by Anonymous ’18. Art by Tina Wang ’19.
It is the last day of the year. I wake up to my mother’s smile. “I love you, Mom,” I say, in part because I’m inspired—seeing her face this early in the morning is rare, reserved only for the short breaks between semesters, and plus, it’s the last day of the year—in part because it’s true. In that moment the look she gives me warrants my affection immediately.
The little wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, which she hates and wants to get rid of with Botox implants, are more prominent alongside her smile. I take note of them, the flaps in the skin, because they’re familiar and comforting and a removal of them, Mother doesn’t know, would make her facial muscles rigid. Her expressions would be made less malleable, less sensitive to the subtle inflections in the faces of others. The Botox implants would reduce her mirroring abilities. It strikes me as awfully reductionist that on a cognitive level this would make her—Mother who has seen it all across five different countries—less understanding.
Our conversation today takes place somewhere between truth and fiction, sleep and consciousness. Amidst the bed sheets it is shrouded in the privacy shared between a mother and child, except that I’m a child no longer. In the morning, unaware of the approaching New Year, I am still young and dependent. That, at least, is what I feel now—and maybe it’s because the year is ending, or the fact that Mother is there. More probable is a source found within, a single layer beneath the clouds of accessible thought, requiring introspection. I say this, then—that I am no longer a child—knowing it and unknowing it simultaneously.
Many of the thoughts that float through my mind, especially that morning as I am vulnerable to change, remain unread to my own eyes. This is a time in which I believe I know myself, making do with the incongruent pieces of a nomadic life, before I come to understand that I’m a little more complicated than that.
“I had dinner with Rita last night,” Mother says, and I let my guard down, giving in to this trivial twist, people and events. Rita works in education—particularly in the search for scholarships for international students. This makes her, in my eyes, a goddess.
“She did say you wouldn’t be able to use the degree to work in Brazil.” Mom tells me. She sits up slightly. “I told her you probably weren’t interested in that, anyway.”
Her comment strikes me as true: to work in Brazil is, the way I see it, a dusty alternative sitting on a shelf in the library of my mind. But Mother couldn’t possibly know that—not in the same, visual manner I’ve come to understand my feelings. Channeling what I feel through that image has somehow tamed my sentiments, condensing separation, longing, sadness, loss, disorientation, saudades into what otherwise appears to be a place, an object and cold understanding. If Mother could know any of this, could peek, for instance, into my head, then surely she would react differently…
I look at her in the dim lighting: two streams of light that enter through the corners of the window. They are shards glowing in the semi-darkness, illuminating the soft curvatures of my mother’s face. The light seems to beckon to me as if encouraging me to look more closely at her, as if it is telling me a secret.
Then it dawns on me: she is not talking about place or belonging, neither is she questioning my choice. She does not expect me to decide now. Not everything I do or say or hear is framed by this isolated narrative of my past. She is only talking about the degree.
I breathe and say, “Mom, I do want to become a psychologist.” The words feel heavy in my mouth, like blocks of wood a toddler might stack. I want to spit them out, the blocks, but I fear Mom might throw them back in my face, that she might laugh, that I might—“I think I want to practice psychology, Mom, or research it, or…” I stop.
Talking too extensively, and in too great detail of what I hope to achieve, launches me into internal monologues that dip and rise with half-hearted convictions of doubt. I know this because it has happened before—several times, and without mercy, for this is the internal mindscape of the university student, coddled in a competitive bubble that bursts precisely after four years, and Mother knows it, too, though for her it is only a distant truth, like that of a fictional character. “I’d want to apply the degree towards education, maybe as a professor…”
“The only reason I’d say you’re right,” I conclude, “is because I wouldn’t want to use the degree in Brazil.” My eyes shift. “I couldn’t,” I say out loud.
It’s a language thing, Ma, I want to add: it would be hard for me to learn things in English and then to apply them in Portuguese. I wouldn’t be able to connect with people as deeply, because my thought processes in English are inherently different, more sophisticated, nuanced. Sensitive. They’ve adapted to the academic environment. My Portuguese exists only in the household, or on the streets or the beach or the mall when we’re in Brazil itself. It’s a beautiful language, Ma, I know that, I hear it in music and I feel closest to home right then and there, but it isn’t the same on my tongue, on the roof of my mouth. It’s rougher, Ma, like it knows. Like it knows that I’m foreign, Ma, and that I’ve left it behind. I’ve never written in Portuguese if not for class. I’ve never chosen it for myself.
But even if I were to say these things… I wouldn’t be able to say them in English.
There’s no way out of it. Even if in some alternate universe we were both comfortable in our shared mother tongue, even then the angst would be unrelieved. Mother and child: comfortable conversing with one another in the same language. Wouldn’t it be absurd? But the distance between us is greater than our respective international experiences. It pertains, perhaps, to something generational, or the fact that she is extroverted and I am not…
The alternatives to our separation are character traits, innate and somewhat unchanging, while the question of our preference of language, culture, environment, opportunity and everything inevitably linked to them is a matter of choice and development. Being separated by biology is somehow more bearable than being separated by experience, because we have no control over the former.
