When the idea of having a junior high school reunion was thrown into the discussion, I asked the self-appointed committee to set the date at least 3 months ahead so I (and others who now live out of town or country) would have time to plan the journey back. Alas, as normally Indonesians do, the best thing they could do was to set the date 3 weeks prior to the event, whilst I have had my whole itinerary fixed more than a month before the holy committee made up their mind. As a result, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t go.
I was pissed off, of course. I wanted to go back to the city where I grew up and see my teachers whom back then I thought were partly God for the knowledge they possessed and party evil for the misery they caused through my adolescence. I wanted to see the library again, my sanctuary, which has opened the door to the world I never thought existed before: Jules Verne, Tolkien, Dickens, Melville, and many more. I didn’t even realise those are big writers until I reached my late 20s and started reading English literature again and was surprised that I actually know so many classic novels. And of course I wanted to see some people whom I haven’t seen for decades, to catch up with the gossips and exchange each other’s life story. Reunion would be a great reason to do so, so not being able to attend the event because of the date was set too late was annoying.
But I was surprised that I was not as upset I predicted I would have been. I was upset, yes, but I quickly realise that the people I really want to see, the people whom I miss the most, are those who are still keeping in touch with me all these years. So I really didn’t miss anything.
What really struck me that moment was that I didn’t miss the city.
Even after spending my entire childhood there, I hardly remember anything about the city except its super-delicious seafood. Some friends could actually recall who sat next to whom back in high school, but I hardly could remember which class I was in! I barely could mimic the accent, and have a difficulty remembering – let alone uttering – the local dialect. It’s sad, really, but there is no connection between me and the city.
But having thought that, I have discovered that I never have my feet and feeling anchored in one place.
I don’t have a home.
And I am not alone. Several friends and family have the same feeling: not knowing where to belong. It is probably because we – the expats – build relationships to all of the cultures in which we have lived, while not having full ownership of any. Basically, our home is the world, it is not related to a geographical location per se. The saying ‘home is where the heart is’ would apply to some degree in our situation. Because of our varied experiences, we can see life in terms greater than one cultural boundary and can explain and express ourselves in more than one culture.
And that is also why many expats don’t feel ‘fit in’ with their own passport country’s culture. People often think that I am too blunt, too harsh, too straightforward, and too feisty, for an Indonesian. I don’t bow to elders, I detest name-dropping hobby (you know what I mean, when you attach someone’s name to his/her famous relatives, like, “Yes, I know A, she’s married to the son of the governor” or “B and I are friends, you know B, she’s the niece of the this General, who is the son of the king of XYZ, who owns this and that company“, or “I work with this man/woman who is the grandson/granddaughter of ex-MP“, bla-bla-bla), I shake hands firmly, and I don’t think wearing sleeveless top to my father’s office would be considered impolite.
But on the other hand, when my fellow student put his feet up on the table I frowned and thought he was being rude. I don’t like it when my ex boss pointed at something with his foot, and sometimes I still think it is not polite to hand something out using our left hand. Yes, as much as I think that I am not an Indonesian, guess what, I still am, to a certain degree.
That is the greatest dilemma expats and third culture kids face, whether overseas or in our home country. We don’t fully know about our adoptive country, yet when we go back to our home country, we missed out on too much of the local aspects to say something about them.
One thing I am certain is the degree of closeness I feel with friends and family back home (again, where is home? Let’s say it’s Indonesia for now). I used to try to keep in touch with them by emails, instant messengers, and other social media modules. But gradually I get the feeling that ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and after a couple of years of trying, I guess I should give up at one point as this wouldn’t work if only one side thinks it’s important and the other doesn’t share the same value. I text much less, I hardly email, and very rarely check out their facebook profiles anymore. I don’t belong there anymore. Yet, at the same time, I still don’t belong here – I am still finding new friends and starting new friendships with new people.
I think our house is as ‘confused’ as us. There are appliances with Indonesian (European), British, and Australian power plugs, so there are adapters everywhere. Our TVs have Indonesian power plugs, but the game consoles are British. My iphone has British power plug, my blackberry has Indonesian one, and our land line phone is obviously Australian. My hairdryer is British, but my curling iron is Indonesian. Our kitchen appliances and furniture are mostly Australian now, except the rice cooker, which is British. Imagine if we move to the States, how many adapters shall we collect?
Back to the reunion, I just received the news that now my senior high school is throwing a reunion party. Naturally I am excited. Although I maintain friendships with my best friends in high school until now, there are others whom I haven’t seen for years and hope to see in this event. And I know the date now, months from it, and even though I have got my itinerary fixed, I hope I still have time to change it.
On the other hand, I know that I’d be wandering around the party with a glass of orange juice (pretending it’s a screwdriver – since it would be booze-free event), trying not to use English too much, trying to speak and act ‘local’, trying to dress and behave properly, trying not to be an ‘outsider’. Trying to fit in. Again. It will be fun to see what others think about me when they see me (aloof? Snob? Stuck-up? Stiff? Strange?). We have grown up apart and separated our ways for decades, so naturally it would feel like meeting new people. But I know I’m at least trying putting myself in their shoes. I have been there, it shouldn’t be too difficult to retrace my steps to go back there again. However, I know it will be more difficult for them to understand what I have gone through. There’s a good chance that, rather than feeling I’m back home, I’d rather feel that I don’t belong there, even though I want to, and try to.
Natalia Sarro in Where Is Home To An Expat? says “in our days, the concepts of space and time – traditionally considered as fixed, closed structures – are clearly in transition, leading us to think of them as unpredictable and unstructured settings. We no longer can call home our country of origin. Home is not even the house we built or the place where we were born. Rather than a physical place, home is what we do with others. Home is an action, rather than a noun. The sense of belonging, traditionally attached to a physical place, is now evolving in a new conception of belonging based on actions that relate one person to others. Basically, the sense of identity and of being at “home” is constructed by people when doing a common task with others.”
Dr Anne Copeland, director of the Interchange Institute, agrees that expatriates will find that they have more in common with others who have been through the same thing. The ‘marginality’ – being an onlooking bystander – becomes comfortable and something to be shared with others who have the same kind of experience.
What they’re trying to say, I guess that I shouldn’t push myself too hard. Like pieces of puzzles, not everything fit into the picture. There are several pieces we could join together and merge smoothly, and there are others we should put in separate bowls and keep them as souvenirs from the past.
And for the missing piece called home, we might continue searching. I don’t know when, if, or should, I find my anchor. One thing that I am certain: I’m having fun searching for it.