In Search of Home  by Coai Cruz Rios

In Search of Home

by Coai Cruz Rios

‘Hey there, you brown bitch!’
Juvenile laughter sprung out of the car as it screeched away, just after screeching to a halt so the passenger could heckle some unsuspecting person walking along the road. For a moment I wondered who the words were directed at and began to feel sorry for whomever the faceless youths had verbally assaulted. I looked around to see who it was. But there was nobody: just wet empty streets slumbering in another drizzly grey Yorkshire night.
The pain of being insulted is one thing, but to experience that momentary lapse between the time it happens and the time you realize that you were the victim leads to a feeling of utter helplessness and acute shame. They had been talking to me—I was the “brown bitch.” I had thought the heavy grocery bags I was carrying half a mile back to my dormitory were my only problem, but now the heaviness had been transferred to my suddenly so self-aware body, my brown body.
I felt as powerless as a bullied child. I felt the same way I did in elementary school when teased for my weight. On rushed memories of me faking one of many stomach viruses so my sceptical mother would let me stay home, away from the abuse. I thought of how I would sit in bed, hoping this time I could trick my body into losing weight due to the feigned illness. As I stood there alone in the cold light rain, the cruel words reverberating in my mind, all I could think was that I just wanted to go home.
But that was impossible. I could go back to my dormitory, but not home. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, an island commonwealth that is considered part of the United States, although very much its own entity. Regarding our ancestry, our knowledge is vague, or at the very least indifferent. That is, while we know ourselves to
be a mix of African, Anglo Saxon, and indigenous blood, hardly any Puerto Rican cares to know his or her bloodline the way Europeans do. We just think of ourselves as Puerto Ricans, nothing more. On the island, the concept of skin colour hardly exists. The vast majority of Puerto Ricans are so heterogeneous that it is almost comical to think of the small island’s inhabitants in terms of race or ethnicity.
Two and a half years ago, I left my tropical island home to do a PhD in Women’s Studies at the University of York. As my husband is completing his studies back on the island, I came alone. Nonetheless, I was very excited to come to Europe and leave my third world home behind. I could not get a job with my Master’s in Women’s Studies in a machista1 society, let alone be treated as an equal to men. But things would change in England, I thought. I would be exposed to the limitless European mind so open to new ideas and new expressions of selfhood. I would be surrounded by the English, Arabs, Indians, Asians, Africans, and hundreds of other people of multiple races and ethnicities. I imagined my new island home as even more diverse than the United States, or at the very least much more accepting of—no, proud of—its diversity. But my lofty expectations were to come crashing down. And this occurred long before being verbally assaulted for the colour of my skin.
I was sure that even if my expectations were a little too high, there was no way England could be as bad as the island. England was one of the few places in the world with a Women’s Studies PhD Degree for a reason, I thought. But my hopes were quickly dashed in the very first store I entered in North Yorkshire. There were only a handful of other patrons in the store, all locals. I was a bit surprised that they all seemed either too deep in thought to notice me or intent on keeping their eyes glued to the floor out of fear of making eye contact with anyone. As I passed a middle-aged woman, I smiled at her, but she maintained her attention elsewhere. I did not think too much of it and just picked up a few soups and a couple of cold medications and went to the front counter. It was there that I spotted a very peculiar candy bar.
Yorkie: It’s not for girls, it read. Great, I thought. I came here to study feminist theory in a supposedly liberated town and I find out even its candy bar is sexist. At least it was not racist, though. But the cashier was.
‘You can’t buy both of those,’ she said in a thick accent that I had to really focus on to understand.
‘The soups?’ I asked, confused.
‘No,’ she scoffed, ‘those medicines. We have the right not to sell you ‘em both. I know gals like you,’ she said, waving her hand in front of her face to indicate my colour. ‘I know what you use ‘em for.’
‘But I am very sick,’ I said. ‘You see, where I come from the weather is always so hot and I have never experienced cold like this and I am very sick.’
‘I can tell a liar and I know exactly what you’re plannin’ on usin’ those for. I actually can’t sell you either of them, now that I think about it. And that’s my right.’
Caught entirely off-guard, I did not know what to say. I was about to leave, but then I thought about the stupid candy bar and the people who would not look at me and asked for the manager. After a long wait, he came out from the back, gave me one look, and I already knew by his expression what his response would be. I was abruptly told that I was undoubtedly in the wrong, and he regarded his defiant employee almost proudly, as if she had just engendered a newfound respect in him. I felt on the verge of tears and about as worthless as that stupid candy bar claimed I was, and left the store, afraid to submit to the peculiar instinct to look back at them. I imagined them watching me leave, smirking and nodding their heads triumphantly.