We are two individuals, two separate minds. It’s the distance of her respective consciousness from my own that accounts for our misunderstandings…
Mother looks back at me blankly.
“What did you think I wanted the degree for?” I say.
“I thought,” she starts, and she lets this linger. Mother knows that I write. Embarrassment swims in her irises, as if half of her knows her imminent response is silly and half of her believes it entirely—I, for one, believe that halves in themselves can be whole.
She says, “I thought you only wanted to study psychology so that you could… understand your, um—so that you could understand your characters better.”
For a moment we are quiet. Then, seeing my expression, she laughs.
Does this release stem from humor? Discomfort? Relief—
Perhaps the misunderstanding between us lies in the fact that I’m her daughter, and she will never see me any differently. An academic degree, to her, is only an extension of what I did as a kid. Mother sees my pursuit of education and sensitivity to another’s inner workings as a pursuit of refining my stories. Not to connect with real people but to create ones who do not exist.
I am cast in peat, preserved in the image of her mind’s eye. She doesn’t question the possibility of ulterior motivations—an understanding of the many selves that individually float through this life, some more grounded than others. I—with no roots, am in between them all. I conglomerate with one Self here, another there, and this is why: I must plunge into the worlds of others because my own is already so inextricable of theirs, so dependent upon the truths of others. All that has been mine has been temporary, and more blatantly so than to others, others with an unchanging clock and familiar weather patterns and faces and a yard! A back yard, and Home.
And if I am cast in peat to her then somehow, academically, intellectually, Mother and I will never relate.
We lie side by side and look at each other. My studies in psychology lead me to hope that this simple eye contact should be enough to ground us in familial love. But the words exchanged between us are symbols neither can decipher.
We say nothing for to draw attention to this disconnect would perhaps expand the chasm further. To look at each other is to form a secure bond and this, this bond between my Mother and I is the most stable thing I have had in my life. And yet in all the roads that I have traveled, through the winds and the rivers and the skies I have roamed, I see there is distance, so much distance, between the two of us.
Mother works in diplomacy. Sometimes I feel it is the greatest determinant of my life: the reason I am what I am, the reason I am nothing else. Diplomacy, in its negotiations, has taken the course of my life in its hands and done with it what it has wanted. Diplomacy, in its supposed gentility, is in fact a force that acts without much consideration for its dependents, shrouded in claims of negotiation that are, in fact, actions already determined. Diplomacy is little more than a network of paths formed and cast in iron before a single sorry soul has stumbled upon it. Diplomacy claims to be flexible and versatile, unpredictable—it is none of these things.
She asks me a question as we lie in bed, and I wonder why we continue to lie there. Outside is the final day of the year and yet we linger as if we have all the time in the world. But she is Mother, and so I stay, and if she were to leave then I’d go with her.
“What about diplomacy, honey?” She readjusts her pillow. Fluffs it up, makes it look nice, I guess, though the room is relatively dark and nobody will see it. “Wouldn’t you want to do that?”
“No,” I say, and I allow myself zero hesitation.
She laughs at once, then stops.
My mother then says—quietly, because she is a Diplomat, “Why not?”
Because, I want to say: Mother, I’ve changed. Because I have been the bird and this, my nest, and you, a chewing jaw spewing ready worms into my baby-mouth, and I have to give myself a chance. I have to believe I might live a dream as I walk in the waking day.
(But, I realize, I say this with ease only in the early hours of morning, only as my voice continues to exist in the confines of my mind, only while the house is asleep and the curtains remain drawn to the creaking light of exposure. Only while I am safe in the present, when I am only nineteen and the prospect of moving into the Real World is only a prospect.)
“Because I only ever wanted it for its benefits, Mom, the lifestyle,” is what comes across to her. I only wanted Diplomacy because it was comfortable, the incongruent self having become the norm once enough time had passed. Once being on the move had become my way of rest, and staying far too long in one place was mentally exhausting, I could go anywhere, anywhere, because to stay would be a buffer to creativity, a dulling of the senses. In schools where every other kid was a child of Diplomacy, leaving people behind was the alternative of being left, in turn, by them. It was healthy, maybe even necessary.
But what I say is: “I never wanted to put in the work. It doesn’t really interest me.”
“What?” she asks. I don’t know if I’m too quiet or if she doesn’t understand—likely, she hopes she has misheard.
“I never wanted to put in the work,” I repeat. My voice is louder, bold. This small change makes me prouder of myself than I’ve been all year.
It is the last day of the year.
“But why?” Mother asks.
She once told me that to ask why something was true was intrusive, especially when related to something personal. Asking why prompted a person to try and explain something intangible in concrete terms. It was a discomfort of the mind, the attempt to reconcile feeling and thought. More accommodating, Mother explained, was to ask how someone had arrived at a particular conclusion.
This is what my mother had taught me.
I know that she doesn’t understand. She has nurtured, sheltered, protected; restricted, reared and stifled.
