The BBC have run a couple of articles recently about the problem of being a long term expat. I can identify with much of what is written - not feeling 'at home' anywhere; finding it better not to talk about one's past or where one has been as it is taken as pretentious or rouses envy; not being able to talk about things embedded in the culture of one's own country as one was not there; having picked up 'international' attitudes; having language and phraseology that is slightly out of kilter - enough to make you odd but not so much as to put you in the distinct category of 'foreign'; a (sometimes welcome) sense of living in the past. Several of the people interviewed said that they found it easier simply to treat their 'home' country as if it were just another 'foreign posting'. One pointed out that “You don't [reintegrate]. You realise that by having lived in so many different cultures, your personality and way of thinking has changed, and trying to adapt to what you were before you left is a mistake that will disregard the personal growth you have done.”
This is all very close to my personal experience. Furthermore, in my case it began very young. By the time I was ten I had spent half my life outside the UK in what was at that time a multicultural colonial community in the Middle East. Although Cyprus was a British colony at the time, there were not a lot of British civilians there and my parents had friends who were Greek, Armenian, Turkish, American, and other nationalities. My mother's best friend was Lebanese. I went to an Irish Catholic school where we had Greek Orthodox holidays and when mother took me down the street to go to the market we passed the Sufi tekke on the way.
I have spent most of my life travelling and being in one place for over a year now has been an unfamiliar experience. Every few days I get 'itchy feet', but I also greatly appreciate what this year plus has given me. However, it is still true that I am not 'in my home country' being in an isolated spot in France. This Christmas and New Year I will visit UK. 'Visit' seems like the right word.
Of course, I can reflect upon all this as a Buddhist. As a Buddhist one strives to give up attachment to identity. One is a 'refugee' even when one is in one's home land. Buddha's disciples wandered. They were errant spiritual knights travelling the world rescuing lost souls from demons and dragons - and rescuing the demons and dragons at the same time, if possible. Maybe that is why this has been a good religion for me. It is not difficult for me to think of the Buddha Land as my true home. Experiences that I had as a child already told me that that was where I really came from and belonged.
Nonetheless, one cannot completely gloss over the fact of being an oddity in this world. It gives me something special to offer and some special difficulties to endure. There is a certain kind of loneliness that it not altogether unpleasant - a kind of bitter-sweetness - as if all the pain of life that other people experience in unexpected devastating lumps were spread out more thinly so as to be eternally present but not debilitating. It adds edge to pleasure, wonder, surprise. You can find it described in masterly fashion in the poetry of Saigyo.
So, I am at home everywhere and nowhere. I cultivate the sense that every day is a new land, even if I have been in the same place for a while. The weather, the moon, the light, the smell of the air... the Buddha was right to talk about impermanence.
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