Travel Elegy by Eva Simmons
What Grounds You
“you will practice. It will be what grounds you in your journeys. It will remind you of what is really important and keep you well till we next meet again, my dear.”
I shrink into my chair. A futile attempt to disappear inside my child - sized desk. My teacher, Frau Maybaum, approaches me with a tiny red pin. As I reluctantly try to take it from her big hands the slippery object immediately falls to the floor. My palms are too sweaty to grasp it and my clumsiness grants me a moment of hope: maybe, just maybe, she will not make me pick it up and walk to the front of the classroom. Thankfully, our forever gentle, always caring first grade teacher simply smiles, reaches down, lays the fragile pin back on my tiny desk and nods, she has understood my reluctance. There are no hiding places in this classroom full of inquisitive eyes. The truth hits me violently; there will never be a hiding place. Unlike the other 10 children in our class, I will never be able to put a red pin on a map of Germany, or any other country, to signify where my home is, where I belong in the world. I don’t cry. Even the little me is too proud. But for the first time in my life I feel utterly out of place, shamed, naked. Along with those emotions comes intense anger for my parents, who had selfishly denied me the comfort of having a “Heimat”, a place where I belonged unconditionally, an identity, a red pin on a map that no one could ever move. They had betrayed and failed me.
This anger has long vanished, replaced by a deep appreciation for the abundance of joy, the irreplaceable experiences that come with being a third culture kid, and great admiration for my parents, their bravery of moving to China soon after the Cultural Revolution had ended. But the anxiety, the impulse to curl into a safe space, the feeling of being misplaced, have been faithful companions throughout the now more than ten international moves.
Like most babies, I spoke my first words when I was around a year old. But unlike most babies, they were not “mama”, but “bu yao”, which means “don’t want” in Mandarin. This not only shows I was born overly independent, stubborn and opinionated and spent my days around a loving Ayi who spoke only Mandarin with a velvety Hebei accent. At the time of my birth not a lot of Caucasians lived in China. I, like the rest of my family, were incredibly interesting creatures to our welcoming hosts, who loved to touch my hair and pinch my chubby cheeks in pure adoration and wonder. Of course, for an infant, these friendly gestures can get rather frustrating after the 100th squeeze or stroke of the hand. Naturally, the word “Nein” became a favorite of mine soon after.
One might think that for a child growing up internationally, moving to the country for which they hold a passport means finally returning home. My parent's decision to relocate to Germany in my sixth year quickly taught me that no one was interested in my light brown hair and hazel eyes. There would no longer be elderly ladies touching my cheeks or fascinated crowds staring in bewilderment at the sight of me. Now, I blended seamlessly into the crowd, and soon understood – I am more of an outsider here than anywhere else in the world, simply because I am not recognized as one. After growing so nicely into my “foreigner” role, Germany, my supposed homeland, held no fixed identity for me. I was floating, changed from a creature of interest and fascination in China to the mundane and anonymous. It is much worse to feel out of place when everyone around you expects you to understand and embrace the same body language, facial expressions and culture. How does one express their feelings of homelessness whilst the assumption is that you are finally at home? Unlike the Chinese, Germans don’t laugh out of discomfort. In China, there weren't firm notions about boundaries of personal space, everyone seemed to move and blend and speak and interact without restrictions. Food was always shared, not served on separate plates, life was noisy, busy, fast, not orderly, tranquil and predictable... Eventually I assimilated, my rejection and withdraw never a result of the culture in itself or the people, some of which I come to love abundantly.
Ironically, or maybe spurred by the ignorant notion of wanting to challenge myself, see if I could master moving and the emotions it churns within me, I chose a destiny that would grant me my desires. Temporary homes of 14, 18, maybe 26 months. My skewed thinking was that the traumatic emotions triggered by each move would eventually be replaced by positive coping strategies. Each jarring transition would hopefully result in a stronger, more resilient me. Becoming an expert at handling relocation companies, packing and unpacking over 300 boxes and finding the perfect place for furniture, artwork and kitchen utensils were welcome distraction from facing the reality - with each move the boxes became a little heavier and increasingly difficult to unpack. I excelled at settling down, finding new schools for my kids, understanding different cultures and adapting to them. Submersed in the mass of coping mechanisms, I was ignoring how each compromise peeled off layer after layer of my Self. With each new "home," I was curling up deeper into a safe cave - a setting filled with errands, meetings, lunches, social duties, household chores - that betrayed my desires to wrestle the true demons of constant relocation. Instead, it created in me a desperation to fit in, at any cost. I had become exceptionally good at creating masks and even better at making myself believe they fit me perfectly.
It wasn't until I was forced to move to the very last place on earth I had ever wanted to live, Manila, that my dislocated patterns of pain through assimilation and de - Selfing finally needed to change. When I was informed that the Philippines would be my family's new home every single cell in me rejected fiercely having to move. My universe collapsed even further the first evening I arrived, as I watched the most stunning sun set over a beautiful, vast ocean. The world was mocking me with its ability to create these breathtaking colors. At that moment, I was unable to appreciate what my eyes beheld. The sun's descending beauty was laughing in my face, making me feel small and vulnerable, useless. I had never felt so utterly out of place. As the last bit of sunlight vanished under the sea's horizon, I was left standing alone before a giant window in another new residence, left only with a prayer for the stillness of night to save me.
Needless to say I had long given up on trying to make friends quickly wherever I moved. By the time I reached Manila, I only allowed new people into my life with some hesitance. I had come to adopt that position through the hardest means possible, after saying countless good byes. True friends stay, regardless of distance. That I know as a truism, and I am incredibly lucky to have a number of them scattered across the globe. However, the truth didn't help keep me company and share my days after a new move sundered me from those I loved.
Unwilling to join yet another lunch with strangers I felt no connection to, I started looking for new avenues to fill my empty days and decided, on a mild evening in late January, to try yoga at a studio that had recently opened. I wasn't sure why I had chosen to come here, or why I stayed, but something was speaking to a part of me I had long abandoned. As our teacher, with his calm, soft voice, moved us through our practice, I felt a sense of residence and grounding I hadn't experienced since my youth. I was enthralled by the discipline he created within the crowded room, fascinated by his firm instructions, his kind eyes, his decisive hands encouraging me to keep my knees bent, even though they were shaking violently with exhaustion and I must have rolled my eyes at him. A strange, unknown sense of belonging in this room filled with strangers came over me. I went back the week after. Then three times a week, then every day.
Gradually, I traded the safe, dark space within me for a yoga mat and learned to look at the vast sky upside down when anxiety gripped fiercely. The practice helped soothe me. It showed me that admitting to my weaknesses would grant the possibility of change, that necessary shifts never come quietly but always as thundering, chaotic, terrifying storms. Every evening, I would watch the sunset, sitting still on my mat, soaking in the very last rays of luminous color. Very, very slowly I began to grasp what it must feel like to call a place home, to belong. My long - buried Self began to take on shades and depths of color that I thought were forever cast into a lifetime of muted greys. I started to feel my soul, the soul once nurtured, fed and held safe in my first six years of life, come alive. There, in a city I fought against arriving in, I found some softness and surrender.
My home will never be marked on a map of any particular country. I can embrace that now.
Many evenings, just before the Manila sun dipped off to sleep, I would hold my hand out to the fading light, imagining a small red pin held delicately between my fingers. I would feel my body float out through the window over the still strange landscape beneath me. One day, I will lay my pin into the firmament of light and be home.
Photography by Laurent Chéhère