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Student 24's picture

I don't have a photograph.

I mean, I could have one if I wanted, but I am terrible at making decisions. I couldn't possibly choose one photo from one city, from one home, from one chapter in my life and use it to illustrate how it shapes me and my mentality.

It is precisely my indecision that depicts the impact my life has had on my mentality. I don't want to have to choose, and deny all the other pieces of myself.

Richmond, Virginia

I'm seven years old. I go to a public school in the Fan district. My best friend, Grace, and I like to do silly things around the neighbourhood. Because we have no reason not to. We pick flowers that grow in the cement cracks in the alleyways. We crush the petals and mix them with her mother's expensive perfume, some lemon juice, a bit of white, silky hair conditioner, and other things that smell nice. Then we pour and distribute the ambiguously-aromatic concoction into ten red, plastic cups and place them neatly on a tray.

Our plan is to go from door to door around the block and sell as many of our perfume cups as we can. Prices are flexible, we decide beforehand. When a woman answers the door, we use our amateur entrepreneurial talents to convince her that smelling beautiful is being beautiful and we are just the two people who can make that happen for her. When a man answers the door, we improvise and explain the perfume cups also function as air fresheners and would make even the most odorous of rooms smell divine beyond belief, as is very likely the case.

We like to do silly things around the neighbourhood. And at school we are friends with everyone and we don't know that we are all different colours and that some of us live in trailers, and some of us live in big houses that are an hour away. We don't know that bad things are happening in other neighbourhoods not so far from ours.We just ride our bikes and do silly things. Because we have no reason not to.

Washington, D.C.

The bell rings and I rush as fast as I can down the stairs, out the building, and over to the bike rack where I bark at my little brother for being late. We unlock the bikes, strap on our helmets, and I want to be out of there now. I pedal rapidly down the streets. I don't care that my dark blue, plaid, Catholic school skirt is flying up over my legs. I don't like being from this school.

Two miles go by through the red brick and cobble stone streets of Georgetown and eventually to the grey-looking but rainbow-feeling Dupont Circle. I hop off my bike next to the metro station, lock it up and say a rushed goodbye to my younger brother as I make my way to sailing team practice on the Washington Channel.

In the metro, I listen to my music, I watch people, and I genuinely feel cool. I'm the kid who knows how to get around the city by herself. Whose parents trust her and don't have to drive her around everywhere, like most of her friends in her private, Catholic school, who don't even live in the city but say they're from here. I want to be from the city, I say. And I feel like I am. Even though I know I'm not entirely. But... I am...

I don't know. How comfortable am I allowed to feel here?

Nairobi, Kenya

City. Where are you?

All of a sudden I find myself in a school with people like me, who don't belong to just one place, but can find comfort anywhere. It takes me a while to find it, but I do. I fall in love with a whole different world.

There is no city here. There is a beautiful chaos that is Nairobi. There is corruption and overweight policeman who feed on the bribes of unlucky drivers. There is a relaxed madness in the familiarity of rainy season traffic on roads that, up until a few hours ago, still held a few pieces of asphalt intact before the dark red mud swallowed them whole. There is a heavy, booming laughter and 'pole pole' because you can take life slow and not worry. Time goes slower in Africa, eh, wewe? Eh, bwana!

There is confusion and words that cannot go as far as you need them to, but you learn to give up and live without. There is dancing, and drinking, and music, and places we go our mothers don't know we even think to enter, but we do, because we are not local and we know can get away with not following the rules. (What rules? This is Kenya. And we ignore the big, ugly picture.)

There is church and choirs and voices and drums that make your soul throb and want to throw your hands into the air because Jesus is with us. There is poverty and slums and children trained in school to go out and beg, because it is easier than learning. There is still ugly corruption.

There is beauty and safaris and suns rising behind zebras and elephants and giraffes. There is screaming when monkeys climb through the windows and leave banana peels on the kitchen floor. There is blaming, but it had to be the monkeys. My little brothers wouldn't leave the peels on the floor.

There is mountains and friends. Yes, there is friendship and I would climb with that friendship anywhere and everywhere. There is beautiful silence because we know what we don't need to say. We can't say,

That there is unutterable, eternal heartbreak when we say goodbye to Kenya.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, I can't deal with you right now. Not yet. You have simply been too much, but like every other city, you are another home from which I don't want to part.

I'm keeping you like the others, and I'm keeping you equal. None of my homes are the same, and I'm never the same person in any of these homes. But I can never choose a home.


I cannot choose one moment or one city without feeling the immense, punishing ache for ignoring or dismissing the other equally important parts of me. I haven't even described my cultural home in Poland (mostly because this essay is long enough already) because I have no concrete memories from there. Polish culture is one of my colours, my souls, my mentalities. It is a lens I can wear over my eyes or around my mind, so that it tints my thoughts to be a certain flavour. But I have no city there.

I know what a city is. It is dynamic. Between you and everyone else. It is where you are pulled towards one thing, repelled by another. Where you search endlessly for one thing that you can never find, but where you stumble upon something that will forever change you. It is where your mind encounters anything and everything, simply because there are the people around you who are experiencing the same beautiful chaos.