Export Quality

a good friend asked me what it means to have lived abroad in my 20's; this essay, published in International Lifestyle, was my answer

What is it like to have the whole world in your kitchen? To find out, you’d have to travel all the way to the capital of Venezuela, to a neighborhood called La Urbina, where in an apartment building named Adry, in number 7a, there resides the most majestic collection of fridge magnets. The magnets are the centerpiece of the kitchen, arranged as they are on the surfaces of two refrigerators, one for the repeats and outcasts, and one for the most inventive, magnetized representations of places around the planet. “Switzerland” is emblazoned at the bottom of a cuckoo clock, and “Maldives” has been painted onto the side of a 3-d shark whose fins actually wobble whenever you open the door for a bit of orange juice. “Paris” is a porcelain bear wearing a beret and carrying the Eiffel Tower on his anthropomorphized shoulders. My grandmother, Erlinda, has been curating the collection for years.

            As a kid, I loved taking a look at the world on her fridge, in part because the reward was always a glass of whole milk or orange juice from concentrate, both which were banned in my home. When I was ten, I traveled with a school group to England where I purchased the Paddignton bear dressed as a Queen’s Guard that continues to be the “London” of choice in her kitchen.

I wish I could say Erlinda is the traveler that started it all in my family, and that she was proud to cheer me on as I said goodbye to my parents for the first time. Erlinda, however, is the grandmother that still expects me to sit on her lap even though I’m 25 so she can call me her “coshita de mamá.  She wouldn’t let me take a cab by myself after 10pm in Manhattan even after I’d been living there alone for four years. She’s the kind of grandmother who stopped speaking to my mom for a month when she learned I’d be traveling on-my-own-but-with-a-bunch-of-teachers to England in the fourth grade. If it were up to her, I would have never even attended a slumber party.

            Unfortunately for her, I was raised to become a product of exportation. My parents coined the term. We were in our living room in Caracas, and though I don’t quite remember, I feel the air was crisp after recent rains, the city blessed by a sky so clear and blue that I haven’t seen any like it since. Claudia, you know how to speak English. Claudia, we have given you the world. Claudia, you are a product of exportation. Go, and don’t come back. This was simultaneously a gift, a threat, a curse, a joke, and above all, a promise that I’ve helped my parents keep. After 18 years in Venezuela, the country where all of my family is from and where most of them reside, I packed my bags and never looked back.

            The things I left behind: toys, books, clothes, the spotted orange walls of my teenage bedroom; the wall piano I never ended up playing; a wooden box containing the few well-meaning, mortifying stories I’d written as a child; the crippling insecurity that made my city one of the most dangerous in the world; the economic and political turmoil that has taken the lives of dozens of students who have stayed to fight for their country; a shoebox with the letters from my first love and heartbreak; six cousins that I’d never really get to know, six aunts and uncles that I haven’t hugged in nearly two years, three grandparents, now two, one sister, one mother, one father. The first thing I did when I left was learn to miss them.

            The things I did not miss: the personal trainer who monitored my body fat percentage week by week and made alterations to my diet, or feeling valuable only to the degree that the curves and lines of my figure matched some implanted, injected ideal, or the walls that I helped put in place and stayed behind for my own safety. These were in fact, walls that I was too shy to venture beyond, that kept my world limited, contained, behind friends’ bodyguards and bullet proof cars and a handful of neighborhoods and restaurants and clubs.  At first, I missed the grooming, the constant stream of pedicures and waxes. At first, it was strange to not wear heels, so I tried to wear them anyways, only to hobble back to my American college dorm at noon to change into flip-flops.

            There’s this strange, magnetic, alternating attraction and repulsion that we can’t help but feel towards our homes. On one end, there’s the way that even the cashier at the nearest grocery store in Caracas will never address me as anything but, “my love, my sky, mi corazón,” and the way I wonder, even now, whether I’ll ever have the chance to dance like that again. Will I even remember how? On the other, there’s the realization that I could never have become the person I am now back home, not because of any fault in Caracas, but because sometimes we have to be away to find ourselves. When we leave we create space, a distance from ourselves, from loving families and their ideas of who we are, from surroundings we’ve built to feel perfectly comfortable in, and sometimes, this is exactly what we need.

            Perhaps, it just takes more courage to stay, to grow right under the noses of everyone who’s come to define you in a certain way. If it does, it was courage I didn’t have.

