Written by Maria Sailale
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.

I can almost always tell when someone is East African. Something about the harmony of their features, the slope of their forehead, and years of staring into my mother’s, father’s, and sibling’s faces gives it away. I grew up seeking solace in wide, sloping foreheads and high cheekbones- features that made me feel like I had something to return to. 

Then and now, I wear this knowledge loosely around my neck. When I feel wistful about a version of myself I could’ve become had I grown up in my parents’ first home, I give it a tug here, a twist there. Other knowledge, like the first-grade level Swahili I came to the US with and retained from eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations, I wrap around my shoulders. When I feel it slipping away, I download Duolingo to review vocabulary and pull it tighter against my skin. 

We children of immigrants all have our rituals. We have shed so many skins in America, but our feet do not quite cave to this soil. For all our “gonnas”(in place of going to) and ease with which we over-consume, we resist fully assimilating and keep ourselves suspended just-so. It is not that our feet don’t reach for something solid and permanent, it is merely against our nature to mold to a single cultural identity. 

So, clumsily at first, we struggle to find footing where the ground constantly shifts underneath us. We lean against our Americanisms—which we don’t identify as such until our parents promptly and passively inform us of them—or support. I would ask to go to sleepovers when I was younger and they would remind me that I already have a home. One they don’t keep and maintain just so I can sleep under someone else’s roof. Or I would wear presumably revealing clothing and they would tease that I wouldn’t have gotten away with it had I grown up “back home.” 

Slowly, however, we grow accustomed to the dizziness that comes with drifting between worlds. We learn not to limit our concept of home to a single place, community, or culture. We find a sense of belonging both in the folds of our ethnic backgrounds and the camaraderie of shared experiences with other immigrant children. We begin to taste sweetness instead of bitterness and this becomes enough.

Now, what I remember most from my childhood are my parents’ bewildered brown eyes that fell upon my siblings and I with a little pride and a little fear. We were theirs, but unfamiliar to what they knew all the same. We gazed back with bewilderment too— at their idiosyncrasies and reservations— because the soles of their feet still held the shape of their first home and we could not imagine planting ourselves so firmly in anything. But, whenever I tire of drifting and am in search of somewhere to rest my feet, I am reminded that the landscape of my wide, sloping forehead feels like home to someone too. 

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