It came to me on a Tuesday morning in my short story class. I’m not sure what caused it.
Perhaps the fact that Valencia is brightening again, with highs of 29°C, and skies back to their disarming blue (at least for now – come “Miracle March,” forecasters predict that El Niño will remember its duty to ravage). Or that I could see it through the glass of D206, one of the few CalArts classrooms with actual windows. Or that I had just bumped elbows with Rebecca, with whom I’d been forming one of those friendships characterised by a quickness neither needs to consider.
I’m not sure what exactly caused it, but this is what I realised: I kind of like this place.
It was one of those things I’d surprised myself by saying – as though I’d spoken it into being, and it was so. Although it turned out that I actually had. “Well, okay,” Rebecca said, as class came to a close. “Do you still,” she asked tentatively, “want to go to that comic book store today?”
Before I came, I hadn’t really considered how difficult comfort in California would be to earn. Another of my close friends, Amani, an actress living in Los Angeles for ten years, says it takes about two to three to make this place feel like home – or the length of my program plus the year the US government gives international students to find work.
But I should have known. My relationship with America has always been uneasy. For a long time, it was obsessive, first experienced through hours flipping through the near-hundred foreign channels a cable subscription could buy.
Happily, I baked pretzels and made origami cranes with the chipper, racially-balanced cast of Zoom, a show on PBS Kids, swishing their slanted vowels around my mouth like the expensive Sunny D I begged my mom for.
I even wrote myself into my own story that was part Superman (born princely on a faraway planet, sent to earth to escape civil war); part Saved by the Bell (even as an alien, still had to deal with the tedium of attending high school – ameliorated only by my blonde, smart-mouthed love interest).
Even though this story happened in my head, I struggled with the practicalities of where it should take place. Trinidad could not be an option. I’d consider it briefly, conciliatorily, then conclude that I preferred an American junior high. Plus, why would aliens ever want to attack a place no alien movie was set?
My fantasies were shaped by an awareness of how my island was seen (or not seen) from the outside – and accompanied by the knowledge that indulging in them was a form of betrayal.
Inadequacy became a constant companion. Later on I’d try to combat it by cultivating a contrary Trinidadianness (that would, thankfully, eventually settle into a real love). I joined the local rock scene when I was fourteen after hearing a Trinidadian band that sounded like the American pop-punk I was into, and eventually found myself saying things like: so, just because they playing rock, that makes them less Trinidadian?
But pride is difficult when a desire for foreignness is institutionalised. Trinidad’s government encourages achievement by giving away full-ride or partial scholarships to top students for study overseas, with the amount of scholarships each school achieves published in the daily newspapers.
So when I, a consistent overachiever racked with an anxiety I could only later identify, did not achieve grades in the exit exam that were high enough to emigrate me, my burgeoning national pride was not enough to mitigate the fact that I was a failure.
I’d end up at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, where, as these things go, I’d take a creative writing class as an elective that would eventually lead me to grad school in California, giving me the opportunity to either pursue or confront my American dream.
Though I’d apply with poetry that examined our tumultuous relationship, America and I, I’d find myself confessing to a classroom of Americans – people I’d spent my life desperately wanting to be – that I wasn’t even sure if my application to CalArts was an elaborate ruse to gain legal, if only temporary, residence.
While applying, I thought (in fact, I still think) about my musician friends, now in their late thirties, who have largely given up their pursuit of success in Trinidad and outside of it, who presently hold jobs as teachers, or bank tellers, or office assistants, or deliverymen. Of the layer of despondency, pungent as sweat, I felt in almost every ad agency I’d worked after my B.A. in Communications; about how teams could shut down after designing a moderately creative campaign and being told by our clients: what, allyuh feel this is America?
But I knew, too, from previous visits to New York (during my summers off from school in Jamaica), the costs of chasing the Dream too earnestly. I saw it as soon as I walked to JFK in the cold from the airplane – in the fact that the people mopping the floor were all black with accents I recognised. In the gentle anguish of my friend’s mother – a woman who’d brought her family from Trinidad to Brooklyn expecting a better life, but was working so many jobs that she could barely see them. In the way, so that she could attend a PTA meeting, I took over her duties for a couple of hours – and the white, Jewish family whose kids I was looking after never questioned by ability to both help with math homework and clean their bathroom.
