I define myself by where I’m from. Well… that’s not true. I define myself by hundreds of things- where I’m from, who I’m reading, what I’m watching, who I think I am, who my friends think I am, who my friends are, how Spider-Man is doing at that particular moment, what the last grades I got were, who strangers think I am, my body weight, my current hair status, where I went to college, even whether or not I’m currently bespectacled (I’m a bit weird). But where I’m from is a huge part of that. I’m very international, I’ve lived in California (where I was born), Hertfordshire (like the Bennets), Minnesota (the Midwest is great and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise), and now Charlottesville. But the place that means the most to me, even if it is not even the place I like the most, is The Gambia, West Africa.
Sad confession: I have not been there since 2008.
Fantastic confession: I’m going back there in less than two weeks.
Weird confession: I’m actually really nervous to be heading back.
What does it mean to call a place your home?I grew up in The Gambia… but I was not a happy teenager (I wasn’t unhappy exactly; I was just somewhat indifferent). I had maybe three friends most of my time there, and branched out (apprehensively) my last year, but still do not think I made many friends. A “friend” (very oddly and callously) wrote in my yearbook when I asked for a message to give my new friends, “Well, I hope you make some.” Ouch.
But that is one of the problems with going back. Like a lot of us, I was a different person from 7-15 than I am now. I last visited The Gambia when I was 18, barely saw anyone my own age, and lay on the couch, boring my family (probably, though they pretend they are glad to have me around). So how will going back treat me now, when I’m ostensibly wiser, ostensibly less insecure and introverted, and unarguably older and freakishly taller? Well one answer to that question is that you will find out, since I’ll write about it. But before I go back, I’m trying to figure out how to prepare myself.
How do you deal with an extended family that does not know the current you? I’m still considered the worst dancer in my family, and people mockingly/lovingly ask me where my book is whenever I’m at big family functions (I was a huge bookworm). This is funny… kind of. But it makes me feel trapped in an identity that I have not exactly shed, but that is not who I am now. I feel obligated to be more introverted, to read books (ew, anything but that), and worst of all, to regress. There is no one like your family for making you feel like you have not and cannot change.I definitely become more spoiled, moody, and brattier, around them than around anyone else. So how do I deal with this?
As ever, I asked Charlotte Chapman at the Women’s Center for her advice on this issue, and as ever, she had fantastic input:
One of the ways to manage the return home, is not to take on the entire “family” in terms of trying to be treated differently. Focus on a few important relationships and have individual conversations with those people – for example you can say to your aunts “you may not have noticed but I am in interested in other things now besides just books. Let me tell you about…….” Taking control of the conversation rather than waiting to react, is more productive. Shifting your relationship with one or two people can have an impact on the family dynamics as a whole.
Some other strategies; If you are at a family event, try to imagine how you would act and what you would say if this was a classroom discussion – in other words, channel your very smart and eloquent student self into the conversation. If it is hard for you to hold onto that part of your identity with your family, wear something that will remind you of this. Like your favorite shoes you wear to class or a UVA Women’s Center t-shirt (note from Lingerr: Wow! A Woman’s Center t-shirt? That sounds like a great and affordable holiday gift!). That should enliven the discussion!
If visualization or writing works for you, then you can try visualizing ahead of time how you would like this visit to look instead of how it has looked –focus on the future rather than the past.
Having a focus like getting your grandmother to tell you more about the family history or being of help to your father with some project can get you out of your normal reactions. Or you could write out your goals for how you want to behave during the visit.
And ta-da! Happy family time!
I was very struck by what Charlotte said about not waiting to react. I had not even considered that I was doing that; waiting for people to treat me as Old Lingerr and getting annoyed about it. Instead, I should do what what I do with my unfortunate friends here, and overwhelm people with New Lingerr, and all of her thoughts and emotions about everything under the sun.
I’m deeply, deeply excited to go home. It is strange to define yourself by a place you have not been to in almost half a decade (I’m. So. Old), and the culture that I know, even when I do not like it, is waiting to envelop me again. I am more excited than I can describe to see my house. Have you ever thought about how much we can take our houses for granted? I do not have a “room” anywhere in the world except Charlottesville. My house in Gambia, even though it barely has any of my possessions in it, is one of the few physical spaces in which I can permanently situate my life and memories, since for some weird reason you have to leave college. If anything, I’m more interested than apprehensive. I want to see Current Lingerr duke it out with Past Lingerr in some kind of epic battle for identity dominance.
Bottom line: I’m not the worst dancer in my family! But also, we can only be the people we are if our families give us that space; and if they do not, we might just have to seize it. Next time you hear from me, I’ll be in West Africa Happy Holidays!
- Lingerr Senghor