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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why Did You Leave?

"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."

Pico Iyer
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.    

Casting Errors

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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting reflections. No easy answer, and we all have different reasons, and our mental space can be different from our physical space. My general sense is that we are more mobile now, it makes sense when young to explore, and see how the randomness of life (work, relationships, experience) translates into a decision.

My approach was the foreign service which gave me the international experience without migration, but changed and broadened my identity.

Anonymous said...

Casting Errors is a keeper. So succinct and for me, helpful in understanding the goodness of fit issues with which I have concerned myself. First, family of origin, who were trying mightily to establish a middle class lifestyle and leave behind working class demands. How I developed a sense of self was inextricably connected to parental ideals of fitting in with social norms at the time. Then nation of origin, whose entire identity has been shaped by unrestricted voices of media, industry and commerce. In both contexts I felt as if I could not breathe or find solid ground. Immigrant inlaws gave me a family connection with greater soul, and having the opportunity to do long distance hiking gave me a context in which I could feel whole. Whole with less. What a concept. Psychotherapy over the years has been a huge part of developing self and trusting perception and choosing more of what would feel right to me in many areas of life. Travel has given me glimpses of social contexts I might prefer, and I stay open to that horizon as much as I can, Flophouse being one lovely portal for such pursuits.

bubblebustin said...

I left the US for Canada as a child with my siblings when our Canadian mother brought us here, so for me there was really no other choice in the matter, but I'm happy it was made for me. I cannot even imagine how my life would be had I remained in Florida. I do have reason to believe that due to rising sea levels I would not have been able to remain there into my old age, however, as I believe that most of Florida will be under water within 20 years.
When I left at 12, I distinctly remember thinking that the US was the best country on earth and any country that didn't want to emulate the US was backwards.
Moving to another country taught me otherwise. It has enriched my life and given me a greater appreciation for a diversity of experience that I may not of had had I remained in the US.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't wait to leave the US where I ended up when my parents left Europe and brought me along. Most of my childhood I saw how bitterly my mother missed her family, friends and the life left behind her. Trapped in the US with too many children a husband with a low paying job and then illness. So I escaped back and used to have nightmares of being "re-trapped" every infrequent time I returned to the US.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

No, there are no easy answers. And we are more mobile now though it's not just the young. IRM (international retirement migration) is growing. Imagine seniors hanging out in a village in Mexico - I have a distant family member who did that. No running water, very few amenities but she's apparently having the time of her life. Who would have guessed?

@anonymous, I'm glad you liked it. I love your description of where your sense of self came from.

@bubblebustin, Would you believe that Florida is one part of the world I have never EVER been to? It's good to hear that a decision that was made for you became your own decision over time. When the Frenchlings were younger and we were moving them around they sometimes got very angry with us. How do they feel about it today? I will have to ask.

@anonymous, I can really relate to your mom. There were a few times as I was putting down roots that I wanted to just pack up and leave. If I hadn't been able to negotiate with my spouse over terms I might have done so. There is an excellent book out there by Gabrielle Varro called The Transplanted Woman.
I read it a long time ago and am now looking for a copy so I can read it again. Really interesting research.

bubblebustin said...

Thank you for asking, Victoria. Before my parents divorced while we were still living in the US, we used to have to move fairly often because of my father's work. So I guess you could say that I was used to being uprooted. I didn't have anyone in the way of extended family in the US (as both my parents were immigrants there) so I looked forward to being part of the very large family I had in Canada through my mother. It was almost like coming home for me, although I'd only visited Canada once before moving here, the year before we actually made the move. I suppose unlike your children who may have felt uprooted, I actually established roots for the first time in my life by moving to Canada.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Victoria - "The transplanted Woman" that is available free on the internet. I have a lot of experience in this field, both personally and because my professional life involves daily contact with refugees and immigrants here in the EU - Thank you so much for your blog. Cheers!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, Thank you so much for your comment and for the tip about Varro's piece. Your job sounds fascinating. Migration is definitely not gender neutral.

A friend also passed me an old copy of Hommes et Migrations (1993) about bi-national/bi-cultural marriages. Les mariages mixtes. Varro has a piece about Franco-American couples that I will definitely review for the Flophosue. Some real surprises in there for me.

I will scan the article and send it to anyone who is interested.