I wrote the following piece for The Black Expat (http://www.theblackexpat.com). This is perhaps the most personal writing I’ve written to date and I have to say it made me feel quite vulnerable revealing so much of myself. In the end though, writing this proved to be quite cathartic and revelatory, and I realized that this journey was extremely influential in shaping me and my future.
I moved to Scotland from Malawi as a baby when my father was accepted into a university in Glasgow. While my childhood was predominantly Scottish, my parents provided me and my sisters with scattered Malawian cultural knowledge. Admittedly my understanding of what it meant to be Malawian at the time was limited to eating different foods than classmates and speaking Chichewa at home while most of my friends were monolingual.
Throughout my childhood, there continued to be a disconnect between my Malawian household and my Scottish surroundings. I noticed early on that my parents were stricter than other Scottish parents and that I had to call my parents’ friends “auntie” and “uncle”, even if we were not related. Travel patterns in my household were also different from those around us; the few overseas trips we took were always to visit family in Malawi. However, in spite of the overt differences that I perceived, I did not experience the same depth of foreignness and homesickness that my parents must have felt.
While I had always held onto certain memories of the few times I’d visited Malawi—good memories of the lake, the food, nature, my family— for all intents and purposes, I was Scottish.
Malawi was a romanticized place, almost mythologized in my mind, a place that I could think of when I needed an escape from the unbelonging I’d begun to experience in Scotland, a feeling which crept in the older and more aware of the world that I became. What I didn’t take into account was that I didn’t truly know what it meant to be African. For that matter, I barely had any idea of what it meant to be black.
When I turned 11, my parents told my sisters and I that we were moving back to Malawi. At this point, I thought my cultural dissonance would align and that my latent identity crisis issues that stemmed from being one of three black children in a predominantly white school in a Scottish town (the other two black children being my sisters) would finally be at an end. I was sad to leave Scotland as I’d experienced all of my conscious life there and I called it home, but I felt that moving to Malawi might be a good thing as finally I’d be surrounded by people who looked like me. I was finally going to be a part of the majority.
My first day back in Malawi was one of the most memorable days of my life. I remember getting off the plane at what was then called Kamuzu International Airport, a reminder that a dictator was still in power, and having a large crowd of relatives there to welcome us, cheering us on from the airport lounge. Beginnings are often exciting and hopeful, and that will always be the most exciting and most hopeful beginning I will ever experience. It was special because we were welcomed back home, welcomed back into the family fold, and I felt protected. But I also fell for what I later realized was a false sense of security (or hope) that just because my surroundings reflected me, I would remain safe and happy.
A new place doesn’t reveal itself to you all at once.
Revelations are gradual and there were layers and layers of discoveries that I had to get through, things I felt I was already supposed to know but didn’t. Once I learned something, another thing surfaced. Language was one of the things that came across prominently and very quickly. I was grateful to my parents for having only spoken to me in Chichewa when I was growing up; at least we weren’t completely lost in the society.
But the Chichewa I was used to was the one spoken in the domestic sphere, often simplified and abbreviated for children who felt more at home in the English language. In fact, when my parents spoke to my sisters and I, we often responded either in English or in a Chichewa-English melange.
Growing up, my Chichewa conversations were often with family members or friends who knew me and my linguistic limits. But now I needed to interact with complete strangers who had no idea who I was or what I was. Even within the family, there was tension when those less sensitive people asked me why I spoke the language oddly.
It’s a strange feeling being at home yet not feeling at home. When you feel like an outsider but you were expecting to be an insider, there is always some confusion involved, and often some disappointment.
If I were a true Malawian, why did I feel like an imposter? I was an outsider who had no choice but to observe and try my best. This was a new environment to me, something others seemed to have forgotten. After all, they had something I didn’t have: the privilege of having been socialized in that place, of knowing exactly what to do and what not to do. I, on the other hand, had the subtle and not so subtle mannerisms of a girl who had been raised elsewhere; you could tell by the way I sat, the way I dressed, the way I occupied space, the way I expressed my emotions. Putting on a mask was the only way I could blend in. I learned a lot by observing, a trait that served me well. I had to navigate this new environment quickly since I wasn’t given much leniency; because I looked like them, I was one of them. I was an invisible immigrant.
In response to this cultural dissonance, I ended up clinging to my Scottish memories, my Scottish life, because that’s where I felt the most secure. I knew more about Scotland than I did about Malawi, and, when it came to Malawi, I had to learn so much from scratch. I ended up finding safety and stability in my faith, in my books, and in my love of music.
Fast forward several years and I’ve graduated from high school and I’m finally more or less comfortable in this new land. I eventually went from having a more or less “Scottish identity” to a, “What am I?” one. While I miss Scotland and still feel Scottish in some ways, particularly through my sense of individualism and my interests, I feel a lot more secure in my Malawian identity. My language skills have gotten better and I’m more knowledgeable about the country. I no longer worry about saying or doing the wrong thing, I feel accepted and am no longer the awkward invisible immigrant.