Are we grateful never to have to pine for home, or resentful that as much as we try we just can’t seem to ‘go native’? And if we do, is it even desirable? Can the expat ever really just go home or are you so transformed by the culture – or even by your imported semi-skimmed, no man’s land expat enclave – that your sense of home has intolerably shifted?
What might the advantages of going native be, and are they worth the cost of a changed sense of your own nature and natural abode?
There’s no place like home
Foreign travels and adventures have always been a great theme of art and literature, founded upon the real life voyages of ancient civilizations searching for new worlds. From the Vikings reaching as far afield as Central Asia in the east to Newfoundland and Canada in the west, to the Polynesians spanning over 26 million square miles of the South Pacific from Hawaii to Fiji and Easter Island.
And so our stories have grown up around them. With new evidence suggesting that our pre-human ancestors have been going to sea for more than 100,000 years, it is no wonder that one of the greatest tales of epic adventure should come out of the Greece and the Mediterranean, thus giving us the wonderfully evocative word odyssey.
But Odysseus’ story, though filled with marvellous discoveries and weird and wonderful cultural encounters, is not one of sea-faring exploration but of his desire to get back home to Ithaca. Equally in that other pillar of Western literature, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, we find Dorothy, after being torn from her (albeit unhappy) home, journeying to find the Wizard in the hope that he will help her return home.
Like Odysseus, Dorothy goes through innumerable trials and tribulations, performing various good and terrifying deeds in her quest to get home, and it is only when she is done that the “Good Witch” Gilnda tells her, in that memorable scene, that if she wants to go home all she has to do is close her eyes and repeat “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”
In other words, she could have done this all along. Easy as. For the power was always within herself.
Odysseus meanwhile has to put up with his wayward crew and a bad tempered Poseidon, the only ray of sunshine that he is effectively a sex slave for a bewitching nymph, Circe, for a year, before getting fed up and finally escaping to make it home a full ten years after he set off. Too bad for him.
That home is within Dorothy is an interesting concept and one that fits with another interpretation of this epic theme, one which it is only kind that poor Odysseus never gets to hear about: the Stoic concept of home, as rendered in Constantine P. Cavafy’s beautiful poem ‘Ithaca’.
For the Stoics, as for Cavafy, home is as much a state of mind as an actual place, just as hell is for Dr Faustus at the end of Kit Marlowe’s play. A true Stoic can be at home anywhere in the world; the world is your oyster, replete with shining pearly show-home interiors, and you’re never therefore an exile, never away from home, for you are always at home in it.
“Have Ithaca always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.”
Home does not have to be a fixed geographical point. Rather it is an idea, a goal that you aim at, something you reach towards. It is what motivates you, pushes you on, and though you may think the reward will come at journey’s end, really the journey was the point – the journey was the reward.
So, “there’s no place like home”? The Stoics would beg to differ. There’s no place, they would say, like the journey.
I have always borne this Stoic-frame of mind, but it was not until I was twenty years old that I got to put it to the test, when I had my first encounter with Hong Kong.
I had just finished university and unlike most of my peers did not have a job in management consultancy or a place at law school lined up. So, when I saw an advertisement asking for teachers in the New Territories I jumped at the chance, with little or no thought about the consequences. Heck! I didn’t even know where Hong Kong was, but I soon found out.
It was miles away, over five thousand to be precise, nine hours on a plane, and I can still remember the breakfast they gave us a couple of hours before coming into land, and how several hours later – disembarked into a hot and sultry late afternoon in the smog and peculiar scent of Hong Kong – it was still with me, churning and turning around somewhere between my gullet and my stomach as we were taken by our school for our first and beyond doubt the longest Cantonese meal I have ever experienced.
As a vegetarian, I was presented with two dishes – a plate of greens swimming in dark shiny sauce and some deep-fried things, a couple of mouthfuls of which was more than enough to keep the still undigested egg company in my fast-asleep digestive system.
This gave me ample time to dreamily observe the new and bewildering company I was in and their customs. How did they use their chopsticks? How did they ask for more tea? How did they eat those enormous pieces of meat? I soon found out. Everything went in, and what could not be digested – the bones, gristle, feet or head – was spat back out, into a napkin or bowl, whichever came most easily to hand.
I do not mean to present such habits as barbaric, but this is how it seemed at the time – about 4am according to my body clock. Our first encounters with anything that is different are always tinged with awe: wonder, fear, revulsion and incomprehension, and this was to be the pattern of experience for the next four months. Culture shock.
