Saudade is a unique Portuguese word with no immediate translation into English. It describes an emotional state of longing or deep nostalgia for something or someone that is not immediately present or may even be unattainable. Tied up in this is the idea that there can be no thorough resolution of this state, that the person experiencing saudade can not truly overcome this yearning. Only recently, did I discover this word and realize that it applies to me.
This word applies not only to me, but also to other TCKs, or “third culture kids.” I’ve mentioned before that although I am American (born here), I grew up across the continent of Africa–first in Ghana, then Chad, and then Kenya. My first memories are from Ghana, right around my second birthday. Cognitively, I know that I am American, but I feel African. No, that isn’t quite right either. I feel Africa. I yearn for Africa. I know that I am not African, but I know that I also am not American. I am part of a third culture that somehow mixes African and American and is both and neither at the same time.
It is a confusing place to be.
There are many who can claim to be a TCK. My parents are missionaries, so that is my reason for living in so many different places, but other TCKs could be the children of diplomats, NGO employees, business men or women, or military personnel. For those of us who are TCKs, who experience saudade, we find ourselves caught between worlds, all the while trying to be a part of both, attempting to reconcile sometimes opposing aspects of who we are.
For example, when the terrorist attacks occurred in NYC on 9/11, I was at my grandmother’s house in Orange County. She woke my sister and me up to watch the news because it was “history in the making.” I sat on the floor of the TV room, watching the news with bleary eyes, seeing video footage of the crashes that looked like terrible CGI, knowing I should be emotionally moved, and wondering why I wasn’t.
The outpouring of American nationalism following the attacks raised two conflicting voices in my head. On the one hand, I wanted to stand with my fellow American citizens in emotional solidarity. I knew people were hurting. On the other hand, having recently moved back to the U.S. from a predominantly Muslim nation, I felt that I understood the Islamic perspectives behind the attack. (Note: I don’t agree with violent extremism, but in this case, I understood the motivation.) Once the American nationalism changed from everyone flying the stars and stripes to enacting misplaced racial and religious hate crimes, I quickly silenced the American patriot in my head and my heart wished to be home, where I could wear a veil with my Muslim neighbors and not worry about being attacked for it.
Recently, fellow Persephoneer Olivia has been writing about her experiences in Kenya and Uganda. Her stories and descriptions brought about a return of my saudade, reminding me of Africa. We have a saying–those of us who have lived or visited Africa and fallen in love with it–that you cannot wash the dust of Africa from your feet. Africa stays with me. There are long stretches of time, especially now that I have been living in the U.S. for almost nine years straight, that Africa moves to the back of my mind. It isn’t that I have forgotten her, but she isn’t a present thought.
Then I’ll catch a whiff of cigarette smoke on a sunny day, and suddenly I’m transported to a West African beach, holding a dewy green glass bottle in one hand and listening to the skeletal rattle of the wind in the coconut tree fronds overhead. Or I bite into a perfectly ripened mango and I can see myself walking through an open air market, admiring the towering pyramids of tropical produce and haggling with an African Mama over the price of a length of batik cloth.
I go through periods of time where all I want is a good mug of chai (just water, milk, black tea, and lots of sugar) and warm, greasy mandazis to go with it. There are other times that the only music I want to listen to is in Swahili or Ewe or Xhosa. (I know the Kenyan national anthem in English and Swahili, but I struggle to sing the American anthem correctly.) Often when I hit these periods of saudade, I simply write. I have many journals and blog posts devoted to this pining, and every depiction and narrative seems to fall short of the tangible experience, the homesickness I feel for Africa.
How can I describe the feel of Saharan sand underfoot, or the warm press of flesh in a crowded street that reeks of humanity–a smell I eagerly inhale? How can I tell you that my eyes hunger for a bright clash of colors instead of the drab “chic” of western dress? How do I express the need for a slower pace of life, where people come before things and community is essential?
Looking at this near impossible task of describing my tie to that wonderful continent where my heart has made its home, I asked our very own Selena if I could write a series of articles on this tension of belonging and not belonging and all the joys and heartache that come with it. As I share my own experiences, I look forward to hearing what you all have experienced and/or your responses. Have you ever experienced saudade? How was it similar and how did it differ from my own saudade?