The light blue envelope was lying on the kitchen table when Anu got home from school. Its edges were worn from the journey. On the front were the words “Aerogramme” in English and Hindi and their name and address in neat, block, capital letters.

The aerogrammes came once a month like clockwork.

“Why doesn’t Thatha just call?” Anu had asked her mother once.

I had returned to my hometown a few months earlier, and was trying to meet new people. Expat life had taken its toll. My relationship to the place I was born was tenuous. But I was doing everything I could to remember that I belonged there. Rediscovering the places that I vaguely remembered from my childhood. Going to parties. Making friends with other natives (we were a dying breed). 

Luanda has the best beaches on the Atlantic coast. Like Lagos, it has the benefit of a bay and an ocean, but the bay's waters are calm; perfect for swimming and boating. 

We spent every Sunday at Chevron's beach house. We'd drive from the house in Miramar down to the dock. Somewhere near the Esso compound in Luanda Sul our driver would call the Whiskeys manning the dock.. It wouldn't be just us, 6 or 7 people would converge on the boat launch at the same time. Lifejackets on, we'd climb into the motorboat that would take us to the part of the Ilha that Chevron had claimed as its own. 

Sunday morning, 8am. Ten of us meet in the parking lot of the guest house. The van pulls up and the driver hops out to open the side door. We duck our heads in and find our seats. It still smells like new plastic. It will probably always smell like new plastic.

Out the gates and up the expressway we go. I try to pay attention to the land whizzing by, but my eyes get drowsy and start to close. Twenty kilometers into the city, we slow to a crawl. The shift in speed jolts me awake. Stop and go. Stop and go. There are honks and shouts. It seems like everyone in the city is out.

As humans we look for people to understand us, to see where we're coming from, to "get it". Having a nomadic childhood or being mixed, can be particularly isolating, especially as mixed TCKs. So many times we just don't talk about our experiences and how we've learned to cope with the world. Which works (sort of) with friends, but not so much with significant others.

Boarding has begun. You look around the airport terminal one last time as the line slowly inches forward. It is as hot and sticky as it was when you first landed here five years ago. The AC has never worked. 

They were talking about where they were skiing during the long weekend. I hung back, looking for a way into the conversation. It had been three months at this school and I was still an outsider.   

"We're going to Heavenly?"

"Why? Northstar's better."

"Also closer."


Fullerton, California, 1988: 

December means Advent calendars and Christmas decorations. Christmas means a tree. We pile into the gray Volvo station wagon. Dad drives.

The sun has already set when we get to the tree farm. Strings of bulbs light the acres of pine trees. Shadows dance around the paths. I am sure at any moment something is going to burst out from behind the branches of that tree. Or that one. But nothing does. I get to choose which tree to bring home. It's very important to choose the right one. It will grace our living room for many weeks ("There are 12 days of Christmas," my mom says to justify why we don't take it down until the middle of January). 

What was left behind was a bag of toys to be donated to the church down the street.

What was left behind was the couch whose pillows we had used as walls of our fortresses.

What was left behind was the jungle gym we had hung from and the blacktop where we learned to ride our bikes.

Many years ago, when I worked for an international NGO, there was briefly talk of sending me to one of our programs in Nigeria. They figured since I'd grown up there I'd be more comfortable than most. Never mind that the program wasn't even close to Lagos. Or that the preferred flights went through Abuja, which I'd never set foot in. Or even that the Nigeria I'd grown up in didn't exist anymore. The country had moved on. 

"Breathe," she says to me.

I let my breath go and breathed deep. I hadn't realized I'd been holding it in. My shoulders were tense. I try to relax them. Ten minutes go by. 

"Samira, breathe," she says again.


"You're not breathing."

There is a go slow on Epe Expressway. This isn't unusual. The traffic has gotten so bad that go slows are common these days, even on the Peninsula. But this time its a weekend, it's not regular rush hours traffic.

Every Saturday my dad goes to one of the local schools and teaches Chemistry to whichever kids want to learn. Sometimes I go with him to watch.  The classroom is always packed solid. Boys crane their necks from the doorway, trying to see my dad and the blackboard. The ones who have gotten their early enough to get a desk have Chemistry textbooks in front of them that they've memorized cover to cover. Ask them for a fact and they'll give you the answer word for word. So my dad goes farther. These concepts they've memorized, how do you apply them.

He looked into my eyes and told me I was amazing. It was approximately the fourth time he'd said that in the short time we'd known each other. A flag went up in my head. When you've spent so much time abroad, you get used to giving up an air of difference that people are both drawn to and put off by. Over and over I'd seen it play out in my relationships. I started out "amazing" and quickly became unreadable and unknowable. The infatuation and mystery would wear off and all that was left would be me, a person who didn't share their life experience and who didn't understand their references. Someone who is only playing at that initial persona.

It had been eleven days since we’d met. Ten since our first date. And six since I’d realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. I sat next to him in the venue. His hand rested on my knee. We listened to the band play and cheered when they finished. I looked over at him. He was watching me. He laced his fingers through mine and cupped my face with his hands.

“I want to be looking at this face for a long time,” he said.

His gaze was deep and intense. It was as if he’d read my thoughts. I nodded.

A new school meant more testing. I hated testing. It's so boring. I had two tests that first week at AIS: Reading and Math. Math was easy. Your answer is either right or wrong. So simple. They put me in High Math. So far so good. Reading was easy too. I just wrote what they asked for. I guess it wasn't enough. Mom was mad.

"Why do you always do the bare minimum that you can get away with," she said to me when the letter came back putting me in low Reading. "You barely answered the question."

We always hope our teachers remember us, and most of the time they recognize our faces even if our name doesn't immediately spring to mind. We want them to remember our intelligence and our accomplishments. We want to make an impression for the good things we did. But we sometimes it's our struggles that they remember most.

When the riots were finally over we were allowed to go to school. The buses left from the guest house. They were grey and white and smelled like new plastic. 

The compound was on the peninsula, 20km out of town. It was as rural as you could get in Lagos. We were connected to the rest of the city by an expressway with occasional roundabouts. The area was slowly being built up. I think the Italian school was out our way. Closer to the city, the Expressway was lined with shanty towns: rows and rows of tiny houses made out of corrugated tin. In the years we lived there the government would bulldoze them every so often, but they always sprung up again. There was no where else to go.

School had just started. But there were riots in the city and we were at home. They told us to stay on the compound until the riots were over. No going into the city. It was so boring.

Our shipment was still on a boat...or in customs...or something. So no games, no books, none of my stuff. Just the other kids in the compound. There were a lot, but I barely knew them. They were barely my friends. And they all knew each other really well. I hated being new. It's the worst. It's like you're the odd man out every time. Like they have their inside jokes and their routines, and you're just trying to catch up.