A land across the ocean
By Abisha Sooriyathas
Posted on October 25, 2021
This is a work of creative fiction. All characters and situations are from the imagination of the author. But like all stories, you may discover a heart of truth.
Stories were never written about people like me. People who came from a land across the ocean.
Each of us journeyed here for a different reason. Some of us were looking for opportunities and dreaming big dreams. Others were escaping lands ravaged by war and poverty, seeking only safety. Solace.
When our people arrived here, we received a mixed welcome. Some celebrated us, while others threatened us.
It was something we slowly grew accustomed to, shoving the broken pieces of pain deep into our souls where they formed wounds that soon turned into permanent scars. It was numbing, this hiding of our hurt, but we buried our pain in a place so deep that others couldn’t see it.
Or perhaps they could see it, but they preferred to turn a blind eye. I hated to admit that I might do the same if I could.
Slowly, we built lives in this new land. We found jobs to provide for ourselves, but even this wasn’t entirely well-received. We were stealing what was theirs, the people here said. Tainting what they had created.
Despite these hurtful words, our people continued to grow and thrive—as much as the system would allow. It is hard, you see, to thrive in a place that doesn’t want you to. Just as plants need sunlight to grow, humans need support to succeed.
I knew that people did not want to see me succeed in this new home of mine, if it could even be called that. This knowledge was a blessing and a curse. It allowed me to stay safe, to keep my head down and avoid any disagreements. But it also planted a seed of fear within my heart, one that made me small.
I made my peace with this smallness and grew accustomed to taking up as little space as I could. But despite all my efforts, I was noticed.
I was used to being noticed in a subtle way. People pointed fingers at me and laughed. Others whispered with suspicious gazes, seeming to fear me as much as I feared them. They called the colour of my skin ugly, the fabric of my clothes weird. I had gotten used to the quiet judgement and the pain of silent mockery.
But I hadn’t been prepared for this hushed abuse to become loud. I hadn’t been prepared when one day, as I was walking home from school, I was pinned against a brick wall and then thrown to the ground. Disgusting words were flung at me as I curled myself into a ball and wept. Spit landed on my cheek and dribbled down my face, mingling with my tears and forming small rivers on the pavement.
I went home that day and cried some more. My mother heard me and knocked on my door. I didn’t open it.
She creaked it open, peering through the gap. “My dear, what is so wrong that you are crying enough to fill a lake?”
I pulled the covers over my head so that she couldn’t see me. “Go away! This is your fault! You made me strange and they hate me for it.”
With the sheets pulled over my eyes, I couldn’t see the hurt on my mother’s face. But I felt it. I felt her heart break and felt the tears that were inevitably welling in her eyes, because they were now filling mine with renewed abandon.
My mother left quietly, now carrying pain that I had received from another and inflicted upon her. I pushed the guilt away, swatting at it every time it reappeared, as if it were a fly that would not leave my room.
The next day, I adopted new clothing. My attire now matched that of the people of this new land. I asked my mother to buy the food that the people here ate. She eyed my new clothing with a look that was torn between sadness and confusion, but she obliged.
I made these changes, and I found new friends. We played in the park from dawn to dusk. My mother watched happily, but there was something missing from her gaze. Something broken.
I ignored it.
I carried on for months like this, quietly content with the acceptance that I’d found. My new friends even invited me to celebrate a holiday with them. It was a foreign holiday to me; they called it Halloween. They said that we must dress up as our favourite characters from our favourite stories.
My friends found characters easily, pulling on costumes and playing pretend. I found a character, and I asked my mother to buy the costume.
After I pulled it on, my new friends averted their gazes. One of them shuffled uncomfortably where they stood.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Their eyes darted to meet mine for a moment, a blush seeping into their cheeks. “It’s just… You don’t look very much like that character.” My face fell into a frown.
“Yes,” another friend said hesitantly. “Your skin is not the right colour and your face is different from theirs.”
The statement drove a sharp wedge deeper into my soul. I already knew that I did not look the part, but I was hoping I could at least pretend.
I went home again, fighting back the tears that threatened my eyes. I would not let this ruin my day. I would not let the pain resurface.
The following few hours, I searched for a character who looked like me. I tore through books, losing myself in story upon story. I read about knights who slayed dragons, and orphaned princesses who led kingdoms. I read about young people falling in love and old people growing apart. I read about life and loss and grief and love. But still, throughout all my reading, I never read a story about someone who looked like me.
It occurred to me that stories weren’t written about people like me. The people from the land across the ocean were excluded from the stories here. I wondered if this was purposeful. The thought filled me with a sadness as deep as the ocean that my people had crossed to come here.
I thought back to the past few months, of the way I had pushed myself away in favour of another. How could stories be written about people like me if people like me continued to shed our skin in order to fit a mold that was not ours?
My mother entered my room then, sitting next to me and bringing a comfort that only mothers can bring.
“Did you not like the costume I bought for you, my dear?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t want to pretend to be someone else.”
My mother smiled a sweet smile and kissed me on the forehead. “You know, I always did think you were the best at being you.”
I rolled my eyes. My mother laughed.
I listened to the music of her laugh, let it fill my heart and patch up the pieces of it that had cracked.
“I’m sorry,” I said to her. “You are not strange. And neither am I.”
She cupped my chin with her hand. “I know that, my dear. And I’m glad that you know it, too.”
I threw the costume my mother had bought into the garbage and pulled on clothes that made me feel comfortable. I went to my friends, who still played in the park. They smiled and called out when they saw me.
One of them furrowed their brows. “Where’s your costume? What character are you supposed to be?”
I smiled widely then. “The character that I am is myself.”
Some of my friends nodded, apparently unwilling to indulge my oddity. Others were more curious.
“But a character has a story,” one of them said, scratching their head in doubt. “Otherwise, they are not a character.”
I stood taller, the smile on my face growing wider, and gestured to the ground. “Then sit, my friends, and let me tell you a story. A story about a faraway land. A land across the ocean.”