Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Finding Home

Author’s note: My apologies for the long silence. I have been traveling and fiendishly busy for the past month and haven’t had much of a chance to write. Insallah, that will change now – although on the eve of starting a new job, it may prove a challenge. Thanks for bearing with me.

* * * *

I am just back from a trip to California, and it's got me thinking. The longer I am away from the States, the stranger the concept of ‘home’ becomes, and the greater the sense of dispossession -- of being without any country at all. Here in Turkey, I am immersed in a culture that is very foreign, and there is an omnipresent sense of ‘otherness’ – of not quite belonging, of being a stranger in a strange land. Depending on the day, the weather, my particular mood, encounters positive or negative, this specialness can be a wonderful thing or a source of endless aggravation. Yet for better or worse, it is a constant companion, and this place where I live, although it has become familiar to me in so many ways, is always curiously home-but-not-quite-home, mine but somehow not mine at all. Functioning in a totally different linguistic and cultural milieu is an exertion. The analogy that always comes to mind is of computers – imagine one computer running word processing software, an Internet browser, etc, maybe several standard programs at the same time. Lots of different processes are going on all the time as it executes these programs, but still the computer (unless it is ill) functions speedily and fairly effortlessly. Now imagine another computer running the same tasks, but this one (the ‘expat computer’) is also running a memory- and processor-intensive program in the background all the while it is executing the other tasks. The processors are going great guns, lots of memory is being used, and the ultimate performance of the machine is sluggish and prone to freezing and breakdowns if you try to do too much with the other programs. This second computer in many ways is a pretty fair representative of life as an expatriate. The constant processing of myriad new stimuli, the small but numerous decisions on how to respond to them, is a subtle but continuous exertion on body and brain that inevitably takes its toll. Like the computer, performance becomes sluggish, simple tasks take longer, and like the computer, sometimes there are freezes and breakdowns. A simple word processing program should not be so hard to execute, but with all this going on in the background…one just gets tired.

Inevitably, there are periods of desperate longing for home – not out of sentimentality or patriotism or even great love for the culture I’ve left behind, but out of the simple need to be in a place where things are second nature, where I don’t have to consciously think about every tiniest detail of life.

Coming ‘home,’ then, is a relief. In shops and even on the street, you find yourself striking up conversations with total strangers, from the sheer joy of knowing you can. You aren’t worried about grammatical mistakes, or cultural faux pas, and suddenly you feel larger than life, stronger and wittier and more capable than you’ve felt in ages. Even navigating through the maze of bureaucracy in the homeland feels like a cinch…having done it in a foreign language, in a totally alien system, it seems a no-brainer to simply read the documents and follow the instructions, however tedious they may be. And you can ask questions! As many as you like! And even understand the answers! What joy, what liberation! Even setbacks – conflicting instructions, unhelpful people – don’t seem quite as terrible when you come armed with a verbal arsenal and deep cultural knowledge. You realize that you have been living a sort of half-life in your adopted land, and marvel at how much you could do if you were only in a place where you knew the language and the system.

But there’s a funny thing about coming home, and it is precisely the fact that home actually isn’t home any more. It reminds me of a Ray Bradbury story where space explorers land on another planet and come across a town that looks like a normal Earth town…but it is somehow, indescribably, rather creepily different. Arriving back on American soil, there is an element of shock – first and most strikingly, what staggers is the voracious consumer culture. Everything is enormous and abundant – people drive fantastically huge vehicles, buy outrageously priced prepackaged foods from supermarkets where there is a bewilderment of choice. Stores are air-conditioned to arctic temperatures; one scarcely notices it is summer. The plethora of distractions and entertainment options is overwhelming. People are so free, so comfortable, so easy, so insulated, and have so very much…and I never noticed it before until I lived away, in particular until I moved to Turkey. Contemplating this have-it-all consumer wonderland, I feel a curious mix of repulsion and envy. There is repulsion at seeing how very much we possess, and how impossible it is amidst this outrageous comfort to imagine that elsewhere in the world there is bottomless suffering and deprivation. It is no wonder to me that we cannot think globally when we are so anesthetized…and yet there is some envy, too, and longing for these very comforts. The luxury of being in a well-air-conditioned house, a comfortable car, choosing from gourmet options at the supermarket, being surrounded by better quality pretty-much-everything, elevator music, supermarket music, doctor’s office music, have a problem, take a pill, buy it better, faster, cheaper, have a happy, happy life…it’s hard to resist wanting that, at least a little.

