“Idia, pele, how are you?” My mother says, and I want to tell her that I am tired, and stressed, and that my brain hurts, but I don’t.
“Hi Mommy. I’m fine. Are you busy?”
“No o. Ibo lo wa?” She says, becoming worried, because she senses the tension in my voice. It’s funny how she always seems to know how I am feeling without my having to say a word.
Calling home is what keeps me grounded in a world where I often feel like my feet have just hit the ground seconds before being uprooted once again. It is the pit stop of comfort that breaks up my constant state of cultural and linguistic transition. It is the recharge at the end of the week. A refreshing reminder that I am who I am, and we are who we are, and no explanation is needed.
My family and I have always straddled the ideological border between several cultures. My sisters and I joke that if you asked all of us where we are from, none of us would say the same place. Lagos, Calabar, Ibadan, Dublin, Paris, London, Columbus, Cambridge. These are just a few of the places that we have called home. Yoruba, Efik, French, English. These are just some of the languages that we speak. And we never decide to choose only one, because every single one of them contributes to who we are.
Our last name, Irele, means “we have arrived,” and I don’t think that there could be any other last name that fits us quite so accurately. When people ask us, “Where are you from?” We say, “Good question.” When people ask, “What is your mother tongue?” We say, “Whichever language she chooses to speak.”
Our tongues are fluid. They are not restricted by borders or labels. Our language is not a language, but a compilation of expressions and sayings that only we understand. A not-so-secret code that cannot be completely translated into anything.
I sometimes feel like I know exactly who I am. I switch codes as seamlessly as I slip my U.S. Passport into my purse and take out my Nigerian one at the airport border control. Other times, I feel lost. I feel like no matter how I choose to identify myself to people, I will never quite be telling the truth. Even a simple “I’m a dual citizen” does not seem to tell the whole story. During those times, those brief moments of exasperation and loneliness of the perpetual outsider, a call home is all I need to center my balance.
We sometimes choose to simplify ourselves for the sake of other people’s time and capacity to understand our seemingly complicated collective identity. But wherever we are in the world, all it takes is that familiar soothing voice, that familiar switch of tongues, and it is all clear. There is no word that describes our home, but in that moment, through those wires and cables and telephone channels, we feel it.
“Ça va?” says my Dad. “How is your research going? Ṣe ti finish awọn…chose la? The essay you were working on.”
“The paper is finished.” I tell him, “I handed it in yesterday.”
“Ku ṣe!” he says, and my entire heart fills with pride and relief, and motivation to do even better next time. These are feelings that a simple “good job” just cannot evoke.
I wonder if I will ever feel as though I can call one place my home. Whether I will ever be able to narrow down the options and choose a place where I feel the most like me. I am not sure that I will ever come to a conclusion, but I am sure that home will be wherever I hear my parents’ voices calling me, laughing with me, scolding me, congratulating me on the minor accomplishments of my often hectic life. ‘Kaabọ,’ they will say, ‘you are welcome.’ And just like that, I will be home.
Idia Irele is a senior at Smith College, double-majoring in Government and Spanish. A child of Nigerian expatriates and a citizen of the United States and Nigeria, she hopes to dedicate her life to the promotion of cross-cultural interactions as a pathway to peace. After graduation, she will begin this journey by teaching English in the small country of Andorra as a Fulbright scholar.by