On Being Foreign

Hav­ing (very) recently emig­rated from the UK (to the Neth­er­lands), this art­icle on what it means to be ‘for­eign’ was not only timely, but quite emotive, too.

The [com­plain­ing for­eign­er] answers [the ques­tion of why he does­n’t go home] by think­ing of him­self as an exile—if not in a judi­cial sense then in a spir­itu­al sense. Some­thing with­in him­self has driv­en him away from his home­land. He becomes even a touch jeal­ous of the real exile. Life abroad is an adven­ture. How much great­er might the adven­ture be, how much more intense the sense of for­eignness, if there were no pos­sib­il­ity of return? […]

The funny thing is, with the pas­sage of time, some­thing does hap­pen to long-term for­eign­ers which makes them more like real exiles, and they do not like it at all. The home­land which they left behind changes. The cul­ture, the polit­ics and their old friends all change, die, for­get them. They come to feel that they are for­eign­ers even when vis­it­ing “home”. Jhumpa Lahiri, a Brit­ish-born writer of Indi­an des­cent liv­ing in Amer­ica, catches some­thing of this in her nov­el, The Name­sake. Ashi­ma, who is an Indi­an émigré, com­pares the exper­i­ence of for­eignness to that of “a par­en­thes­is in what had once been an ordin­ary life, only to dis­cov­er that the pre­vi­ous life has van­ished, replaced by some­thing more com­plic­ated and demand­ing”.

Beware, then: how­ever well you carry it off, how­ever much you enjoy it, there is a dan­ger­ous under­tow to being a for­eign­er, even a gen­teel for­eign­er. Some­where at the back of it all lurks home­sick­ness, which meta­stas­ises over time into its incur­able vari­ant, nos­tal­gia. And nos­tal­gia has much in com­mon with the Freu­di­an idea of melancholia—a con­tinu­ing, debil­it­at­ing sense of loss, some­where with­in which lies anger at the thing lost. It is not the pos­sib­il­ity of return­ing home which feeds nos­tal­gia, but the impossib­il­ity of it.

Choos­ing just one or two pas­sages to quote in this art­icle was very dif­fi­cult.

via Link Banana

1 thought on “On Being Foreign

  1. Paul

    Oh this seems a very neg­at­ive view of the pre­dic­a­ment of becom­ing a long term exile. I have nev­er enjoyed my home coun­try more than when I came here on hol­i­day – see­ing it warts and all as a know­ledge­able tour­ist.

    After all, that’s the tour­ists’ ulti­mate hol­i­day isn’t it? Enjoy­ing all that the coun­try has to offer as an informed par­ti­cipant but at the same time being sep­ar­ate and priv­ileged as an observ­er with hol­i­day spend­ing money.

    Lastly you only really under­stand your own coun­try when you return from a long peri­od abroad – you real­ise what’s not so great but also what’s pos­it­ive about your own coun­try which are often things which you nev­er expec­ted. What could be bet­ter than under­stand­ing your own coun­try bet­ter and bet­ter without hav­ing to par­ti­cip­ate in its mach­in­a­tions?

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