Suriname, Part the First: Roots

I don’t really think of myself as having “roots” and I don’t know that I’ve missed them. In theory, I know I have roots. Everyone does, don’t they? But I didn’t grow up thinking about them. It’s part of what comes with being a third-culture kid. You move around as much as I did (Tinker AFB, Amsterdam, Cheyenne, Guam, Minot, Abilene, Okinowa, Biloxi, Angeles City, Bossier City, Natchitoches, Amherst, Montclair, Brooklyn*) with a mother from a tiny country most people have never heard of and a father “from New York” and the overall feeling is more about being regularly uprooted or, rather, transplanted on a regular basis than having roots.

It’s not been an unpleasant life at all. I was an extrovert as a kid, so while leaving was never easy, new places meant fresh beginnings and opportunities to reimagine how I might move through the world. When I started high school in the Philippines, there was no one to remind me of some embarrassing thing I did in the sixth grade in Mississippi. And when I left the Philippines, I could invent an entire narrative about it for my college friends in Shreveport. Moving was so much a part of my life that after four and a half years of college, even though I had no plan, I thought I was supposed to leave Louisiana, to uproot myself, and move someplace else (Evanston/Chicago) because my average tour in any state or country was 18 to 24 months.

The other term for third-culture kids is global nomads, and I would say that this feels like a better fit for me but only because it describes my opposition to a nomadic life. Right now, my greatest desire is to stay in one place and read and then write about what I’m reading. I don’t even like to travel to Manhattan. I’m not kidding. I teach in New Jersey and the sense of relief I feel when I drive back to Brooklyn is not simply about putting space between me and the messiness of academic departments, and it’s not even about the growing need I have to write more and more. I think it’s that I feel rooted in Brooklyn. I’m not from here (I’m not from anywhere), but it’s home, and I feel myself rooting in here, in this borough with nomads that move in and out of my life.

When my mother announced last year that we should take a trip to Suriname, my ambivalence ran so deep that I forgot to tell people I speak with all the time that I was going away at all. In fact, until a few hours ago I didn’t even realize I was going to spend time in Trinidad (just a few hours) along the way. I’ve mocked myself as friends looked oddly at my flat announcement that I was leaving frigid Brooklyn for warm Paramaribo, but I’ve also admitted that, for the last few years, I’ve lost interest in traveling. I find it exhausting, and I feel like I’ve traveled enough for a lifetime. I meet these people who are excited about some trip, and I listen to them and ask questions and I’m very happy for them, but in my head I’m thinking “Good Lord, that sounds exhausting.”

I’ve been saying for the last few weeks that I’m stressed about this trip because January has traditionally been a good writing month for me, that I’m going up for promotion and have a file to get together, that I hate packing. But the truth of it is I’m tired and the more I write the less I want to move around other people. Pleasure for me right now means days of quiet with a book or three and a legal pad scratching out notes.

But this trip has me thinking about roots. I was last in Suriname when I was 11 or 12. I learned to drive that trip. I sold watermelons with my uncle to people riding by his house. I drank coconut milk through a straw right from the coconut, immediately after my uncle commandeered it out of a tree. I went to French Guyana with my uncle for the day, and I visited with my oma who spoke virtually no English (my first language was Dutch, but I lost it decades ago). Is that what it means to have roots? To have memories from childhood? I don’t feel Surinamese or Dutch. In fact, I remember an unfortunate chapter in my life when I kept insisting to my mother, loudly, “I am an AMERICAN.” I’m a military brat, and more than anything else I’ve been I’ve always been AMERICAN. I don’t really know what that means. I do know I’ve never even bothered to apply for dual citizenship, though I know that’s something I should care about.

Once, a very nice, elegant southern gentleman (the kind with a single letter in front of his second and third names) said to me, “Tell us, Tricia, who are your people?” I replied, “that’s kind of you to ask, but I don’t really have people.” I do, of course, more than I can count (my mother has six siblings all with kids and grandchildren, and my father has three with kids who also have kids), but we traveled so much I only knew them from infrequent visits and letters (I remember one year that one of my birthday gifts was a long-distance call from the Philippines to New York so I could speak to my grandmother).

But each time I’m with my cousins, my Dutch and/or American ones, I discover some common thing, and now I wonder was that a root?

My mother said casually last night that I would be seeing my Uncle Arthur, and for the first time it seemed worth packing up and trekking to the airport at ass o’clock in the morning (3:30 am, to be exact). I blurted “Oom Artur!” with a perfect Dutch accent. I haven’t seen him in over twenty years, but when my dad was sent to Vietnam, a month after I was born, my Uncle Arthur took care of my mom and me. I don’t remember much, but my mother said that, among other things, he used to hold me on one knee and his daughter on the other (apparently I fought the poor girl over him, insisting he was my father). I don’t remember what we ever did together (he is not the uncle who taught me to drive), but I do remember how I always felt around him (happy and at home), and I wonder if that’s a root.

For my first solo trip abroad, I went to London. It wasn’t such a great trip, though I was happy to spend the day in Canterbury and glad I got to visit Marx’s grave. I had plenty of surreal moments, including an encounter with a white couple from Oklahoma who, upon discovering that we had a similar last name (they spell it with an “s”), said cheerily, “Oh, that’s because our ancestors owned your ancestors!” They said this with an astonishing amount of joy. I know I’m supposed to think of that as a root. I’m black; someone once owned someone in my family.

Later that trip, I was kind of lost near some square or another. It was kind of foggy and/or misty, and a tall, dark man (obsidian came to my mind immediately) appeared and announced, “I am Nubian.” He sounded exactly the way you would think an obsidian man would sound, especially if he appeared out of nowhere. He said, “where are you from?” and I was suddenly so tired of having to give my usual, convoluted answer (it begins, “well, my dad was in the military, and my mother is from Suriname…”) that I simply said I was from Louisiana. He said again, “I am Nubian. Where are you from?” And then I knew what he meant and was relieved to have an answer I thought would satisfy him. “St. Kitts.” He nodded, and then he disappeared.* My lack of curiosity about this fact about St. Kitt, a fact that I only know because my godfather did our family tree years ago, has never bothered me. When you’re not from anywhere at all who has time to think about where you are from, to care about things like roots?

But I’m going to Suriname, where my mother has her roots. I have family there, and I have memories, and I’m just beginning to think that I might have roots there too—if I can figure out what the hell that means and how much I actually care about them.

*these are the places I’ve lived and not the places I’ve visited; I wouldn’t know where to begin with that list.

**I’m not just saying that to be clever; one minute he was there and then he wasn’t.


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