Sunshine and cigarettes and the sound and smell of the surf as it skirts the shore. Hot and heavy with humidity, the ocean air is tangy on my tongue and sticky on my skin. The breeze causes a skeletal rattle from the coconut tree fronds above me, and I absent-mindedly pick up a fallen baby coconut from the sand, rolling the still green fruit in the palm of my hand. Pausing to examine the smooth green exocarp, I imagine I can see a cartoon lion’s face in the natural patterns and smile lazily in amusement.
Techno music blares from the snack stand up the beach, and I walk over to order a ginger ale, which arrives in a dimpled green glass bottle, dewy with condensation and ice cold to the touch. Drinking the refreshment, the carbonation burns my throat and the back of my eyelids. I blink away the sudden tears, and in a moment, the African beach fades from view, replaced by a suburban American patio on a sunny summer’s day. My heart’s initial pang of disappointment is quickly replaced by the familiar ache of saudade.
Saudade is a unique Portuguese word with no immediate translation into English and it describes an emotional state of longing or deep nostalgia for something or someone that is not immediately present or may even be unattainable. Tied up in its definition is the idea that there can be no thorough resolution of this state, that the person experiencing saudade can not truly overcome this yearning. Although I have experienced saudade for years, it was only recently that I learned the word and that it applied to me.
Being a “third culture kid,” or TCK, saudade dovetails neatly into my life experience of being caught between two worlds. Although I am an American citizen and was born on US soil, I grew up across the continent of Africa—first in Ghana, then Chad, and then Kenya. My first memories are from Ghana, right around my second birthday. Cognitively, I know that I am American, but I feel African. No, that isn’t quite right either. I feel Africa. I yearn for Africa. I know that I am not African, but I know that I also am not American. I am part of a third culture that somehow mixes African and American and is both and neither at the same time.
It is a confusing place to be.
There are many who can rightfully claim this ambiguity. My parents pursued a religious calling to be missionaries, so that is my reason for living in so many different places, but others like me could be the children of diplomats, NGO employees, business men or women, military personnel, or even refugees. For those of us who experience saudade, we find ourselves caught between worlds, all the while trying to be a part of both, attempting to reconcile sometimes opposing aspects of who we are.
For example, when the terrorist attacks occurred in New York City on 9/11, I was at my grandmother’s house in Orange County, California. She woke my sister and me up from a deep sleep to watch the news because it was, in her words, “history in the making.” Dutifully, I sat on the beige carpeted floor of the TV room that was striped with early morning light that crept through the vertical blinds. As Grandma drank her coffee behind us–no doubt remembering the last attack on American soil–I watched the news with bleary eyes, trying to make sense of the video footage of the crashes that looked like terrible CGI, knowing I should be emotionally moved, and wondering why I felt…nothing.
The outpouring of American nationalism following the attacks raised two conflicting voices in my head. On the one hand, I wanted to stand with my fellow American citizens in emotional solidarity. I knew people were hurting. On the other hand, having recently moved back to the U.S. from a predominantly Muslim nation, I felt that, although I am opposed to violent religious extremism of all kinds, I still understood the perspectives behind the attack. Once the American nationalism transitioned from flying the stars and stripes everywhere to lashing out with misplaced racial and religious hate crimes, I quickly silenced the American patriot in my head and my heart wished to be home, where I could wear a veil out of respect to my Muslim neighbors and not worry about being attacked for it.
Whenever African news stories come to my attention or when, on rare occasions, the Seattle sky lights up with brilliant sunshine, I experience a return of my saudade, reminding me of Africa. We have a saying—those of us who have lived or visited Africa and fallen in love with it—that you cannot wash the dust of Africa from your feet. Africa stays with me. There are long stretches of time, especially now that I have been living in the U.S. for almost nine years straight, that Africa moves to the back of my mind. It isn’t that I have forgotten her, but she is not an ever-present thought.
Then I’ll catch that whiff of cigarette smoke on a sunny day, and suddenly I’m transported to a West African beach, holding that green glass bottle in one hand and listening to the surf, the wind, and the music from the snack shack. Or I bite into a perfectly ripened mango and I can see myself walking through an open air market, admiring the towering pyramids of tropical produce and haggling with an African Mama over the price of a length of batik cloth.
I go through periods of time where all I want is a good mug of chai (just water, milk, black tea, and lots of sugar–no spice!) and warm, greasy mandazis to go with it. Chai‘s ability to comfort with its sweet, creamy simplicity is very much underrated in the Western Hemisphere. There are other times that the only music I want to listen to is in Swahili or Ewe or Xhosa. I know the Kenyan national anthem in English and Swahili, but I struggle to sing the American anthem correctly. Often when I hit these periods of saudade, I simply write, yet every depiction and narrative seems to fall short of the tangible experience, the homesickness I feel for Africa.
How can I describe the feel of Saharan sand underfoot with its powdery grain that retains the sun’s heat long after sundown, or the warm, perspiring press of flesh in a crowded street that reeks of humanity—a smell I eagerly inhale? How can I tell you that my eyes hunger for a bright clash of colorful patterns instead of the drab “chic” of Western dress? How do I express the need for a slower pace of life, where people come before tasks and community is essential, where stopping by your neighbor’s cooking fire in the evening is the only way to social network?
Describing my tie to this wonderful continent where my heart has made its home seems an insurmountable task. Still, I write, for in writing I manage to find ways to work out the tension of belonging and not belonging and all the joys and heartache that come with it.
(In its original form, this article first appeared on Persephone Magazine on May 10, 2012. This version posted here was expanded and used in my application for SNHU.)