Thoughts in Progress
Distance does not just create space between one and a certain object but also offers a new perspective on situations that get muddled up when looked at too close. We think of holidays as “time off”, but for some of us, mainly immigrants, going home from “home”, means sometimes an unconscious search for answers hitherto elusive, i.e., “time on”.
I recently went back to Cuba for a fortnight. I had not been for three years and therefore I had missed out on all the “changes”. Whilst I have a lot to write about my visit, this post will not necessarily deal with the transformations my country has gone through (or subjected to, rather). I am still digesting many of the permutations to which I bore witness. This outing today is about the immigrant’s eternal conundrum: belongingness.
There comes a time when “going home” becomes “leaving home for home and returning home after”, a tautology in and of itself, but an important one. This acquires more urgency when both “homes” have undergone radical changes. Explanations are sought and theories thought up. The latter are concocted on the hoof as the former are blurted out. You ask people and they quiz you in return. Both parties look for ready-made answers but none are forthcoming, only half-baked, spontaneous responses.
I thought I had left Brexit and Cameron’s crew behind at Gatwick, only to find that I had been appointed the (unofficial) “dabster” by relatives and friends to throw some light on recent events on these isles. That, I did not mind. What surprised me was what came out of my mouth. My feelings for my adopted land had strengthened to a level I did not know until then.
The poet (poetess? Can I still say that?) Agnes Krampe writes in her poem “Perhaps the Hardest Part of Emigration” that “The rhythm of the language was not pulsing/Deep in my body. Shapeless, without pattern/the words limped on the page, where I once could/Compose in dancing meter graceful rhyme.” The language she refers to is that of the new country. I can relate to that lack of rhythm, not from a linguistic perspective, but from a cultural one. I already spoke English fluently when I arrived in London but I did not “speak” the culture. Britain defied my expectations. Whereas I, too, could once “compose in dancing meter graceful rhyme” in Cuba, over here I felt somewhat stunted at the beginning.
Not anymore. When talking about Brexit, Theresa May’s rise or the squabbles in the Labour Party a few weeks ago in my hometown, there was often a note of optimism in my voice. I know that this might come as a surprise to some of you. Nevertheless, distance affords one the privilege of looking at one’s adopted home through a fresh pair of prescription glasses. Mind you, to confuse my optimism with idealism would be fatal. My optimism was reality-based. Still, there I was, explaining that the recent wave of anti-immigrant, racist attacks were carried out by a minority. That London, the city I have called “home” for almost twenty years, voted to stay in the European Union. That we have a Muslim mayor. That Labour’s in-fighting should be seen in the context of two factions locking horns (not at the best of times, fair to say). That… That… That…
I have a theory about this attitude. It is almost as if some of us, immigrants, become protective of our adopted land. We know its flaws and virtues, but woe betide anyone who dares to slander it, for they shall be subjected to a tongue-lashing delivered in heavily Cuban-accented English (or similar). I have often laid into Nigel Farage and his band of bigots and fascists. Yet, when questioned about his lethal influence on British politics, my answer was usually along the lines of: “That’s different opinions for you. Without them, democracy would probably die a little bit every day. It is a risk, but it is a risk I am willing to take any time.” Surprised? I was indeed.
The life of an immigrant upon arrival in their new land can seem sometimes like a flimsy piece of paper blown away by the wind. We are led, if you like: by work, domestic life, every day demands. Whether it is lucubration or diurnal graft, moments of Wildean idleness and contemplation are few and far between. Eventually, though, the first associations appear: we make up our own story as we go along, our experience becomes a background against which we analyse our presence in our adopted land, we even come up with our own soundtrack. One that might not match the type of music we usually like.
Some other times we find a wall in our path (of Trumpian proportions) which we have to surmount: break through or jump over it. Either way, there is a transformation in you and in the wall. But only you, as the thinking being can make sense of this encounter (collision?) and its aftermath.
I am Cuban, will always be, never want to stop being Cuban. I am also British. Not just as a mere passport-holder, but as a person for whom “the rhythm of the language” is pulsing now (for language, think “culture”). Someone who can also “Compose in dancing meter graceful rhyme.” Distance does that to you. That is why whenever I touch down in London, I say nowadays: “I’m back home from home”.