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Global stories, local voices

By Alexia Sena

Yet another party where she must answer the 1000 questions about Cameroon, her other country. She has side-stepped these conversations, feigned ignorance so many times. But not tonight. She has resolved to show them. She knows that country better than they do... at least until JB arrives.

I lock the door behind me and suddenly I can breathe again. My breath is heavy at first, ragged, panting; I'm gasping for the air I was desperately lacking while listening to JB. It was a survival reflex that prompted me to run away from the others, who were grinning in a way that looked more and more predatory. I rushed down the narrow staircase to come here and be alone. And so here I am, breathing in the stinking air of the restroom in a bar where, past one or two in the morning, the staff no longer tries to keep up appearances or make the Sri Lankan employees clean up their clients’ excess of alcohol and sadness.

 

It's even worse than a recurring nightmare. At least in that case, after a while you remember that it's a nightmare; you know it will happen again; the horror becomes familiar. Okay, maybe your relationship with your favorite nightmare isn’t actually like this. Let's just say I just like to picture it that way. Whereas, as in the present case, I'm always taken by surprise. I am having a good time; it's a nice evening; I meet new people, small talk happens, somehow we always get to the point when we mention my “homeland”; how we get there, that I don't know, but it doesn't matter, most of the time it's a harmless conversation skimming over the subject. It's still a surprise to me when I realize that, this time, there is no skimming over; this guy is half-Cameroonian, that girl did an internship there, and another guy has just returned from the country. Here we go! They ask me how ndolè is cooked and where you can eat real, good ndolè in Paris; they inquire about my opinion on the latest political scandal that is on everybody's lips. They're glad they found a connoisseur and mention a mbolè hit that is trending in nightclubs there and in other countries; they say I must remember that victory of the national football team; they trust me to decode the cultural implications at stake in such or such situation, considering my double culture.

Double culture, my ass! Before even realizing at which moment I fell into the trap, I end up justifying myself. Not the way I used to, with a haughty smile that meant “I'm not the person you think I am, I don't belong in that country at all, I am so French. Just like you, actually!”. For years I made a point of proving myself and dissociating my identity from all the clichés that the other person's imagination might have associated with the “homeland”. I didn't know much about it, I made my ignorance deliberate and I was fine with it. Today I stammer, excuse myself and flee to the restrooms. I would give a great deal to even partially match this imagination, to be able to talk about the country like an expert. But I've lost the chance along the way, and now the only thing I have left is a melanin envelope that I wear with the poise of a fraud on the look-out.

It reminds me of an article written by a woman who claimed how proud she was to be able to show that, yes, she, the white girl, knew every detail of Beninese history, which is part of her ancestors' history, and therefore — through bloodlines but above all a continuous relationship with her origins — her own history. “I know who I am, I don't need your validation.” A serene statement that filled me with immense jealousy. To be thoroughly familiar with the history in which your birth is rooted; to be certain of your identity; to enjoy people's wonder and to revel in the discrepancy between appearances and reality.

 

I throw up, my mind already on my next mojito, when I get back upstairs to the deafening sound of the music. Because I need to forget. To forget the moment when Marie said she loved African music, especially Yannick Noah's songs. I don't know which expression played on my features but they all fell solemnly silent when I explained that I would certainly not label his songs “African music”. Marie looked sincerely remorseful when I talked about bikutsi, dombolo, assiko, afro hip hop, Ethopian jazz, and, soon enough — what was I thinking? — about postcolonial representations, fetishization, essentialization, and too many other words ending with -zation and -ism which I had heard here and there. Marie was quiet, keen on proving her good faith, how open-minded she was, her posture as an ally, and all these other things that the smartest dominants have assimilated without resistance in order to have peace while still keeping their privilege. I should have stopped sooner, right where my legitimacy ended, and then cracked a joke and changed the subject. But I got hooked on it. Thanks to the spritz perhaps, I finally felt good in this role of the knowing girl, the girl who “educates”. But then someone said, “Hey look, here comes JB!” In no time, I fell behind that tall, blond guy who wouldn't stop smiling.

Cultural affairs officer at the French embassy in “my” country. How do you compete with that? Soon enough, I felt dispossessed of something that had never been mine in the first place... We shared the same opinion about good old Yannick Noah, but after ten minutes I was stammering about the contemporary scene in Cameroon; I had to admit that, no, I wasn't sure, although yes, I had known it pretty well some time ago, but not so well recently. Inch after inch, I confessed wearily how the homeland was nothing more for me than a veneer through which you could easily see. Marie started to perk up; to stare at me wondering whether I really was who I seemed to be; to ask me questions that she would suddenly interrupt saying, “no, wait; JB, maybe you'll know better?”. Imperceptibly, they all began to turn away from me; I was no longer there.

I forced myself to keep smiling, thinking about journalist Nabil Wakim who, with every visit to his native Beirut, after five minutes in a taxi with a driver who immediately identified him as Lebanese, had to cut their monologue off to say, “Sorry, I don't speak Arabic” — all the while with a perfect Lebanese accent.

 

Hence the importance of knowing your own limits. Well, I guess that won't be for tonight. I walk out of the restroom and ignore my reflection, stinking but having efficiently regained my senses, I get back to the dancing crowd. JB is talking with other people; I take a seat in a corner with a mojito and I watch him. He is very tall, slender; he has blond hair, long, thin hands — not my type, but tonight I want to get to know him better, I'm even contemplating spending the night in his arms. He's got the same warm eyes that sweet people have, people who are self-confident enough to be kind. One day, as she talked about her ex, my friend B. told me, “I didn't love him, but I liked the couple we made together.” I watch JB, musing: neither he nor I look the part; we would vouch for each other, and be an oddity for onlookers. The more I sip my drink through the bamboo straw, the more it becomes clear that my goal for the night is to hook up with him. A bad goal, no doubt about it. Something you do for the wrong reasons, which can get you pretty far if you persist — and I have the reputation of being obstinate.

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About the author

Alexia Sena
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Alexia Sena lives in Paris, she is French by desire and Cameroonian by heritage. She created in 2020 Joyeux Bazar, a podcast that questions and explores the multicultural experience. Alexia enjoys writing, coloring, and red wine.