Friday, February 17, 2012

Never belonging

Bashir Goth

As an expatriate, one lives in perpetual split personality. As you work and socialize with the citizens of the country you adopted for your expatriate life, you develop a sense of belonging and you rarely remember that you had another country or culture; particularly if you have spent a long time in a certain place.

You may think that you have mastered the local language, the history, the cultural nuances of the local people and their culinary tastes, but then by the time you think you have become fully blended and integrated, an innocent fleeting comment or a subtle gesture may jolt you awake and make you realize that integrating is not like being and that being comes with childhood memories ingrained in one's formative years through the mother's bedside stories and not through learning in adulthood. What you learn and experience in adulthood gives you knowledge and enables you to find your way in life but it does not necessarily change your being. It is after many years living as an expatriate that I have come to conclusion that lacking that factor of being is the secret that keeps the person as an expatriate and not necessarily the lack of knowledge about the local culture or lack of legal citizenship for that matter.

I met some people who have become citizens of countries that they had migrated to and have lived in them more years than they ever lived in their original homelands, but who still see their original places as their home country. The fact that they have lived, educated, worked and have become citizens with full rights did not change that inside feeling of being alien and an expatriate.

On the other side, when you live many years away from your original country what you have about it is only a memory. The country, the people, the culture and the values you have in your memory may not exist anymore but you still cling to those worn out threads as dearly as you could.

I always find it difficult to understand how many of my fellow Somalis who lived most of their adult lives outside Somalia keep reminiscing about the country they once knew without realizing that what they know about Somalia exists only in their own memories. I received emails from friends who returned home recently after living more than 35 years in the West. And as excited as they were in going back, they were shocked when they could not find the country that they had been dreaming of. They suddenly felt alien and as expatriates in a place they considered as their own homeland.

This may lead the expatriate people, particularly African expats, to living in two different personalities. On one side, they may need to develop a strong sense of belonging to their places of work and residence and on the other side they may have a strong desire to cling to their childhood home even if it remains only a figment of imagination. But while some people may find it quite easy to reconcile between the two worlds and blend to the mainstream culture, others may cocoon in their own psychological enclaves and may forever live in a mental barren land.

Being an expatriate has therefore its ups and downs and its own exotica as well, as we read in the literature of the Europeans colonizers in Africa and elsewhere.

But the truth of the matter remains that once an expatriate always an expatriate. I once read a story about an American cross-country truck driver who saw a couple in different parts of the country. Perplexed by their nomad life, he approached the husband and asked him where he called home. The husband looked at his wife who was sitting close by and said: "Where ever she is."

So in today's globalized world, where one may not know where business and life will take him the next day, it may be safe to say that your home is wherever your spouse and your family are.

The article was originally published by Online Opinion