My New York trips had left me witness to a lot of pain. But still, I wanted to go to California. Still.
I’d arrived in California in September, 2015, more tired than I could have predicted. Travelling here took two days; more than enough to ebb the blinding glee I always experience when visiting a new place.
I was six years older than I’d been when I visited New York for the first time. Back then, content enough just to have arrived somewhere else, I patiently watched people as I waited in immigration, awed by their boots, t-shirts with brands I recognised, tattoos, piercings, the thrill of seeing these things worn in their country of origin, the country that most suited them.
But as I rode in the bus, standing wedged between columns of packed seats, I realised that the nerve I counted on to venture to other places on my own – and the ecstacy of otherness that usually buoyed me – wasn’t there. It troubled me that I didn’t know where to put my hands. Do I touch the back of another passenger’s seat? Do I hold onto the netting of the bag rack overhead?
I didn’t feel clean. My clothes were rumpled and I hadn’t bathed since yesterday. I looked around at everyone, mostly white,– and wondered what they saw when they saw me. Could they smell me? Was I just another dirty black girl? Was it appropriate for me to be wearing a hoodie in slightly warm weather? If someone hit me and I said, “Excuse me,” would I recognise what I sounded like?
For weeks afterwards, I’d spend time in my bed with teeth clenched, prepping myself each morning by resolving not to lose my accent – the biggest sin committed by any Trinidadian who leaves for overseas. Eventually, it became: okay, maybe it’s okay if I alter it when clearly people don’t understand. And then: maybe I’ll change it more, and when people are used to me, work my way back to how I actually sound.
But translating a response from Trinidadian to American English was also tedious – and now there was the pressure of my art school writing programme to seem well-read, languidly ironic; to prove as a Caribbean woman that I could be. I missed my colleagues’ sarcasm because I was too concerned about responding the right way, forgot simple things like the last book I’d read, and in the end decided it best to just say nothing.
As much as I’d love to forget the person I was last semester, she still haunts me. I still think too much before I speak; I’m sometimes still possessed by a loneliness that slams me to my bed and refuses me sleep.
But I have also gotten better at recognising that, with every soul-deep conversation I have in the closest thing I can muster to my Trinidadian voice, that I am capable of being understood. And that I have no interest in pursuing relationships with those who choose not to.
I still flinch whenever another friend, Gio, who is American pop culture-savvy and also American, asks me if I’m familiar with this movie – and when it turns out that, for all the time I’ve spent valuing myself because of how much I think I know, I do not. But then I remind myself that he’s respecting the fact that my frame of reference is different because I’m a foreigner. And it’s true – I am!
It’s the beginning of March now, and true to what the weather people predicted, it’s been overcast all morning. No downpour yet. But you can feel the wetness in the air in a way that’s uncharacteristic of desert weather. It’s trembling with it, as though it’s stuck in someone’s throat. It feels a little like the humidity of home.
There’s salmon I dumped barbeque sauce on in the oven, because I ran out of actual seasoning. There’s a stack of stories I need to critique before tomorrow’s class, and already half the day has gone. Oh, well.
There is this essay, too, that I am trying to finish. The way it has helped me to become more intimate with my feelings; the fact that I could not do so without the time California has given me, without the proximity. I can feel myself possessing the freedom I have always envied – to write, to make music, to sculpt, without being told that such endeavours are too foreign.
I’ve lately taken to picturing myself being wrapped, cocoon-like, in the times I feel most vulnerable. Not unlike the transformational sequences of Sailor Moon, another female alien-fighter and star of an Americanised anime that I watched on Fox Family. I convince myself that I am and have always been safe in my own company. It works.
Amanda Choo Quan is a writer, ceramicist and musician from Trinidad and Tobago. Currently, she lives in Los Angeles (County). She likes to think of herself as a hot mess.