There I was at the airport, 23 years old, about to embark upon the greatest adventure of my life.
I had dreamed of moving to Ireland since I was a very little girl, had told my grandfather at the age of three not to worry about not being able to make the move himself, that I would do it for him when I grew up.
And so, in keeping with my plan, 20 years later I found myself with a one-way ticket, saying goodbye to my parents and my closest friend, expecting never to return other than for visits, and not knowing exactly when those visits would be.
It was a late night flight and the lights were garishly bright in the departures area. I took one last look at everyone I loved, turned and walked through the door.
I felt panic, excitement, a roiling tumult of a million emotions. Later, as I sat on the plane on the runway for what felt like hours, I thought “this delay is a sign. I shouldn’t go. I should get up, walk off the plane and go back home.”
But I did not. The plane took off and eventually, I landed in Ireland.
I knew Ireland well enough to know where I was going and was able to get myself to the house in which I had rented a room, to go to the grocery store, to open a bank account. People were welcoming, friendly, and I felt as though I were on an extended holiday.
I had a job lined up, and enjoyed walking to work, training with the others, learning new skills. The difference was, and it became more apparent as time wore on, that I was not of rural Ireland. I was neither rural nor Irish, in fact. I was an outsider. Foreign. I had an accent and I behaved differently, I was more reserved, and I didn’t know the whole town, the whole company; they had all grown up together while I was on a different continent.
People at work assumed at first that I was a spy for the owner of the company, since I somewhat knew his brother. And people in town started to ask when I was going home, when my holiday would be over – I had stayed longer than a tourist usually stayed. Those who didn’t know me, heard my Canadian accent and assumed I was American. That in and of itself didn’t bother me – I have many American friends, all lovely – but they treated me as though, from their perspective, it wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
I didn’t relish standing out, being different. I immediately tried to assimilate. I spoke softly, trying to dampen my accent into something unrecognizeable. I went out of my way to be similar to those around me. I felt vulnerable, on the edge. I tried to keep up with the pace of drinking with those I had fallen in with – luckily for me, I had always had a high tolerance for alcohol and did manage to keep up. But I put far too much value on the acceptance, the nods of approval I received for all my efforts at becoming like everyone else.
Several years into my life there, I mused about moving back to Canada and my acquaintances were all shocked and didn’t believe I would do it.
“But you’re more Irish than we are!” they exclaimed, wondering how I could possibly imagine myself living anywhere else. American and Canadian tourists began to believe I was Irish, and were always reassuringly surprised to hear that I was, in fact, Canadian. For a time, these responses made me feel proud and heartened enough that I stayed.
In fact, when I did leave two years later, it was only because I was frustrated with my employability in rural Ireland, rather than because I felt unhappy or uncomfortable. I finally belonged.
Arriving back in Canada, I was surprised to experience a much deeper level of belonging. I was finally no longer the outsider. I had family and I could see much of myself, my beliefs, my reactions to my environment, reflected back by those around me. I knew then that I could never again live somewhere I felt out of place. I do not like to be outside my comfort zone. I do not like to be the other. I strive for belonging. And when I belong, I can relax, be myself, and flourish. When I belong and am understood, only then do I have the courage to stand out.