Finding a Way Home

By N Bhyat

“Are you dead?”

One minute I was high in the branches, the next I hit the dirt with a thump that raised red dust and walloped the air from my lungs. I looked up at the leaves as my friends shimmied down fast enough to leave skin on the bark.

“I’m going to tell your mother!” one yelled, staring down at my blank face, while the other melted indoors, certain we’d be in trouble.

Alone, after a few minutes, my breath steadied. Deciding I was only half-dead and not impaled by sharp sticks, I struggled up and stumbled home amid air sweet with the scent of burning grass. My ribs hurt and it was a very long walk.

This wasn’t my first accident running, climbing, or cycling, nor was it the last long walk home. A running fall led to a knee injury, a tour of the Dutch emergency medical system, and the near cancellation of my breakout role as a shepherdess in the class nativity play. A bike crash led to metal jabbing into my palm and a tetanus shot. Activities where things might go colorfully sideways were, it seemed, my specialty.

With age, I began to understand that mental or emotional risks could be involuntary and more impactful than gravity. Returning to my passport country, Canada, for example, was far more intimidating than climbing the thin waving  branches of a monkey puzzle. The school year  didn’t sync up with my old year, and in the  middle of the semester when I arrived, the rules  of baseball, music notation, and French grammar  all eluded me.

“J’ai regardé, tu as regardé, il a regardé. Mais  faites attention! Je suis allé, tu es allé, il est allé,  nous sommes allés!”  

Conjugating irregular verbs proved harder  and more tedious than gaining language by  rough immersion and hearing the syllables  clang against your ear. More complex still were  the invisible social rules of my school, which  didn’t follow any rules that I knew. How was I  supposed to know what brands were hot, what  music was cool, and what paper-bag lunches  were either acceptable or gross?  

On afternoons when I left our red brick school,  kicking at piles of red, orange, and yellow leaves  under trees that grew sparse and spindly, so  unlike the tropics, my backpack pressed heavily  onto my shoulders and the walk home felt  longer than the day I fell from the tree. There  were no friends to run for help here: I needed  to make new friends who didn’t mind hanging  with a weird new kid who didn’t know anything  a local was supposed to know.  

Splashing down onto home turf felt uncomfortable, too, in ways I didn’t expect. It  took concentrated effort to uncramp my writing  that jammed pages of foolscap in a thicket of  narrow, illegible sticks.  

I’d spent years in a place where paper was in  short supply and wasting it drew the teachers’  wrath: “This is not the place to indulge your  loops and whorls! That is for the fairground!”  

By contrast, paper forests in my passport  country rolled to the horizon and my classmates’  pens skimmed the page as loose and lazy as  dragonflies.

Moving home turned out to be an extended  lesson in learning, unlearning, sorting through  much of what I’d learned overseas, and stowing  it away in mental boxes high on a disused shelf.  

I developed a new skill to navigate the  natural hazards lurking in the social hierarchy  of my school. Falling from a tree hurt, but  tumbling from the heights of complex social  structures could injure worse. Like many TCKs,  I understood to avoid mentioning my years  abroad or risk being tagged as weird, strange,  or suspiciously foreign and best kept at arm’s  length. In some instances, it could prompt my  classmates to recoil like a chorus of hissing  mambas.  

“OMG! You lived in one of those poverty  countries!”  

More than one, but I left that out. It was  impossible to explain vast swaths of the world  to classmates with hazy impressions of many  places all squeezed together and only glimpsed  in news clips of chaos and disaster.  

Other natural hazards proved harder to  sidestep. One year, our teacher asked an artistic classmate to draw logos for us to use  as signatures on poems we would all write and  illustrate. My classmates’ logos highlighted their  personalities. The artistic classmate beamed as  she presented mine and I smiled back.  

“This one means the color black,” she said,  “because that’s what I think about when I think  of you.”  

My classmate and I had sat in the same class for  over a year and toasted gooey marshmallows  at a birthday sleepover where the burned sugar  made me think of sweet smoke and burning  grass. Our friend’s sleepover was how I knew  how loud she snored. Yet in my classmate’s eyes,  I was known solely by color and was supposed  to feel complimented by it.  

That day, the walk home smelled of damp leaves  and rotting snow.  

My classmate wasn’t the only adult or child to  express ideas like hers, along with a universe of  incorrect assumptions that went with it. TCKs  are adept shapeshifters and code-switchers but  there was no shifting or adapting to such narrow  boxes, which held a destructive, limiting impact  that seeped inside.  

When I submitted my poem, the teacher wrote,  “You didn’t include a logo. -2 marks. Take care to  complete your work.”  

I couldn’t begin to explain it to the teacher.  Like falling from a tree, the risk stung but it was  worth a silent protest to remain, even if only to  myself, a full person in three dimensions.  

My home country became more cosmopolitan  over time and the world reopened at university  in an international residence. Most of the  students there were international or locals  whose lives had crossed cultural boundaries  in some way. In the icy dark, we tobogganed  on plastic cafeteria trays down steep hills and laughed and debated late at night. It was  serendipitous risk-taking and one of the best  decisions of my life.  

After graduation, I bought a plane ticket and  went to work in the lands of monkey puzzles,  hoopoes, and other places. Airplane seats and  rolling wheels held a deep and comfortable  familiarity, down to the salty meals with foil lids.  No longer a young TCK with a tiny backpack, I  was a different person, and, in the time since,  shifting demographics had washed some  international influence over my home country. I  buckled my seatbelt, pushed back into the seat,  and inched onto a new branch.  

I had no idea if the tree I was climbing in this  new chapter had lush foliage, broad branches  or smooth bark, nor how far up I could go. I  did know that if I fell, many long walks in many  places had taught me how to find a way home. 

N. Bhyat is a TCK who lives in Canada and grew up in  the Netherlands, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. She has  since worked and studied in parts of Asia, Africa, and  Europe and still has an interest in colorful risks and  cross-pollinating connections.

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