Expatriate life #
Living as an expatriate is very strange. It doubles the size of your personal world: you have two homes, two places with significant personal meaning, two places to attach memories and experiences to. But it also fragments you, it means no matter where you are you are never 100% home, never 100% settled. It’s a bizarre and fascinating way to live, and it’s something I think about a lot, particularly during my visits back to the country I was born in, Australia.
Thoughts on visiting Australia in Summer 2021/2. #
I’m visiting again, and the experience is coloured by the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that I had no way of anticipating.
Forgetting all the dry facts and the boring stuff, like how much more of a hassle air travel is now, how much more anxiety there is to deal with at airports, the cost of insurance, the uncertainty around whether any of your plans will actually be executed or things will just be canceled at the last minute, there is just a weird sense that the world has gone backwards a bit, retreated into this weird isolationism that I haven’t experienced in my lifetime.
Until some point in the last five or so years that I can’t exactly put my finger on, I had always felt like the world was moving forward, maybe on a serpentine path and maybe nfwith a few wrong turns along the way, but ultimately moving forward towards a future with fewer borders, fewer differences between people and more understanding and embracing of the things that are common among all human beings. Even before the pandemic this worldview was rejected and no longer advanced but the border closures and disruptions to international travel really made it clearer and happen faster: the world is not moving towards some idyllic John Lennon-style religion-and-country-free paradise, but the nation-state model is becoming more entrenched, nationalism is on the rise once again, and people’s natural fears of others are being exploited for political gain during a time of great tragedy and uncertainty.
So it’s a very different time to be an expat than it was when I last ruminated on the subject (see below).
My inner optimist, who is also probably full of himself and has an exaggerated idea of how important his worldview is, thinks that bicultural people like expatriates and immigrants are crucial to what he hopes is a fight back against this rising nationalism and border-raising. Who else will light the way, he posits, other than those who have done the work, suffered the confusion and fear of another culture and understood in the most personal of ways that there is nothing to fear, that people are just people no matter where they’re from, and that multiculturalism can do nothing but make everyone culturally richer. He is an optimist after all, so he sees the “culture wars” as an opportunity: people just need to see that it isn’t really a war, like during the famous Christmas Day ceasefire in the trenches of the western front, and just forget it all for a bit and play soccer together.
The inner pessimist though sees it differently. In a world where borders become higher and the differences between tribes become deeper fault lines in a culture war of attrition, expats are not to be trusted as their allegiance is neither here nor there.
Thoughts on visiting Australia in October 2019. #
I’m not sure I know where to start, but I want to write about my experience of the place I used to live, the place I come from, as a visitor.
The place itself is the first thing you notice. The first time I went back as an expat, after the plane landed and I got through customs and into the rental car, I burst into tears as I felt the sun, which is so different down there, and heard the sound of talk radio. The whole place is imbued with deep and personal meaning, the smells, the textures, the colours. The sky in Australia looks and feels different. The sight of the Blue Mountains looming before you on the motorway evokes a whole gamut of emotions: apprehension, anxiety, sadness, excitement, joy, grief.
Things, too, have magnified meaning. I found many objects and items were intimately connected with memories of past experience, of previous periods of my life. I spent a lot of time seeking out tokens to take home with me, including things I’d written as a child that my mother had kept in her garage. My mind was swimming with ideas of things to buy, pieces of the country and of myself that I wanted to hoard back with me on the plane. I bought a cricket bat, played with it with my friends a couple of times, and imagined using it back in my adopted home, with my new friends, or even my children. And I took home a few coveted items from my childhood and teenage years: the numberplate of my high school car, some beloved books and writings.
Last time I was home, I went a bit crazy with food. For me, of all things, food is the most charged with emotion and nostalgia. When I’m there I want to eat all the things I ate earlier in my life, when I felt differently or thought differently. The citrus and cardamom cake at my favourite local bakery reminds me of my grandmother towards the end of her life. The Thai and Indian restaurants remind me of rainy winter evenings in my ancient Honda Accord, my high school car, driving back down the hill with the food on the passenger seat, fogging up the windows.
This time I tried to be a little more restrained. I noticed the difference between how I eat today and how I used to eat, which is highly correlated with how healthy and heavy I am today compared to how healthy and heavy I used to be. This creates tension. The subconscious is yearning for those foods that will sate its desire to be home again, that will inspire the memories and the thoughts and the associations that it has missed for so long. But the active mind resists, remembering the work done to get where it is today, the restraint, the self-control. I experience this tension as anxiety, an anxiety I have written about before. Sometimes the balance eludes me, and sometimes I can find it and enjoy it.
Life in your old home doesn’t stay a frozen snapshot after you leave. In the same way that the buildings on the streets slowly change, old ones are knocked down and new ones built in their place, so too do people change, and the most striking marker of change I have found to be my friends. Many of my friends have moved as well, a couple overseas, one interstate, but there are still a fair few around where I used to live. In the five years that I’ve gone, they’ve changed jobs or even careers, partners, apartments, worldviews and personalities.
It’s interesting to observe the changes and think about how people make friends. I have tended throughout my life to follow a “few and deep” approach: I don’t like small talk, I don’t like maintaining a large but shallow social circle. I like to have a small number of true, quality friendships. The kind of friendships that can survive one of the parties living on the other side of the world. And the kind of friendships that can survive the sorts of changes that I mentioned earlier. A few of my old friends I have fallen out of touch with, but for the most part all the valuable friendships I had when I lived in Australia are still very much alive and real. The content of conversations has changed, because we’re not poor students anymore but real people with jobs and wives and money and worries and anxieties that we’re actually comfortable talking about. But the essences of the friendships are still there, and this is something I don’t take for granted.
I didn’t leave it to last by coincidence: family is the most meaningful and the hardest part of visiting home. I have two teenage sisters, so even more than my friends or anyone else, there are real changes in who they are as people between visits. I feel like every time I arrive I need to get to know them again. I feel great sadness about everything I’ve missed and am going to miss.
Somehow though, many of my relationships with my family have strengthened since I’ve left. It’s taken a lot of work, both of the personal growth kind and the actual making sure you communicate on a regular basis kind. But whereas I have seen people’s relationships with their parents become a lot more distant after they move overseas, mine have felt a little closer, like there’s a little more awareness of the preciousness of things from both sides, and when I’m there there’s a feeling of happiness and togetherness that seems new to me.
I’m not sure when we’ll be back next. We’re having a baby in a few months, so travelling to the other side of the world is going to be out of the question for probably the next year or so. It’s going to give us an opportunity to settle a little bit, not travel for a while and put a few roots down in my adopted home. But there’s always a piece of me that’s a little bit homesick, some days more than others, or maybe a better word is nostalgic or wistful, for the place I used to live when I was young.