Greetings Ducklings and Swans!
Why a penguin? It’s quite simple, really. Penguins, aside from the obvious stuff like being super-cute, snazzily dressed, eccentrics of the bird-world and probably in possession of a great sense of humour (anyone who lives in Antarctica must surely need one), are awkward and ungainly when they’re out of their element.
But, once in it, they become elegant, agile and graceful. For me, it’s not so much about becoming who I am, because I’ve always been my own person (and I strongly feel that the point of living life is to become ever more yourself), but about finding where you belong.
So, for this first Letter from a Penguin, the story of how I came home to a place I’d never been and fulfilled my dream of being a trans-Atlantic transplant.
I’d been an Anglophile for as long as I can remember, now whether that’s because one of my first memories is of wishing I was Mary Poppins (and she’s the subject of a whole other letter) or because I am half-English anyway (and that’s yet another) or some other, completely different reason, I’d always felt drawn to this…
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,–
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
– William Shakespeare, King Richard II, 2.1
So I was the kid, who when asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ was likely to reply ‘in England.’ I never really fit in America, the garrulousness, the over-friendliness, the expansiveness of it all, kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Why couldn’t people realise that the only acceptable small-talk between strangers is the weather (unless one of you has a dog with you, and then you can talk about the dog)?
Where was the snark and the sarcasm and the fine art of understatement? How did no one realise that ignoring everyone else is actually good manners? And then when I was sixteen I visited England for the first time and realised there was an entire country with people like me in it! Hurrah! I wasn’t as awkward as I thought; I was just in the wrong place. I arrived in London and knew I was home.
My mother realised that there had been a profound change in me and over the next two years, as I struggled with teen stuff and we worried I had depression which was diagnosed as an anxiety disorder and I started therapy (more letters!), she planned a trip back to England for my eighteenth birthday.
Boxing Day, 2000. I was standing on the top of one of the towers at Warwick Castle looking out at as the countryside disappeared into a lavender purple twilight and knew, without question or doubt, with a sudden calm certainty, that I would live and die and be buried in England. That was my future; all I needed to do was find my way to it.
My second year at university it all went to pieces. I’d thought I was in love with my degree in costume design and was excited by my first assignment as an assistant designer. Then there was an emergency in the designer’s family and I had to step up and take over the show and, although I thought I had done well, there was back-stabbing and politics behind the scenes and the year didn’t end well. I left not wanting to go back, it was no longer the life I wanted.
Shortly before the term finished I saw the film The Hours for the first time (that’s another letter). My friends were worried that I was identifying with Virginia Woolf a bit much, but there was a message in there that I needed at that time: you have to choose life. And it was time for me to reclaim mine.
Things looked better after the summer and I did return, with the knowledge that I wouldn’t be a designer and a plan: I was going to spend my final year studying abroad in England. Convincing my advisor to let me go was just the first battle I fought, but by then I had a lot of determination behind me and I was willing to fight to go home if I needed to.
At the end of that first year in England I knew I couldn’t go back, and I began working on ways to stay, a graduate work programme, a masters degree, and so one year led to another and another and then I was applying for what’s known as ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and I became a British resident. I had found my natural habitat and I wouldn’t have to leave.
So what’s the point behind this story? Find your home, your natural habitat, your element. It could be where you were born or an ocean away. It could be a career or a hobby rather than a place. Be willing to work for it, to stand up for it, to defend it and fight for it. Know that the road may not be easy, but it will be worth it when you get there.
Find your water and take to it like a penguin!
If you fancy a chat, tweet me through my dog’s Twitter account @ChloeAnneChi.
PS: Catherine sent this first letter as her Ugly Duckling story. But they developed into a series. You’ll find more Letters from a penguin in our blog. We’d like to thank her for deciding to publish them in our site.