(Different) Choices

It’s been a while, almost six months.

To be transparent, I’d like to admit that this flux period has lasted longer than I thought it would. As such, this blog has been left by the wayside a bit. I have been writing, though, just nothing that is ready to be shared yet. I have also been thinking about this particular post for a while, too intimidated and not ready to write it. Suddenly, it’s all I can think about, with yet another immigration anniversary looming.

When you read this, it will be the seventeenth anniversary that I became an immigrant and arrived in the US for the first time on my first-ever plane ride. Last year, I reflected on the relatively better future I wouldn’t have had without that first plane ride. This year, I’m reflecting on something different, building on that gratitude from last year that has only increased in the past 365 days.

This reflection started, as it often does, as I thought about my identity, what labels I felt most comfortable with, what groups I felt were most welcoming. Shocking to no one except maybe me, none of the labels or groups that have been assigned to me feel right. There are those that do (cis heterosexual woman, for example), but those that don’t, and as I thought about why they don’t feel right, I came to the conclusion that they don’t feel right because I didn’t choose them. There are some that don’t feel right because they haven’t chosen me.

I’m still workshopping this idea internally, so please allow some incoherence as I present this idea with some anecdotes and recovered memories.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

I immigrated to an area in the US that is very diverse, but that diversity was scary at the beginning. Coming from South America, I was already a minority within the minority. I was meeting kids from countries I had only heard of until my first day of middle school, and I didn’t even know of the existence of the Philippines until I met a boy from there in my first ESOL class. In a place where I didn’t speak the language, knew the customs or fit in, I already didn’t feel at home in a group of people that was meant to alleviate the transition, kids who didn’t recognize the words I used when speaking Spanish, the language we were supposed to share.

As I moved through the education system and before getting to college, I still hadn’t found my tribe. My group of friends in high school was still diverse, but the only thing we had in common was our class schedules and our obsession with graduating. In retrospect, a lot of the friendships there were out of convenience, which would explain why most of them didn’t last the test of time.

When I got to college, it was better, but not really. I was ‘too brown’ to blend in with my white friends, not knowing some key references and cultural phenomena that bonded them by virtue of their upbringing. I was also ‘too white’ to blend in with the few Hispanic and Latinx folks I ran into. My Spanish, again, was too foreign for them and my English too tainted with American expressions. My white friends treated my heritage as an anecdote and a party trick, and my non-white friends… I didn’t have many, but it’s not like we bonded over our ‘BIPOC person in a white world’ experiences either.

I oddly found a respite in Leicester, England, the first time I studied abroad. To everyone there, I was just American. I sounded American, and to them that was plenty. Even my other international student friends from European countries saw me as American, often forgetting that I spoke Spanish at all. I was just Vanessa to them, not ‘Vanessa who can also speak Spanish. Ask her how to properly pronounce “quesadilla.”’

These thoughts race in my mind lately as I think of choices, those I have made and those that have been made for me, and their consequences. Dissecting my life from the very first choice when I wake up to the last one before I drift off to sleep, my life is a series of choices from where I have been in the past seventeen years.

Although this way of growing up has afforded me many a choice, it didn’t come without its share of conflict, internal mostly, but also external as others also had a hard time putting me in a box I didn’t always fit into. I’ve been mocked plenty a time when I use a word translated into English from Spanish as it loses its fidelity, or when I pronounce something the British English way because it’s easier on my tongue and the Hispanic accent that sometimes comes out. But it’s not me humble bragging or putting on an act to be likable. It’s just… me. It was a breath of fresh air to read this Esther Perel quote: ‘A sense of different belongings as I express different versions of myself.’ This is more nuanced than code switching and expands into the person I have chosen to be, picking and choosing aspects of cultures, identities and places that feel right. The amalgamation that has provided a home in myself to always come back to.

I’ve felt at home when I wasn’t home, because my ‘home’ is just where I grew up. I don’t really feel a sense of belonging and attachment to the places that saw me develop before I left them. I don’t hate them either; rather, I hold a deep gratitude to them because they allow me to say I came from somewhere.

I am not making sense here, and this reflection was less peaceful than last year’s and more jumbled, but I’m workshopping my identity as I start my exit from my twenties. It felt like a good time to do it. All that I’m sure of, though, is that I am a reflection of my choices, choices I have made from the cultures, people, places and stories shared with me. Like a bizarre ragdoll made from different fabrics that somehow still resembles a complete person by the end of the process. Could I have come up with a better image? Probably, but the ragdoll image resonates somehow and not everyone is a fan of them (I think).

This whole business of feeling different is lonely. That was another thought that brought tears to my eyes when it came, that the feeling I’ve never been able to escape for the last seventeen years has been loneliness. Loneliness at not being able to connect with those I should connect with by virtue of having something in common. But if I didn’t find my place through school, through college or even through my family, where would I find my place?

It’s been very lonely, which is a feeling I have just learned to identify and be comfortable and uncomfortable with depending on the day. I very rarely feel lonely when I’m the only person in the room, but I have felt lonely more times while in a group of people. The same loneliness applies to people and how it feels when I don’t feel chosen even if I’m choosing them. It’s been a work in progress to accept that the biggest disappointments and hurts in my life so far I’ve experienced because I didn’t feel chosen by a particular person.

I am different, as my therapist kindly pointed out a few months ago. The context was different than the one I’m discussing today, but it’s all I’ve been able to think about since she said it, finding more and more examples of that reality every day. So I end this clumsy reflection and even clumsier blog entry with that: I’m different. And maybe I’m the same as everyone else in that they all feel different for whatever reason, and that’s okay. My story is and will continue to be different as it progresses, and maybe by my next immigration anniversary, I will have this neatly worked out.

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