(n) the disorientation felt in a foreign country of culture
The concept of home fascinates me. People choose to be defined by it, cling to it, and wage war in its name. In my case, I travel over eight thousand miles once a year to pay homage to the place I call home, Sri Lanka. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. The usual suspects – food, family, and friends – make it all worthwhile. But more importantly there is some visceral, unquantifiable feeling of familiarity that simmers right below the surface of all I behold.
This sense of belonging is never a constant. It ebbs and flows and is never still. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a gradual waning of its potency. As the U.S. becomes more familiar, Sri Lanka becomes a memory obscured by mental cobwebs and the mind’s dust. The changes the U.S. has wrought in me have made me alien to what Sri Lanka is, in a certain sense. Both Sri Lanka and I have changed, and our nebulous relationship evolves in complex ways. I manage to shock entire bus-loads of Sri Lankans with my fashion. The words I use don’t register here, or have the same unspoken weight of meaning that is shared in the U.S. I struggle to communicate the true meaning of the things I do, the words I say, and the ideas I believe in. There are times when my family and friends stare at me with a bemused smile on their faces, incomprehension lurking behind their puzzled gaze, waiting for the words that would make sense. It doesn’t get any better in the U.S. It amazes me how, after two years of living in that country, a simple task like writing a check can undo the blanket of familiarity I’ve tugged around my shoulders. American popular culture references are my sworn enemy. I’ve come to expect the split-second blankness that washes over my friend’s faces before they realize that my childhood was vastly different to theirs. The cultural divide that exists between us in those moments is immense.
Belonging is not something I experience completely and unquestioningly. I am an alien in both countries. Time has forged a grudging friendship between this sense of dispossession and I. Its lover, the nostalgia for an uncomplicated past, joins our company every now and then. Hiraeth is a Welsh word that speaks of a longing for a lost past. Its simplicity and expressiveness speaks to me, for I feel this grief every day.
My writing instincts tend to end any piece on a positive note, but today I resist this impulse. I give myself the space and freedom to mourn a life that is no more, and a belonging that will never be. Perhaps that is the only tie we bear to the places we call home.
(Feature image source: http://media.economist.com/images/20091219/D5109XMFO2.jpg)