From thereon out, my experiences with the Yorkshire English were more of the same. In Puerto Rico, we greet one another with kisses and hugs. While I am aware that Anglo Saxons differ, I at least expected the English to be able to connect emotionally. But I quickly realized that was not the case and that the only thing in England colder than the North Yorkshire winter is its people. It is as if the constant overcast always has them on edge, always expecting something bad to happen, thereby leaving them unconcerned with trivial matters like intimacy and friendship. They are far from eager to
express their emotions, let along dare to talk about them. They seem born retired from the pursuit of human connection, of something beyond themselves.
I began to long for the overly friendly inhabitants of Puerto Rico, its nickname ‘the island of enchantment’. Is it the eternally clear blue sky that makes them so outgoing and affectionate? Could weather have that much of an effect on people? Are people so weak that their entire being can be controlled by the weather?
But to definitively say the English are devoid of expressing their emotions would be a gross misstatement. In fact they can, but only when drink is involved. I could name a handful of English acquaintances of mine who would pass me in the street without looking twice in my direction but would consider me one of their closest friends after having downed a few pints. One night I was in a local pub eating with a friend, and an English classmate of mine approached me, stumbling gait and drunken grin.
‘Coaí,’ she slurred slowly, accenting each vowel. ‘How are you? So nice to see you!’
She proceeded to tell me that she had always wanted to approach me and get to know me, but that she had been terrified by the prospect. ‘I just needed a pint or two,’ she said, ‘and then I’d have no problem tellin’ ya.’ We invited her to join us at our table and spent awhile there, chatting about a handful of things—including taboo subjects like feelings and emotions—and had a really wonderful time. Of course, the next time I saw her she was sober and acted as if I were just another person who, while no longer faceless, was certainly still a stranger. The only difference was now when she averted her gaze from me there was not only mistrust but also a hint of shame.
The overall frigidness of England I could handle. However, as someone who came here hoping that terms like ‘gender equality’ and ‘feminism’ would not be met with a shudder, I was met with greater disappointments. With regards to gender disparity, the town’s silly sexist candy bar was the least of my worries. No matter the race, women here are still ‘bitches’. Brown, White, Black: ultimately it does not matter. This past year, the student body of the University of York tried to disband the Women’s Society even though the majority of its students are female. Moreover, to get a sense of
the self-worth of Yorkshire’s females, you need only look outside the window in the frigid winter and it will only be a moment before you spot a young woman dressed in the equivalent of a bra and panties. Last, but certainly not least, there is no established support system for students who are sexually assaulted. If raped, you are conflicted with the indescribable burden of keeping it a secret or seeking out help from a non-professional, such as the Welfare Officer of your Accommodation (a fellow student). And rather than working diligently to fight these outrages, it seemed like my Women’s Studies classmates were much more interested in pointing out my fluctuations in weight or criticizing my clothing.
As for the foreign students, they failed to provide me with any solace, any light at the end of the tunnel. They too had been swallowed up in the storm cloud of self-loathing and isolation and spent the majority of their time exhausting their efforts trying to blend in with the English, hoping that by wearing similar clothing and attempting to simulate the English accent that the locals would suddenly forget—or forgive them for—the colour of their skin. I was downright disgusted to find that within a year of living in the United Kingdom, so many foreign students had ceased to use their birth name, introducing themselves to me with a poorly enunciated, bastardized, Westernized name.
Needless to say, with each day in England I grew homesick and my tropical paradise home and its people became almost mythical to me—as if they must have only existed in a dream I had outside the space and time of my solitude. I longed for the sun, the blue skies, and the various mouth-watering fruits that should never be imported so as not to ruin their perfection. But most of all I missed the people. I missed their openness terribly: after a handful of seconds, most strangers would act as if they knew you forever. No subject—not even the regularity (or irregularity) of their bowel movements—was taboo. Everyone on the island was family. Before arriving to England, I was so ashamed of my country. I was ashamed that we are still a U.S. colony; that we wake up not to our own alarm clocks but rather to a neighbour’s blasting radio; and that it is viewed as a sin if a wife is too busy taking care of the children to make her husband
a meal on-demand. But I was ready to brush these things aside. I just wanted to go home.
After nearly a year in England and the most parsimonious saving, I had enough money to go back during Summer Break. I was unspeakably happy seeing my husband, whose face I had all but forgotten, waiting anxiously for me at the airport. With him were my mother and grandmother, who both looked so much older, weaker. After embracing them all and crying with them, we headed home. That is when I felt the first signs of a growing pit in my stomach: everything looked beautiful—the sky, the mango trees, the long stretch of mountains—and yet it was all so very foreign to me. Numerous times on the ride home I asked my family, ‘Was that there when I was here? Is that what that is really supposed to look like?’ Confused, they asked, ‘Has it really been that long? You really don’t remember?’ I did remember. And it hadn’t been that long. But everything felt apart from me.