From the stares my blonde-haired flatmate and I attracted on the trams, buses and trains, to the incomprehension our attempts at Cantonese were met with in McDonald’s, from our aversion to Cantonese milk tea and my horror at finding meat in the ‘vegetarian’ school soup, to our battles with humidity, mosquitoes and sunburn, we were homesick.
Life in the shell
Needless to say, I thought I would never go back to Hong Kong. It had all been too much: the language, the climate, the food, the culture. While I was fascinated by the markets, the scenery… I did not miss living on the 27th floor of a twelve tower housing estate, having metal bars on my window in case I found myself tempted (which I often did) to jump out, or the homesickness.
But, what can I say? I’m stubborn, and after giving up the first time, I did find myself – some six or seven months later – heading back. This time to take up a job in Central and a flat in the ultra clean, Western expat enclave of Discovery Bay – Disco Bay, D’B or Delivery Bay, as it’s familiarly known, mainly for the number of beer-swilling pilots and city bankers who live there with their glamorous wives, burgeoning young brood and domestic help.
“It seemed to me, that the life led by these overseas businessmen and officials was in every way agreeable and enviable when compared with its counterpart in modern England.”
Evelyn Waugh on a Mediterranean cruise, circa 1929, stopping off in the north African town of Port Said, describes the English expats he found there in terms that, for me, all too readily evoke the expats today living in post-colonial Hong Kong:
“There was of course, no nonsense of tropical romance; no indomitable jungle, no contact with raw nature, no malaria… no one showed the slightest inclination to ‘go native’; no one was eating his heart out for the lights of Piccadilly, or yew walks of a manorial garden; they did not play their bridge with greasy cards or read and re-read a year-old newspaper; no one was ‘trying to forget’ … they had gramophone records of musical plays still running in London; their newspapers were ten days old, but they had their own Tatler [think: the equivalent of Time Out] …
The women seemed particularly carefree; they live in manageable modern flats and are served by quiet native men-servants, whose response to all orders, however ill-comprehended, is a deferential inclination of the head and a softly spoken ‘All right.’
The men… are, almost without exception, the employees of important firms; they act merely as local agents, with strictly limited responsibilities and nicely defined powers, enjoying absolute security of income, and looking forward to regular degrees of promotion and ultimate superannuation and pension…
They live in a Utopian socialist state untroubled by the ardours and asperities of private enterprise. I think many of them were quite conscious of the peculiar felicity of their lives. Certainly, those who had lately been home on leave had returned with a slightly dissatisfied air. England was changing they said; damned Bolshies everywhere. ‘You have to come outside England,’ one of them told me, ‘to meet the best type of Englishman.'”
Well, I can tell you, Waugh was slightly less complimentary in his letters home to his friends and family: “In spite of all reports, this is an intolerably dull town. Two expensive and very dirty hotels, one brothel, a cinema and this awful club where the shipping clerks try to create an Ethel M. Dell garrison life by drinking endless “gin & tonic” and talking about “the old country” and “pukka sahibs.””
Well, there may not have been dirty hotels in D’B, or a cinema, and I never did hear talk of “pukka sahibs”, but the rest of it is pretty true (for “brothels”, in case your wondering, just replace with “swingers” and you’re there).
When my mum came to visit she was equally bemused: “It’s like living in The Prisoner,” she laughed. Though I am far too young to remember the 70’s cult TV show, the title sort of gives it away and when she took to crying out the slogan “I’m not a number, I’m a free man!” I didn’t need Youtube to help me understand. I got it. The Prisoner: a sci-fi thriller about a man (technically a spy agent) who is held captive in a mysterious coastal town (Portmeirion in Wales to be precise) while they try to find out why he resigned from his job, and every time he tries to escape he is chased by enormous ping pong balls that try to squash him. (Think Jim Carey in The Truman Show for a more modern equivalent.)
This was pretty much the feeling of D’Bay – somewhere between a Saga holiday resort, replete with its own golf buggies to scoot around in, and The Stepford Wives, the old and truly terrifying version. Blond-haired German mothers and their children shopped for pretzels, croissants and rye in the international bakery, yummy mummies who talked salons and shopping over post-pilates dry cappuccinos in the coffee shop.
