“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy- a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what has once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.” The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri.
You tell lies to taxi drivers all the time instead of trying to explain your attachment to this place. When the conversation takes the inevitable path away from where you are from (Canada! That must be cold!) and how you like the food (tell me your favourite Colombian dish), to why you are here (and your Colombian husband, implied question mark), you nod and smile. Sometimes you have two kids, sometimes you have none. Once and awhile, if you are feeling melancholy, you are a widow, raising your children in their native land. Even the most fabricated stories seem to satisfy the driver’s ingrained sense of what your life should hold, of the claim to belong in a country that is not your own.
Yet here you are, childless, husbandless, and still not fond of the bandeja paisa, making the claim that yes, you do belong, somehow. After all, the new sticker in your passport outlines the framework of your attachment to Colombia: permanent resident.
These are the steps to legal belonging: go to migración, stand in a line, get photocopies, stand in line, take a number, sit down, show your paperwork, go upstairs, sit down, wait, show your papers, pay, smile for the camera, let the migration agent hold your fingers a few seconds more than necessary for the fingerprints, approve your information flashing on the screen, and leave. You are now a Colombian resident, but measuring belonging by paperwork is only a fraction of your experience in this place.
After five years, the window for residency opens. Five years is enough time to spend a good while thoroughly confused, trying to understand everything and coming up with nothing. You live in your tiny house on the coast and grapple with the concept of doing good in the midst of a history of conflict. Your time is book ended by community non-violent marches. Perhaps belonging is sleeping on a concrete floor in a school courtyard, too tired to tie a hammock to the wall, yet so filled with adrenaline that you spend hours before sleep laughing with community friends over the sheer audacity of putting one foot in front of another, marking belonging in kilometres walked and meetings held. The taste of syrupy coffee in tiny cups is forever a reminder of early morning bus rides and late afternoon conversations under shade trees.
You try to change your name when you move from the coast to the city, switching from Anna to Anna Luisa. Even when that doesn’t stick, because you can’t ever quite remember to introduce yourself with your new identity, there is a joy in responding to Anita, to Anna Lou, to querida Anna, that mixes with annoyance over the ever missing “n” on name tags and emails. It is Anna, not Ana, no, the English version is never Ann, with or without an “e.” You associate yourself with mona when you hear it yelled across the street and can never become comfortable with catcalls.
Your body itself changes. There is a long scar on your knee, on your foot. You react differently to noises, to crossing the street, to riding motorcycles, to news about (in)justice. There are tiny wrinkles around your eyes and you spend days crying after the plebiscite. You know how to dress: that polished nails, straightened hair and heels will earn more respect in those first few awful meetings in Bogota than any brilliant ideas spoken in broken Spanish.You get a tattoo, not to belong to Colombia, but to mark that a tiny ink-stained experience of Colombia also belongs to you.
Perhaps belonging is when your tiny, corner cubicle is completely covered in papers and photos. When your very organized colleague starts muttering about the bad impressions some spaces in the office present for visitors, in a deliberate act of non-belonging, you pretend to never grasp his indirect pleas to put books away, to use less coffee cups, to take down the photos. The debris grows with each trip, each project, each caffeine craving, until your desk feels like an extension of yourself, the place where you find yourself, on a Thursday night, curling your hair and putting on makeup with the help your webcam, ready to celebrate with your coworkers.
Belonging is hours and hours of observation, until being the outsider feels as normal as being asked where you are from at the restaurant on the corner. You pay attention to everything: the man with the glasses, holding a copy of “The Mind of a Millionaire” in his hands on the bus; the nuances of whatsapp conversations; the uniforms on the street, from the men pushing the Bon Ice cart to women in scrubs walking their employer’s dogs through the park; the swaying rhythms of the homeless man dancing next to the party at the English Institute; the stories of the displaced at Moment for Peace on Wednesdays. It is normal to see groups of professionally dressed people sitting in each other’s laps and laughing: icebreaker games in the street and dance parties on the patio. You hum along to vallenato.
One day, you are sitting on the transmilienio when, in the hope of a few coins, a fellow passenger turns on a portable microphone and starts a trivia game. Belonging is when he asks a question about oil refineries, and of everyone seated and standing around you, you alone shout out “the city of Barrancabermeja!” and everyone turns and looks at you, the blond who knows things about Colombia, and you are on clouds for the next two days, because you know things.
There are days when you walk down the street and imagine saying good-by to your neighbourhood and you feel inexplicably nostalgic for a life you haven’t even left. Everything glows: the pavement after the rain, the yellow flowering bushes, the father holding his son in his arms to read the peace ribbons adorning the trees in the park. You can tell the time by the reflection of the sun as it dips towards the horizon on the glass windows of the building across from your apartment, the call to buy flowers from a passing motorcycle that means you are going to be late for work, the three pm rice pudding cart with the always tinny repetition of happy birthday.
It is not the adventure that appeals to you anymore, but rather that the day-to-day rhythms of life finally make sense. You are comfortable with solitude. That aching loneliness at the beginning turns into time that you crave, to be with your thoughts, with yourself, whoever you are. You slowly learn that belonging is a dignity you carry within yourself, irregardless of passport or marital status. Everyday, you look at yourself in the mirror, stare into your green Russian Mennonite eyes and whisper, “This is what a Colombian resident looks like.”