In the end, a couple of days at ‘home’ reveal the hard truth: here, too, you are an outsider. You’ve lost touch, you wonder too much, are shocked by too much that everyone else takes for granted. You are the 19th century person who has been shot into the 20th, looking about with gaping jaw while passers-by give you queer looks and wonder what on earth is wrong with you. It fits, it is the place you know…and yet it isn’t…

Back in little Atascadero, California, where I went to high school and part of junior high, I look around and sense that there has been a fundamental change. Remarking on this, I was told ‘well, the town has developed; it’s getting some class. ‘B’ establishments have moved out and a handful of ‘A’s’ have opened up…” And it’s true; the character of the town has changed in subtle ways. But I’m not sure that’s the source of the displacement I’m feeling. In the grand scheme of things these changes are relatively small, but the difference I feel is monumental, and I sense that it comes from inside me. Once again, I have become a stranger, looking on with outsider eyes. Where is home now, I wonder?

I remarked to a colleague recently that living as an expat ruins a person. She looked at me in puzzlement; how could a mind- and experience-broadening experience possibly be a detriment? It is because, I explained, that living in foreign cultures, when done with empathy and an open mind and heart, has the potential to make you a good - even great - citizen of the world. Exactly the kind of citizens the world needs more of, come to that. But it ruins you for any one culture. You become so broadened and develop such a global view that it becomes nearly impossible to relate to people who haven't developed this view. And not withstanding the ease of travel these days, the vast majority of the world's people have never experienced the mind-bending experience of living in a foreign culture.

So it is a bit unsettling. You realize that there is only a select group of people -- expats or former expats -- who might possibly understand where you're coming from. What's more, the concept of 'home' becomes increasingly confused -- different aspects of different experiences resonate, but other aspects, both in your 'original' culture and in your adopted culture, continue to seem foreign. Where is home, anyway?

Maybe it comes back to the cliché that home is where the heart is. And the heart, I’m finding, can be many places. It lies with the people we’ve known and loved and experiences we’ve had. The downside of being a global wanderer is that no place ever feels entirely your own – but the upside is that so many places are partly yours, in very special and personal ways. If home is where the heart is, then mine is in the scent of the wild grasses of the California hills in summer, the crash of the Pacific. This girl’s heart can be found in the burritos on Mission Street in San Francisco, nestled among the cilantro and black beans. It swims in the micro-brewed beers of the west coast, and gets rolled up in the sushi, thrown in to ethnic food as a spice. But it strays farther afield, too…it lurks in the warm summer raindrops of northern Germany, inhabits the scent of bratwurst and schmalzkuchen on a frozen winter night; it drifts lazily with the golden leaves of a European autumn, shivers with the clang of church bells, and hums along with the whir of the Strassenbahn in the streets of Bremen. And another continent away, it floats on the imbat, Izmir’s silky sea breeze, drifts among the cries of the street vendors, dances with joy at the rhythm of Turkish music spilling from a passing car, drowses in the sun with the street dogs…and of course, it follows the people I love, so that there is a part of home in them, wherever they are. It is a fascinating and wonderful concept: ‘home’ is not ceasing to exist; rather, it is fragmenting, so that there are more pieces of it in more places. If I can come to terms with not finding it all in one place, what richness is in store – so many homes in so many corners.


At 5:48 PM, Blogger Hope said...

Bravo Kate!

You've captured the caveat to living away from your own country and you've also captured the beauty of it.

I agree with the sentiment that home is where the heart is. Mine lies acattered about this earth as well, living not only with the places of my heart but the people as well.

Our ability to love, to adapt, to thrive in a foreign world, that is what makes us citizens of the world, that miraculous desire to experience and live the differences.

I'm a proud citizen of the world and Kate, it's nice to meet you, another one!

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Kate's Blog said...

Hope, thank you so much for your kind is nice to hear, and always nice to know one is not alone. I'm very glad to have met you! How's your book and all your other projects coming?

At 5:26 PM, Blogger farandaway said...

hello there kate,
im new to izmir as well..we've moved here from birmingham and while i was looking for izmir blogs/thinking of writing one,i founds yours.
i think my favourite is your latest post..its just resounding with honesty and such good looking forward to reading a lot more!

At 6:17 PM, Blogger Kate's Blog said...

Welcome to Izmir! Thanks for the nice comment on my blog. I hope to write more, but am starting a hectic new job (tomorrow, actually), and am a little fearful that I won't have any time...

I wish you all the best in your life in Izmir and look forward to reading your thoughts.

- Kate


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