On the island we believe in intuition. We are superstitious and even if our gut is telling us something irrational, we invariably trust it. I believe that upon leaving the airport, somewhere inside I already knew that things would be different—that that which I so yearned for would reveal itself distorted by memories; and that all of the reasons I left would rear their ugly heads in a greater fury, as if they had to work harder since I would only be back a few weeks.
My ideas of home brought forth by nostalgia were nothing but lies, for there is no sweeter liar than nostalgia. I was perpetually reminded me why I left in the first place, why I fled half-way across the world without a second thought. I hated the island. Everyone lives in poverty, there are no jobs, and women are second-class citizens. And the people: the islanders I missed so much now seemed so loud, in-your-face, and nosy that I actually found part of me missing the unwavering aloofness of the English. I remembered now that I did not have much of a home before England. I had grown tired of and fed up with the tropical paradise of my childhood.
I spent the next couple of weeks in a geographical purgatory. Very few of my friends were able to see me, and only for a short while, as all of their time was occupied
working multiple jobs that paid below minimum wage in order to support their children. And the relationship with my mother and grandmother seemed irreparably damaged. Every little interaction with them now had an air of underlying suspicion, as if they could no longer trust someone who had abandoned them, had abandoned her home. Eventually, a few days before my return to England, my husband confessed to me that he was terribly depressed. It was becoming impossible for him to maintain focus on his studies so as not to spend each day numb and longing for me, for our past. And he, too, had grown to hate Puerto Rico. He, too, no longer comprehended the idea of home.
I left confused and hurt by the past’s incomparable ability to distort the truth. It became too difficult for my husband living there without me, so after a few months he took a break from University to visit me in England for two weeks. He was immediately astounded by York’s medieval beauty. He was shocked that I had not told him how otherworldly it was, as if frozen in the glory of a greater time. One of the first things I noticed was how much nicer the English were to him. For the first time I became acutely aware of how milky his skin looked without a relentless sun. He almost looked White. In fact, he is a rarity for a Puerto Rican in that he has no African blood and is just a mixture of Anglo Saxon and indigenous descent. But that was just something nobody ever paid attention to on the island. However, in England, it was different. For a couple of weeks, my husband was White, and I was Brown. Those weeks went by rapidly, the solemn English weather constantly reminding me of the fact that his stay would be short and soon turn into a hazy memory that seemed but a dream. Then it was time for him to leave, time for all my resentment toward everything English to come back to the forefront.
It was of course a grey, cloudy, drizzly day when we said our goodbyes.
England is so perfectly dreary for departures: there are no ironic goodbyes in England, and the hellos are full of foreboding.
It has been over a year since I saw my husband last, since I returned to my country. Nothing beyond my control has changed: neither the weather, nor the people. I suppose the only difference is that I have grown accustomed to feeling alone. When
heckled from a speeding car and pelted with snowballs by children whose parents look the other way, I no longer feel that childlike helplessness. I know I will not be here that much longer, although it will likely feel like forever. And besides, humans can get used to anything, and I suppose being discriminated against for my colour, my ethnicity, and my gender no longer faze me. It should, but sadly I am as numb to it as my body is to the cold, which I actually think I’m finally getting used to, too.
It took me 30 years to feel comfortable in my own skin. I refuse to change my American English influenced accent; I refuse to greet people without displaying affection. I understand that due to my resistance to assimilate, or more so to suppress my personality, my being, I’m paying the ultimate price of isolation. Nonetheless, whether it be in England, or back in Puerto Rico, feeling comfortable with who I am and comfortable with where I am are two entirely different things.
At this point in time, I try to define home differently. I tell myself that home is where my passions are, my passions to share messages of equality and understanding. Home is my husband and the few who love and support me unwaveringly. Later this year, when my husband and I are both finally done with our studies, both finally together for good, hopefully we will be able to find somewhere, something, to call home. But my gut tells me that home is likely a place that time will never return to me.

This story was shortlisted for the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts International Student Short Story Competition 2012.

A report on all of the entries by International Student Marleen van Os can be read here.