I have just finished ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I am still thinking.

This is a book I will read again. It’s the kind of book you read to find out what will happen, yet while you’re reading know you must come back to this page because there was something that gave you insight into your own life. And then there is that page where the characters seem too rich, too characterful to be true, yet you know they are and you relish the time you get to spend with them. And then there are the blog entries which are well-written, educational, and illuminating about what it means to be black in America. To be Americanah in Nigeria. It’s the kind of book where you can dig a little deeper, discover the story beneath the story, the reality beneath the pseudo-reality – or is it the other way around…

 

I live in a country not of my birth and no matter how I try to retain my innate Englishness, it’s surprising how much of the adopted country seeps into me and when I return to the land of my birth it takes a while for the pseudo-sweetness of superiority to dissolve.
I first moved to Switzerland in August 2001 full of hopes and dreams, and assurance that I would find my own niche in this beautiful country. After a month of struggling with the language, people’s perception of me as a foreigner, and nobody to talk to, the shine began to wear away and leave the naked matte of reality. The solution was a language course. I made one or two friends and could thereafter communicate in shops, albeit on a basic level. If someone talked to me about anything other than carrots or potatoes or what my name was, I received a sigh for my pathetic attempts to mumble a few words. I often drew a blank even when I could communicate better – the momentary panic that hits when someone expects an answer before you’ve even begun to process their question.

Slowly, I began to absorb the values and ideas of my adopted country. Then I visited my home town in England. And discovered how foreign I was, once more.

I always assumed England and my home town would remain much as I remembered them, but as soon as I set foot in my familiar country, an unexpected alienness began to wind its way in and alter my previously held perceptions. I wondered whether I had changed, or whether my perceptions had been false when I had lived there. A paradigm shift. I saw the good about Switzerland reflected poorly in my home town. It was not as clean. People did not greet one another. Public transport left much to be desired. But.

I could talk! I could ask a question and someone would understand! Better yet, I understood everything going on around me without the unshiftable shadow of worry that cloaked me whenever I left the security of my apartment in Switzerland. If something happens, can I make myself understood?

Going back to Switzerland was like returning to England, just in reverse. Trains were wonderful and people ‘Gruetzie’d’ like crazy, but I was once again an alien in a foreign country, struggling to be understood, struggling to prove I was worthy.

Has anyone else experienced this? Have you moved from your home town only to go back after a number of years and realize both you, and your home town, have changed?

It’s unsettling until we readjust, find our paradigms, and continue our lives.

 

Louise