I was determined not to write about living in New York. This was necessary, I thought, since I did not want to indulge in the negligible demand to articulate my thoughts about immigration. In formal terms, I am not an immigrant. I was granted a student visa. In conceptual terms, however, I am one. I left Lagos without knowing when I would be back. My head was unbelievably calm. I felt I needed to let time run its course.
Immigration suggests permanence. Yet, seeing how dominant culture tells us how we can be outside and yet inside, a person who leaves his country to live indefinitely elsewhere must find ways to remain committed to an exiled identity. The most important factor being that he retains that identity – whatever it is that made him feel a belonging to the place he left.
Upon arrival here, things happened in ways I had not cared to imagine. It took me three weeks to find a room that fit my budget, and the uncertainties that attempted to shake my faith in the positive eventually slapped me awake from the dreamy nonchalance that I had carried along. Which has always been one of my faults; I walk into new phases with expectations painted in broad strokes so that in the end I am blinded by too much colour.
Sometimes I feel it is my impressionability, my Christian faith, that makes me as dangerously nonchalant as this. In New York these past weeks, I have learnt to cling to specific affirmations; life is always in flight and only right aims will reward the hunter; only clarified expectations will count.
I have been dazed by the recurrent nudge that makes me interested in anonymity. Every day without fail, a mass of faces – a rush of quick glances, unintended touches – assault me. It is an assault, now that I think of it. What has always fascinated me about big cities is that the inner, private space that keeps me from others is yet presented with astonishing visibility. I realize that it is a wrong idea to think I am not alone in the subway station where everyone is. Between me and the man sitting beside me there is a declaration of privacy.
Essentially, my visibility needs some air. I need some time to walk alone, be present in an absent manner. Presence-absence, despite its cheeky paradox, is alive with promise. It promises a certain form of visibility akin to speaking with a voice I didn’t know I possessed. Leaving appealed to me when I was in Lagos. I had felt drawn to all the things that were possible, partly because I went off on a less-predictable trajectory, rejecting the convenience of a predictable career. For instance, I wanted to write while organizing conferences, publishing a magazine, and curating photographs. None of these duties were impossible – but I needed invisibility to essentialize my expectations, and measure the levels of imminence.
Now in New York I feel like every time I need to communicate with my family in Nigeria I have to clear a foggy path. That I feel this way suggests complicated emotions. It is often a mix of gratitude, frustration, nostalgia and joy. I am grateful that it is possible to exchange instant messages, but frustrated that when on Skype I see a blurry face. I feel joy when it seems my lover and I will succeed in our quest to stretch romance across bandwidths. But nostalgia when I recall there were times when our eyes met and our bodies touched. On Skype the other day, she asked me to look directly into the webcam so that when she looked at her screen it would appear that I was looking at her. When I thought about her request days later, I felt embarrassed and belittled. It occurred to me that maybe the aliens that ran the virtual universe had sent us smileys with stuck-out tongues.
I am being circled by a whirlpool with letters spelling survival as well as significance. To earn a wage has never been as needful as it now is. Sometimes the fear that I will have no money fools around in my head, poisoning the responsibility I feel towards the ongoing project of relevance. But I am consoled by another cheeky fact – now in New York the gavel of beginnings has been slammed.