"The country where people look like me is the one where I can't speak the language, the country where people sound like me is a place where I like highly alien, and the country where people live like me is the most foreign space of all.... There are more and more people in a similar state, the children of blurred boundaries and global mobility."
The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home
Every Wednesday I spend time with an elderly Frenchwoman in my parish. I go to the noon mass and at the end Father hands me the Eucharist in a little gold box called a custode. I then head over to see Madame G - to pray and to give her communion. We always sit and talk after the main event. It is an honor to do this for her and for the parish and, believe me, any good I'm doing her is equal to the good she does for me.
Just before I met her she fell at home one day hard and had to be taken to the hospital for stitches. That changed her world. I'm not 90 so I can't put myself entirely in her shoes but, having had my body betray me last year, I can surely empathize. Our worlds shrank and that is a terrible feeling when one is used to being out and about (or hopping on an airplane on a whim).
This time she asked me about my children, the Frenchlings. She wanted to know why they were in Canada and not in France. Ah, that old question that keeps coming up over and over again: "Why did you/they leave us?" It wasn't an accusation, it was a plea for understanding.
Nonetheless, sometimes that question really irritates me. There are short answers which are glib and incomplete (and that we tailor carefully depending on who is asking the question) and there are long answers which usually have people's eyes glazing over after a few minutes.
Here's a secret: almost every long-term migrant struggles to answer that question for him or herself. Why is it a struggle? Because the answer changes over time - the reasons one had for leaving at 20 are not necessarily the same as the reasons one has at 50.
Back in 2011 I wrote a post called "Casting Errors" which was my attempt at the time to try and find a general answer to that question for myself. Re-reading it two years later I find that it is not entirely satisfactory but it still represents my best effort. So I offer it to you again - what I would have liked to have said to Madame G.
There is a strange phenomenon that I come across every once in awhile that makes me wonder if the universe really is benevolent. All of us come into the world having had certain choices made for us: our place of birth, our parents, our nationality, our first language and the very first culture we are exposed to. This is all pure chance; our very existence is the culmination of a series of events over which we have no control. Sometimes, it seems to me, this cosmic crapshoot leads to a number of casting errors.
I'm talking about people I meet who I think are horribly out of sync with their culture of origin. These are not necessarily rebels - on the contrary many of them go to extraordinary lengths to try to fit, but they don't. The people around them are singing in the key of C but everything in their hearts wants to sing in C#. It's not about political opinions or economic advancement or marrying the right person. I'm not talking about people with mental health problems either. It's really more fundamental - something about their essence, character or basic personality just doesn't work in the world in which they have emerged. They are out of tune and every single day of their lives they are confronted with a sense that there is something wrong with them. This can lead to belligerent resentment or just discreet misery.
I've met people like this in all the countries I've visited or lived in. People who are vaguely discontent, openly unhappy, quietly desperate or not at all "at home" where they are even if they were born there. Most never consider that they might have other options - the world we are born into is, as far as most of us are concerned, the whole world. Intellectually, we may be vaguely aware that people in other places do things differently, but we are not convinced that people elsewhere have radically different ways of thinking. Ways that are not better or worse than those of our home culture but they just might be a good fit if we ever dared to try them on for size.
It is so hard to take that mental leap. It requires what in Zen is called a "beginner's mind," one that is open to all possibilities. Just because we were born here or there, citizen of X or Y, does not mean that this is the best place, the right language, or the appropriate culture for us. Whether we are happy or unhappy, at home or not in our culture of origin, until we open ourselves to the idea that there are other worlds that might suit us better, we are all captive nations whatever our nationality or culture of origin may be.