And every morning and evening about 3,000 suited and booted professionals returned from the city by ferry to dine in restaurants on the waterfront, enjoy beers in the sports bar or retire to their luxury carbon-copy three-storey houses, three-storey kids, three-storey dogs and a garden or three.
Not me: I had a sparsely furnished one-bedroom flat with a sea-view, but oh how I cherished it! I had windows – big ones – that I could open, a clear view all the way to Disneyland, a shower over the bath not the toilet, and I had a kitchen big enough to actually prepare food in. I was lucky and, after having spent just one day flat hunting in Central, I knew it.
For after living in Tuen Mun, a sometime fishing village turned concrete conglomerate, where hardly an ounce of English was spoken, here I was surrounded by low-rise houses, delicate gardens, second-hand English bookshops, imported Western tea and coffee, bread and pastry, and a direct link into the city 24 hours a day only 20 minutes away. Life was good, life was normal… or if not quite normal, for I did feel a little like I’d retired to Florida at the tender age of 21, utterly bearable. Breathable. Yes, here was where Hong Kong had been keeping the fresh air all this time.
But, after a while even the freshest air can become stale and for the expat living abroad this can feel all the more true: life in a bubble, your head safely tucked into your snail shell, never venturing beyond the parameter fence for fear that the natives will get you. Think I am exaggerating? That the modern-day expat communities are a far cry from the good old days of British colonialism? Well, I’d have thought so too, but then I read Waugh and, as I say, it all came flooding back.
Reverse culture shock
Waugh’s 1920s expats in Port Said seem conscious of their happy state of existence, living the dream of ease and leisure abroad. Myself, I could not quite feel this. All too aware of the social clubs, the tennis, the servants – sorry, domestic helpers, and feeling very much the pangs of longing for yew walks in manorial gardens, the books, music and plays of London bookshops and theatres… the feeling, in short, that I was playing at living at home abroad, I packed it all up for a Master’s in Cambridge, England.
Now, lest I am in danger of sounding a little too much like Goldilocks – “oh, too hot, too cold, oh too cultural and shocking, too anodyne and clinical!” – let me refer you to again to Waugh and the dissatisfaction of his Englishmen on going home, a phenomenon known as reverse culture shock (RCS).
If you’ve never encountered this just imagine all the excitement and adventure of going on holiday – new set of clothes, new kinds of foods, new and interesting people – then the inevitable tummy troubles, sunburn and insect bites and the desire, suddenly, just to be back in your own bed with your old familiar PJs, a good cuppa tea and the cat curled up beside you. Well, that is pretty much it, but instead of going on holiday, you’ve gone home.
RCS describes the experience of expats returning to their native countries: the initial excitement of seeing old family and friends, being reunited with familiar scenes, foods and comforts, and the confusion, bewilderment and frustration that sets in as they realise that home is not quite what they thought, not quite the same as they’d left it – a sense of feeling out of place or at odds with one’s surroundings.
Some of this is of course just mild frustration, such as any Brit will feel returning from a holiday in a warm climate with an efficient transportation system to English damp and drizzle and London’s antiqued Underground. “Where,” I cry as I haul my suitcase up and then down yet another flight of stairs, “are the bloody escalators?!”
But RCS is more than just this. It is, for some, a sense that there’s a big wide world out there, infinite possible ways of living, doing, seeing, thinking, and you – dearest friends, family and fellow countrymen – are still living, doing, seeing, thinking like this? Eastenders really? Are you kidding me?
When I came home the last time, my sister was sweet and threw me a surprise welcome home party, but as all my friends lived in London (or Hong Kong!) none could make it and rather than feeling the like honorary guest, I ended up feeling like an alien visiting from another planet, observing another race’s small-talk and quaint customs, trying desperately to translate their shared signs and jokes into something – anything! – I could understand and participate in.
But it wasn’t until I arrived at Cambridge that things really started to get weird: where were all the Chinese? Why was there all this grass lying around the place, and ducks, and … wait! Chinese people. I spy Chinese…oh, tourists.
Then walking down the street one day, quite some months after getting back, the sun was shining square in my face, blinding me and making me concerned for my white skin. Heaven forbid I should get too tanned! I searched around to see if I had a book or a folder I could shield my face with. Nothing. I tried my hand, but it wasn’t big enough. “If only I had an umbrella,” I thought, “that’d be perfect.” But, no. No one in England walks in the sun under an umbrella, or down the street shielding their face with their book or handbag. Only in Asia. And that’s when I realised I missed the old place, and in less than a year…
Yup, I was back again.
