« Où l’on est bien, là est la patrie. »
– Aristophane (450-386 B.C.)
Vendredi, 26 juillet 2013:
In all honesty, I tell you this: I have an extremely complicated relationship with my country. Always have.
Of course, this has much to do with being uprooted so frequently and for extended periods of time from the motherland ever since I was a child. When I was growing up my brothers and I always thought of Malaysia as the destination for our annual family vacation and the outside world as our ‘home’, whatever this word means, rather than the other way round. As a result of this even until now, whenever I come back to my country it always feels like my time here is temporary, and that I am waiting for the next departing ship that will take me to a new, unknown destination.
Wherever we moved, be it to West Africa or South Asia, we always felt at home. As a child these moves weren’t such a traumatic experience for me because I had my two parents and my brothers with me, and my mother always made sure to bring a container full of our furniture, electrical appliances, books and toys from our house in Malaysia and enough foodstuffs and household items to stock a small grocery store. Things were, in other words, quite ‘normal’ for us wherever we moved because we still spoke Malay at home and had Malay cuisine cooked by my mother, and a stable domestic environment definitely helped us acclimatize better to a new academic, social, and cultural environment at school.
The problem isn’t so much about adapting to these countries that we moved to, but more about feeling at home when we came home. I don’t know what it is, but I often feel so alienated from my own people; I have trouble communicating (even though my spoken Malay is very good considering those years I spent away from my country), I can’t answer simple questions like ‘Where are you studying?’ or ‘Where do you live?’ without having to tell half of the story of my life, and I have a hard time engaging with peers my age because we sometimes don’t see eye to eye on certain things. I admit, I am most at fault here as sometimes I don’t really put in much effort into engaging with my country and its people because I always think, ‘I’m leaving in a couple of months anyway.’ Therefore these issues remain unsolved, and are waiting for me again the next time I land in Malaysia.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Malaysia — I love the irresistible gastronomic temptations it offers, its beautiful landscape which I have yet to explore, its endless reserves of flora and fauna which I have yet to get acquainted to, the religious and cultural diversity of our people, even if this could get a bit tense at times. Lately however I think it isn’t really the country (in the physical, geographical, and cultural sense) that I’m averted to, but more its people. In fact, I constantly find myself scheduling my next flight out of the country as soon as I check in because there are people I’d rather not see here, including, much to our misfortune, some family members. I think what happened to us made us lose faith in our own people, and we find ourselves seeking comfort in the arms of strangers we meet in foreign lands, who have become our adopted family over the years. Thus I think my love for my country has thinned considerably and has become the superficial sort, because we have dug deep and found that there are skeletons buried in this land that are better left unearthed.
The funny thing is, even when I’m overseas I find myself gravitating towards non-Malaysians, with whom I get along exponentially better compared to (Malay) Malaysians. When I was in Perth most of my really good friends were local Australians, Bruneians, Singaporeans, Indonesians, Chinese, Pakistani, Algerian, Saudi Arabian, Iranian, Afghan, Eritreans, Kenyan, Somalian, you name it. I did get along well with some Malays, but this was mostly because we lived in the same house and got used to each other, and when I left to France on exchange and we went our separate ways, our friendship grew stale to say the least. Sometimes it feels like the feeling is mutual; some Malays, knowing my inclination towards my non-Malay(sian) friends, were also happy to stick to their own little circle of (also Malay) friends, a tendency I strongly disapprove of because it is one of the things that not only limit their networking opportunities and overseas cultural experience, but also does little to help them improve their English communication skills.
Despite the absence of family, in my final year in Perth I grew to love the city as… well, not exactly ‘home’, but certainly as my place of residence. Quite frankly, after three and a half years I was already sick of living in this city which offers extremely limited entertainment suited to a meager student’s budget and very little traveling opportunities to compensate for it. Yet a huge part of me was reluctant to leave because it would mean leaving the people I’d embraced as my adopted family behind, which much to my own surprise even included my Anthropology professors at UWA (who thankfully gave me their full blessing to pursue my PhD elsewhere in the near future).
Aristophane was right when he said, “Où l’on est bien, là est la patrie” — “a man’s homeland is wherever he prospers”. My country does not always feel like home, and my family — people who share the same DNA as me, whose blood run through my veins — aren’t always ‘family’ to me. But the most beautiful thing about this world that God created is that it is HUGE, with LOTS of people living in it, which means that I can go anywhere on this planet and find a new home and build a new family — or bring mine there.
I consider myself fortunate to have grown up and lived away from the homeland for so long because it makes separation — from people, and places, and objects of belonging — much easier, even if it is probably something that I can never quite get used to. (I am, after all, an extremely sentimental person.) And I think this distance helps me maintain a healthy relationship with my country — even if it will remain forever complicated — because when I am away for too long my soul aches for Malaysia’s polluted air, the people’s rude and sometimes uncivilized behavior, the good, cheap food, and family rivalries. When I haven’t seen or spoken to a Malay for a couple of months I’d greet the next Malay I meet in the streets like an old friend and look at them with sympathy when they appear taken aback by my forwardness (I think this happened in Paris a couple of times). But when I come home, my stay will always be transitory because I am afraid of holding on again and not being able to let go.
For me Home is anywhere but Here. As long as I have my mother and brothers with me.
[This post was inspired by the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: There’s No Place Like Home piece.]