***

            These days, the sun filters in through my blinds at seven every morning. I can either roll around onto the other side of the bed and hold on to the last remnants of sleep, but today I wake up, opening the windows and looking to the monastery and mansions owned by jade smuggling cronies that stand side by side across the street, surrounded by palm, frangipani, and mango trees. I take stock of the pigeons, the construction noise, and the upstairs neighbor pounding on a mortar and pestle to make Burmese curry for her family to take to work. I wonder whether the monsoons will strike today, and try to savor the feeling of the sun reaching my bare skin through the windows, wishing I could tap into this sometime in mid-July.

            “Bendición, grandma.”

            “Que Dios te bendiga,” she replies. Our conversations always begin with a blessing.

            “How are you today, mi coshita de mamá?”

            “I am well. Here it’s morning grandma, so I’m about to get ready for work. How are you?”

            Somehow, I always seem to call when she’s in the kitchen, making something for my grandfather, who’s been affectionately nicknamed, “el Pollito,” the “the baby chick,” since his health’s become delicate. Is he behaving, I ask? I know this question will get her laughing.

            “You know what he said to me on Mother’s Day when I asked him if he was getting me a present?”

            “What did he say?”

            “He said, ‘well, you’re not my mother.’ Can you believe that? After fifty-three years of marriage?”

            “Who does he think he is?” I reply, both of us laughing. I’ll try to speak to him at some point in the conversation, but I know that she’ll always crowd him out without meaning to. Erlinda is chatty, and el Pollito has always been her opposite—shy, soft-spoken, the type of person who feels squeamish in a hug.

            “Thank you for calling me today,” she tells me. “ I was, well, I was feeling a little sad when you called. You know, your grandfather and I sometimes get very lonely here, and none of our grandchildren visit us too much anymore. I know you and your sister would, but you’re all away. It just, it gets lonely here sometimes.” I don’t know how to reply. In a conversation with my mother, she once called Venezuela the country of orphaned parents. What about the grandparents, I wonder in that moment, as I try to find something comforting to say from halfway around the world across a shoddy phone connection. I am helpless, she knows, and so she continues.

            “I was just telling your mother the other day how much we’d like to visit you, in that place where you live.”

            “In Myanmar?”

            “Yes. It feels me with so much curiosity, the idea of everything over there, and how different it must be. I’d really love to see it one day.”

            “Maybe you will,” I say, but I know she won’t. The phone call ends, and I think about laying these little squares at her feet, knowing she won’t make it to any of them, wondering if in my absence that is all I become to her, some spots on a fridge, raspy whispers on a bad phone line, photos that get shown to her on devices she doesn’t know how to name or how to handle. There’s that attraction and repulsion again. There’s so many layers to myself that I want to hold on to, so many people that I want to hold tightly in my arms, combined with the fact that I wouldn’t trade this morning in Yangon for anything else.

***           

            The things I’ve gained; cookbooks inscribed with letters from New York; people who’ve taught me what friendship can be; numerous backless, long dresses, mostly vintage, from Brooklyn; the knowledge of how to chop wood and build a compost heap, all which I learned while living in Northern Thailand; the acceptance that despite however much I change, there will always be me at the end of every day; work that I truly love for the first time in Yangon; the confidence that I can be anywhere in the world and find something to celebrate.

The idea of growth implies expansion. It connotes an increase in wisdom and age. I’ve found that ageing is more akin to breaking. To taking everything you found you knew about yourself and allowing it to slip away. I shed fears, of spiders, of living alone, of being lonely, and in place I experience outdoor treks through the rolling hills of Shan State and slowly, I grow more accepting of my own dorky, awkward, wonderful ways. Still, there’s things I cannot shed. Or rather, that I don’t want to. Venezuela, for one. No matter how much I’ve tried, I cannot renounce that broken country of mine. I often think that my life would be a lot easier if I was able to leave it behind, much like one does a bad relationship, but it’s still a place I dream of returning to one day. I long of a place that no longer exists by dreaming of a place I hope someday will.

Another thing I cannot, will not shed: the impulse that arises whenever I find myself in the souvenir hell that is most airports to find the most incredible, bobbing, glittery, contoured, and creative magnets out there. These tokens will never make up for years of separation. Still, I can’t help but countdown with every purchase until the next time I’m back in that kitchen, stealing glasses of whole milk and teasing el Pollito while my grandmother asks about all the places I’ve been, and I try as best as I can, with the help of devices she cannot name, to take her everywhere with me.