When shit goes down and you’re not there

I spent most of my life before 2008 in the Boston area, hating the New York Yankees and shoveling snow, but have since lived there only intermittently. I miss the baseball. I don’t miss the winters.

While a New York City resident in 2013, I received a text message one morning that made my blood run cold: “is your family OK?” Please do not ever send someone a text message like this, because they will feel like they’re going to vomit all over themselves until they manage to find a news outlet.

The Boston Marathon, a tradition I always associated with childhood days off of school and civic pride, had just been bombed. To me, Marathon Monday is Massachusetts and, as usual, I knew people running the race. For the next day or two I was glued to my Facebook newsfeed, which, because several of my friends lived in and around the area one of the bombers fled to, provided better coverage than the actual news. My mind was home but my body wasn’t, and I couldn’t focus on anything else until the emergency resolved.

I’ve since further uprooted myself. I don’t even live in my home country, nor do I have plans to move back in the near future. I’m not a permanent resident anywhere, an existence that can be both exciting and isolating.

Recently, some of my French university students were researching the death of Eric Garner soon after a grand jury decided not to indict his killer. As they watched the ubiquitous chokehold video, they cried out, shocked.

“Well, that’s America,” one of them eventually shrugged. They were disturbed by the death and the jury’s decision, but they also seemed comforted by a belief that such a miscarriage of justice couldn’t happen here in France. I happen to disagree with them, but even if I thought France such a fair place I still couldn’t dismiss the video the way we all, even if we don’t want to admit it, dismiss horrible things that happen in faraway places. I come from the country that killed Eric Garner and so many others with impunity. I’ve watched the American anti-police brutality protests of this and last year from afar, taking place in cities I know and love. It’s a crucial moment for my country, and it’s a set of issues I’m passionate about.

But I don’t live there, and all I can do is post opinion pieces on Facebook and watch Baltimore burn as if through a telescope. For how long can I intelligently examine and criticize a place I’ve abandoned from the inherent safety and ignorance of distance?

Despite living in France, I sometimes feel further away from it than I do from the States. I was terrified, angered, and saddened by the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January, but I didn’t really feel a part of the national mourning. There was a detachment to my reaction that was a bit like my reaction when I read about abominable things in the news every day. It was more empathetic than personal, even though it happened just two hours from where I currently live.

But when shit goes down in the homeland, it breaks my heart. Living abroad can feel like standing in a box with two windows made out of one-way glass. Through one, I can see where I came from, and through the other, where I am, but I’m really only an observer of both.

(featured photo from Patrick Semansky/AP Photo via abcnews.com)

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