This World Is Not My Home | by Jeremy Paden
In my first passport picture, I sit on my mother’s lap. Beside us stands my sister. Vietnam had just ended, and Dad, whose number was never called during his undergraduate years in the States, found himself needing to choose between obligatory military service in the Italian army or, thanks to a 1972 change in the law, some form of authorized community service. A conscientious objector, he chose the latter. We spent the better part of 1976, the year I turned two, in Nigeria. Dad, an advanced medical student dreaming of becoming a medical missionary, worked in a hospital.
My earliest memory, perhaps, is not my sister’s nightmare on our first night in country, though they say her screams about “the elephants coming” woke me. Nor is it our disobedience, crossing the street to eat our neighbors’ food. That story, too, was told to me. It’s being put down in an open air market in Lagos, Nigeria, by a tired mother. The air was pungent with fresh fish and foods I did not recognize, but it’s not like I have a clear, sharp recollection. It’s colors, shapes, smells, bright tropical light, bustle, and unintelligible language. I have one other memory from Nigeria that I know is mine. Which is to say, not from stories told me, not from pictures taken. It too is vague. And it’s standing in a thatched-roof, open-air hut, people singing church songs in Yoruba. I don’t know how early most people remember. I suppose these were imprinted only because Lagos is nothing like Milan, Italy, where Dad was studying medicine.
Though we left Italy when I was only four, I have a catalogue of memories from those years, all of which are, I presume, from after Nigeria. All are also rather banal: me standing naked and crying on an Italian beach, opening a Kinder egg in a Fiat in some parking lot, disobeying my grandfather by climbing a ladder into an old hayloft and crying for him to get me down. But over the course my childhood, as we moved from place to place, I’d call them up, then zoom in and out on the grain of the wood on that barn or the stitching of the car’s seat, though I can’t remember the color of the car or the material of the upholstery.
Like my father, I am an American citizen born abroad and declared at a consulate soon after my birth. By the time I left for college, I’d lived on three continents, one isthmus, and one archipelago. Another way of adding this up is six countries, four U.S. states, ten cities, and around 18 discreet residences, not counting the bed under my aunt and uncle’s stairs in Goleta, California, where I worked as a security guard for an RV camp and at a roadside organic food stand the eight months before heading off to college.