Mother has taken me across the world in hundreds of planes, to remote islands on boats and cars and trains and buggies and with her words and decisions, the brutal announcements of we’re moving. And I always think of it in that way, in English, because in English it sounds truthful, can be interpreted to occur either in the future or in the present. With Diplomacy you must be prepared: now, later, always. Even while at college, miles away from my mother, I sometimes anticipate this announcement. I know, it’s silly: I’m on my own now. But even so, I expect it will come, a phantom pain, reaching out to me from across the ocean.
“It just isn’t for me,” I repeat, because I can’t be any clearer. I can’t explain what’s based on instinct, not without distress or irrelevant explanations. I don’t know anybody who can.
“Don’t you know?” I pause to look at her. I really look at her; so attentively that her outline blurs itself out right before my eyes until she is a blob of color upon the bed sheets. This is how she looks in my mind’s eye, when I think of childhood: a blob, ever present, and I cannot recognize her for the distance that Memory wedges between us, Past Her, Present Me, one creating the other, but not anymore.
“Don’t you know, Mother, when you just have to do something? When you’re certain?”
Mother’s eyes recede. They blink, focus elsewhere, and somehow she is gone, she is no longer sitting here, though I clasp her hand in my right palm. “I know, sweetie,” she says. “I know.”
We linger for a moment, and the sheets are tangled up with our legs, until the questions start to loop again, the cold-toed words of self-inflicted doubt; they segregate me from those around me relatively often and they, now, not the creativity of my childhood, are what keep me in bouts of silent reflection.
“But—Mom,” I say, “sometimes… Sometimes when I think about maybe,” I pause; should I say it? I do—“Maybe living permanently abroad, I feel like…” I sigh. “Like maybe I’m betraying Brazil.”
“Are you kidding?” Her response is immediate, because it has to be. “You wouldn’t be betraying anybody. You would be helping. You would be helping Brazil.”
How? I want to ask, and I think I say it, too: I think I demand a response from her. I myself don’t believe it’s true, not in that moment, but it becomes clear to me, again, how important it is that someone I care about believe it, no—that precisely my mother believe it.
One thing people seem to have in common—over various nations, and cross-culturally—is the desire to please their parents, and to make them proud.
“You would be representing the nation,” she says slowly—and I know she’s carefully choosing her words. My resentment and adoration towards her are thus two halves of the person I am: thankful for her caution, though aware, embarrassed, of my need for it.
My eyes run over the darkness of the room.
“Look,” she says at last. “You are a citizen of the world. You are Brazilian and you are Italian and your responsibility lies not in your country…” (For you do not have one, she might have added.) “But in your world. And you only have to do the best that you can, wherever you can.”
That is how I used to think, it occurs to me. That is how I want to think.
“I wouldn’t be able to do all of it in Portuguese, anyway,” I say into the silence. Not because I’m not fluent in the language, but because the fluency, though present, sometimes eludes me, appears distant, as if it is a farce that anybody might point out.
This, I know, is true only in my head—but it is not so much what is real than what I believe to be that matters.
I occupy my mind with sightings of my future as I hope to see it in actuality. I think about these visions often, and always in private, turning them over in my mind’s eye like pale pink pearls of the imagination, willing them into reality.
Sometimes I think about how easy it would be, to have a single and distinct sense of identity. My mother thinks of me as a writer. She often assumes almost everything I do is directed towards that goal. But understanding oneself, and crafting the history of the self, is an act of writing, too. Perhaps that is the internal challenge of my life, or part of it: writing my own story, putting the pieces together, for they are so fragmented and separate and foreign that they shimmer in memory, nothing more than a haze of events and people and new experiences.
If I am a writer then I should be able to frame my experiences with care and then, with a tight rope of cohesion, link them all. How easy it would be, to know who I’ve been. Too easy, I think.
But then I must consider: this, an obstacle? The fact that I’ve seen the world and lived amongst the cultures of others, that I’ve been challenged to take on perspectives entirely distinct from mine? That the beautiful opportunities handed to me by birth and Diplomacy be considered challenges seems, to me, ungrateful. The plot twist of my narrative itself is simple, and yet, I can’t seem to understand it entirely as that. I must find fault. I must see the unlikely truth of things, privy to me only with time and retrospect, the fact that all of this, while giving me so much, has also taken.
I think, at my core, what I most want to believe is that a sense of place doesn’t really matter; that nationality, culture, and home are irrelevant, because ultimately we are all human, ultimately the world is planet Earth and not its individual countries, or cities or towns or states. But I also think that in reality, all of this is insufficient. I think these concepts do matter, on the level of narration, identity—on the level of internal harmony. Because I can’t ignore that in attempting to overcome this obstacle (this blessing), in attempting to move abroad if only to feel more Brazilian amongst what is not, by sheer comparison…
It is the last day of the year and in my confessions to my mother it feels like I am making a choice. It feels like I am, at last, in charge of where I’m going, in charge of doing what is right for whom I think I’d like to be.
But it also feels like stepping away from something. A nation, a people. Like closing the book, and turning my back.