
The move from Buffalo to North Carolina is how it all started. I got the bug – the traveling bug. The bug got into my soul and I yearned to explore, being the outsider in other worlds – to look through new and unknown windows. The adjectives that were attached changed; American, light skinned girl, red headed girl, the girl who doesn’t know what a mango is – but at least she is Catholic like us.
The plane trip to Colombia, South America was my next airborne journey. I was 15 years old and nervous and excited and scared and really tired. The suitcases were filled and I bid my collective past of Buffalo and Asheville goodbye. I knew French – a bit – but could only say “yes, no, and thank you” in Spanish.
I was setting off to live with a host familty. My only experience with the host family concept was in Buffalo when I was 6 years old and the Stoyles – a family with10 kids - were host family to a student from Argentina. He was a high school exchange student who knew a bit of English, but not enough to deal with the predicament of a 3-year-old English-speaking child stuffing a pen top up his nose to see just how far it would go. I happened to be in the room when the missing pen top was found up Patrick’s nose and the confused exchange student attempted to explain the situation to the 911 operator.
The world that I encountered in Colombia was a polar opposite to my worlds of working class Buffalo and rural Western North Carolina. I was placed with a very wealthy and influential host family in Medellin, Colombia. Private planes and Mercedes Benz’s replaced pick up trucks and campers. We travelled and lived “in style.” A style that turned the commonly help perception that all who live in Colombia, South America are poor and are just waiting for the “American dream” to take effect. They were living the dream with style and unabashed aplomb. A new world was rolled out before me daily. I learned a new language, a new sense of time and a new sense of place.
So – language and culture and food and festivities and the whole thing – all different - but all a bit the same. This is what I came to crave – the outside that was unfamiliar with the undercurrent of the commonality of the human experience. I learned Spanish, to wear high-heeled shoes, to smoke Marlboro cigarettes in as glamorous a way as I could and to love the smells of wood fires, arepas and bunuelos.
Cumbia, fruit vendors
Hot sun, rain
After Colombia, I couldn’t stop – the bug had turned into a full-blown infection. My ears yearned to hear the sounds of the music of other places, my tongue to taste the sweetness of pineapple and coconut milk, my skin to feel the warmth of a sun that fills your soul and my nose to smell the lyrical breath of a soft rain. Back to Colombia, then to the Dominican Republic and then beyond. To places that were new to all of my senses: England, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Each place was refreshingly new and different, but I found a compelling sense of security in the way that my senses and emotions were touched in familiar ways. Even in rainy season, people can’t believe how much rain there is, when a baby is born, smiles are born too, even in a refugee camp, hope springs eternal. Love, hate, desire and compassion had words and manifestations in every place that I visited.
I found myself to be both at home and “at distance” with the world. Not a benign, unfeeling distance, but one that just let things be – just watched and wondered. I had found my place as a foreigner.
Neither a tourist
Nor an Expatriate
Alistair Reid writes in his book Notes on Being a Foreigner,
“The sense of oddness, of surprise, of amazement. Occupying places, contexts and languages, we grow used to them. Habit sets in, and they cease to astonish us. In a foreign country, this does not happen, for nothing is actually recognizable; it has not been with us from our beginnings . . . If instead of simple recognition, one can go through a proper realization, then quite ordinary things take on an edge; one keeps discovering oneself miraculously alive. So, the strangeness of a place propels on into life. The foreigner cannot afford to take anything for granted.”
That is it – I don’t like to tourist – to see from afar for a safe, secure, short period of time and don’t like to live in another country as if I were in my own. I like – actually - seem to love the newness that leads me to new smells, sights and sounds for their own sake. Not to capture in a photo or to bend to fit my culture.
In Costa Rica, I lived as a foreigner for about 10 years. I visited the States, spent some months here at a time, but always went back to the known that was still unknown and to be discovered. Now when I return, it is like walking into a home that has been shut up for a time. I open the front door, the windows and at first the air is still and old, but then a breeze blows through and the house takes on the smells and sounds of the world around – it is familiar and old, but new again in my eyes.
I used to think that I had to go far from home to have “another world” experience. That suitcases had to be packed, tickets purchased and passport tucked away. Now, I have a bag that I always put in the car with me, or a daypack that accompanies me on long walks. They are my suitcases for daily travel – a journey away from home that can happen almost anytime.
In my travel bags, I carry paper and pencil, a flashlight, umbrella, Power Bar (I find it hard to be a hungry traveler) and a bottle of water. Somehow, even if I am just venturing down the road, I feel that I can look through the foreigner’s lens and look for the newness amongst the oldness and stay for a while if I like.
Still though, my heart speeds up a bit and I can’t help but smile when I hear an airplane or train and get to pack my passport and venture out of my local world!!
Lyn O’Hare graduated from Warren Wilson College with a BA in Intercultural Studies and went on to complete her MS Ed at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. She currently teaches courses at Warren Wilson College and is the Director of Academic Support Services. Lyn has two sons, Marley and Dillan. They all enjoy traveling and enjoy listening to Lyn’s father’s fond memories of traveling at sea as a young man.