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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