There’s no place like home
And now? Well, I’m back in England again, repatriated for the third time, and unless my dreams of living in Paris or on a Greek or Hebridean island come true, it’s probably for good. Here’s why:
RCS is not only complaining about the bad weather, the terrible transportation system and the extortionate price of everything, about how nothing ever changes, no one ever goes anywhere or does anything, how the whole culture of your country is so close-minded, the food so bland and boring.
It doesn’t just mean pining nostalgically for everything you’ve left behind and loathing everything you’ve come back home to, nor does it simply mean you don’t have the foggiest clue or care for what’s going on in Eastenders. (That may be true, but five minutes will probably be sufficient to get you up to speed.) No, RCS means that the very worries and cares of your nearest and dearest can feel… well, worlds away.
For, unlike the characters on Eastenders, real people’s lives really do move on. They change jobs, get new boyfriends, get married to old ones, have kids… Or even if on the outside nothing seems to have changed, how they feel about things (their jobs, their boyfriends, their kids…) does.
Each and every time I’ve come home – even just for a brief visit – I’ve been astounded by how easy it is to pick up with these lovely people I call my family. It’s like slipping on an old pair of gloves: still fits perfectly! But, wait.
Within minutes you realise these aren’t your old gloves at all. Something has happened to them. Someone must’ve borrowed them. There’s a hole here, and look, someone patched that finger back together there. Sure they look good as new, but clearly there’s been a lot of use, wear and tear, good times and bad had with these gloves while you’ve been away, and you missed it all.
And just like when I was a kid and one of my sisters borrowed my perfume, scarf, sweater etc, I could feel jealous that these gloves had looked better on them… which, if you’re about as lost with that metaphor now as I am, means: I was jealous that they had each other through all those times and I had not. I’d not been there.
So, that’s not going to happen this time. The next time one of them splits up with their boyfriend, quits their job or collapses on the kitchen floor at Christmas and has to be airlifted to hospital, I intend to be there. And if nice things happen? Sure, I’ll be there too. Because all the sunshine and mango in Asia can’t make up for the warmth and comfort of home. Sure, the winters here are long, the transport cripplingly expensive and the …. Wait, look, I can’t even think of a third item for my list!
There are pros and cons the world over and, creatures of habit, we easily adapt to whatever new environment we find ourselves in. Believe me, give it a year – give it six months – and anywhere from the Antarctic to Auschwitz, Guantanamo to Grenada will come to feel like home. Don’t believe me? Think you could never find yourself spending three or four years ex-patria?
Just consider how comfortable you make yourself in a hotel room for just 24 hours and what state you end up leaving it in! With the key to the door, your pyjamas laid out on the bed and your toothbrush by the sink, you’ve made yourself at home.
Expatriation is just like that: when you first arrive you get to work, unpacking and making yourself at home, opening cupboards, looking into wardrobes, rooting through the goodies in the minibar and surfing the TV channels.
Relishing the freshness and newness of everything, you fight any sense of austerity, insecurity and impermanence – the idea of foreignness presented by those whiter than white sheets – by putting your mark on the place, your feet on the bed. For the next however long this room is yours, this territory is your home. Like a cat, you rub your scent on it, take a piss. Ah, Bisto! You’re at home.
Then after a few days, the sense of freshness starts to wear off. No one’s emptied the bins today and that banana peel you put there last night is starting to rot. In fact, your whole wardrobe is soiled and stinky and you start to look forward to emptying it all into the wash, catching up with friends and family, making tea with fresh milk instead of those annoying little pots of UHT, washing your hair with a conditioner than actually softens it, and drying it with a hairdryer that’s not kept in a desk drawer.
That’s when it’s time to call down to the concierge, get them to run up your bill and order you a cab. You’re going back home. Repatriation.
You’re not stupid. You know that that first pleasurable flush of feeling at coming back home won’t last forever: your own carpet as you run up the stairs won’t always feel like this – at once so new and yet so familiar, or that the novelty of running up stairs in a mad dash for the bathroom won’t always feel so good.
But for now there is something inexplicably comforting in filling the kettle from your own kitchen tap, opening the door of your own cupboards for that dusty old box of teabags and drinking tea out of your own favourite oversized novelty Number One Teacher/Daughter/Friend mug. Even giving the cat the stinky scrapings from the tin in the fridge has a satisfaction to it.
Because you’re home – and there are no words for that.