Ethiopian Culture / Ethiopian Identity / Family / Immigrant Life / Language / Travel: Ethiopia

The Twisted Edge

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I can be a flirty type as long as it doesn’t involve people. Ideas is where the chemistry happens. There’s one in particular, which started off as a little harmless flirtation, then bloomed into a full blown on-again off-again thing that’s been going on for years. It never works out, of course, for reasons x, y, z and z-1 to z-4. But we always find our way back to each other for the flimsiest of excuses. It’s called Moving Back and it’s never so sexy as when I’m visiting back home.

Being back home, I’ve realized, is a little bit like being an eight-months pregnant woman. You get asked the same questions over and over again, often by the same people. There is also apparently something about you that invites constant touching by others, especially of the parts of you that have gotten blubbery. Since you are supposed to be in a delicate condition, you can’t be anything but gracious and give the same answers, over and over again, to the same people and keep locked inside the soundproof compartment of your head the screaming voice that begs them to please stop pawing you and to please commit some simple dates to memory – because that is what a lot of the questions revolve around: dates.

How long has it been? Are you staying long? When are you leaving? When did you arrive? How long has it been? Are you staying long? When are you leaving? When did you arrive? How long has it been? Are you staying long? When are you leaving? When did you arrive?

So you can understand how anything, absolutely anything, that has the power to pop me out of this hellish loop will seem really appealing. That’s when Moving Back wafts along and purrs in my ear Hey there lonesome, long time no see. Sure you don’t want to shack up with me for good and put a stop to this? Sure you don’t want to become a local, become the asker? Now doesn’t that sound nice? And I start to think how nice that does sound. No longer the askee, entitled to all the questions my heart desires. A local with good reason to be endlessly curious, inquisitive. Something I could never dream of doing as a visitor without painting myself as hopelessly naive or nosy or both. And I believe some self-portraits should exist in very limited collectors’ editions.

Moving Back, yes. Where have you been all my life, sugar? We’re on like a boil corn, to borrow a Trini saying. Moving Back. Becoming the keeper of true knowledge, of insider information about What It’s Really Like, about How Life Is, about What Has Changed. The Asker. The Midwife, if you will. Desperate measures and so on. Moving Back, simple genius. I can’t believe we ever parted ways. What were we thinking?

Oh, right, reasons x, y z and z-1 to z-4.

X
A friend once told me that in her native Trinidad, a pregnant woman is said to have one foot in this world and one foot in the other world, so precarious is her existence. Hope dem will forgive me when I add my two cents to this: whichever foot joins the other, one thing about her which will never change is that she was once pregnant, that she once gave birth. Here is where, in the manner of true genius, I state the obvious – that you can’t go back home – and in the manner of a wannabe maverick, I say that’s horse manure. You can go back home, hell, you can even move back home. But what you drag back with you, everything of where you were, will take up just as much space as what you start anew.

Y
To sweeten the deal with X, there’s also what you will feel you’ve left behind, a feeling of a “better” life unlived that can hang over you possibly forever. I suspect it will be somewhat akin to that nagging feeling, after you’ve left the house and already started down the steps or pressed the elevator button, that you’ve left the lights, the tap, or worse, the stove on. What do you do? Nine times out of ten, even if you’ve gone quite far already, you go back to double check. Or, if you’re too far gone to return without throwing the whole day off course, you just settle for spending the rest of the day with visions of coming home to the charred shell or walk-through aquarium that was once your home.

So, sure, you can go home again but you’ll x) drag complications back with you, and y) always be going back literally and figuratively – now this way, now that way, to check this here, that there. Once initiated, that movement will never stop, even when you think you’ve put a stop to it in the physical sense, your mind will always be having a peek at what was, what might have been, as compared to what is now, what will be. Tricky business this, figuring out the right side of a one-way window.

Z
But forget tricky, forget hard even. Of course moving back will be hard. It may have been by the skin of my teeth, but I survived the China that even the Chinese love to hate, and it’s had the quirky consequence of rendering more sweet than bitter the abuse meted out to me by my own kind. So I actually look forward to hard. I make buna for hard.

So forget hard, forget tricky. Try impossible:

Z-1
How can Moving Back be real if one always has an exit plan? If one is always aware of exactly where that sign with the little running man is posted? If one keeps one foot in the other world like a perpetually pregnant woman? The real act of Moving Back would be to disable the safety valve, choose a side, tear up the exit plan, smash the lit sign with a rock and go for broke (which I will most likely be anyway). Renounce a well-paid-for citizenship. And for that, I will be the first to admit, I haven’t inherited enough ounces of patriot blood.

Z-2
But say I did, through the lucky accident of transfusion or what have you, say I was practically glowing green yellow and red all over. I still can’t consider myself really a local until I’ve made up for, evened out, the balance sheet of time.

As flight announcements like to point out, the nearest exit might be behind you. Of course that same exit was once an entry, so the opposite can work just as well: the nearest entry might be behind you. And boy did I keep that in mind for the longest time. Shortly after the first summer visit back home in the mid-90s, when it dawned on me that our stay abroad was more open-ended than I had initially assumed, I started keeping a mental tally of the number of years I had lived “outside” (Column A) versus the number of years I had lived “at home” (Column B). As long as B was a bigger number than A I felt comfortable and safe, far from my “best by” date and perfectly capable of Moving Back. Then, inevitably, the balance shifted. Column A grew and grew. Column B, well, it might as well have stayed frozen even with the pitiful infusions of a few weeks here and a month or so there that it got every three years or so. My young love Moving Back, once so real, receded further and further from sight until it disappeared altogether and became just an idea.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada makes immigrants account for where they lived every single day of the three years since they became a Permanent Resident before it decides that they qualify for a Canadian passport. Any time spent outside Canada in those three years, any interruption in that time, deducts from the required total of three years and delays the acquisition of citizenship. After subtracting all your goings from your stayings, when you reach that magic number that is the equivalent of three years, you apply, and the rest is history. Until then, you sit tight and count the days.

In the same way, Moving Back is nice and all but one can’t really consider oneself to have really done so until each minute spent outside has been cancelled out by an equivalent minute spent inside, until Column B is nice and fat again.

Z-3
Even then, as an astute relation of mine pointed out, our lives here – chic nightlife, expensive spas, slick cars, sattelite tv with every foreign show and local tv with every imitation-of-foreign show – can hardly be held up as models of authenticity, itself a capital A can of worms.

Z-4
Speaking of soft-bodied long creeping animals preserved in metal containers, there’s another set, generally known as “what our parents left for”, that silences any and all excuses for shacking up with that big tease known as Moving Back. In the face of The Big Sacrifice, The Great Expectation, what had looked like as something meant to be turns out to be the world’s worst match.

In conclusion…

Well, there isn’t one. The fatal attraction never goes away. Lord knows what will trigger it next time. Maybe I’ll meet an expat who has dedicated his or her life to teaching Ethiopian orphans in a no name village somewhere in the Bale Mountains.

In the meantime, as the time comes for me to make yet another well-planned exit, I settle for thinking of this whole mess like a gabi, that quintessential 100% Ethiopian cotton garment which, when it touches your skin, feels like home. If those that never left and those that never came back, in both cases those who never got knocked up in the first place, are the interlocked threads that make up the gabi and give it its shape, then the rest of us, splay-footed
and belly-heavy, must be the frayed hemline. The most we can hope for is to get groomed into trim shapely twists that, when the gabi is wrapped around the young souls that come to replace us, will tickle a laugh out of them with stories of how we made the best out of a doomed affair.

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