Thursday, June 6, 2013

On being "at home" in a place you don't belong

On Sunday I drove across town to see my sister, who is in college but went "home" to Pakistan to spend a few weeks. She had a layover at DFW and we just had a few minutes, but I got to hug her and hear her high/lows of her trip and a little of her heart.

I marvel, because she loves, deeply loves, Pakistan. My family isn't there anymore, they settled back in the US what... two years ago? When I called Indonesia "home" I could get away with it more often because I mostly grew up there, but Michelle's full span of time in Pakistan was less than four years.

And yet, I am not surprised. I've seen it so many times before. It's partly the developmental stage. If you live in a place during the key developmental years, it's bound to have a far bigger impact than staying in a place for a couple of years later in life. You're changing so much that the culture and place changes you as you grow, becoming part of you in strange bits and pieces.

But it's not even just that life stage thing, because I also remembered this post from Alysa, a dear friend who spent a few years teaching as an adult in Indonesia, where I grew up. I see the deep love of the place and the powerful impact of a few short years in her feelings about Irian (now Papua) and the people connected to that experience. She said:
 And there was {and is} this unexplainable connection. A strong connection that I've come to realize I just can't explain to those that haven't experienced it. ....Maybe it's because Irian Jaya {now called Papua} is this magical, tropical paradise with beautiful, amazing people. And because it is so remote, most people in the world will never experience it. It's not common. It's kind of an out-of-reality-no-box-to-fit-it-in kind of place. ...And then there's this indirect connection that runs super deep, too. ...Because they know a part of my life - a big part of my life - the Irian Jaya part of my life - that most people here in America don't know and will never know. And maybe that's it. Deep down, we all want to be known, so when people know this huge part of your life and understand it and have memories attached to it, it causes connection.

I marvel at the way these places and times have twisted themselves so deeply into the hearts of some of us that grew up in foreign lands across the world. The culture is not actually our own despite all the ways it has influenced us. We are still foreigners in these countries. And yet this loyalty and fierce love is generally stronger than people feel when they've truly grown up in a place and really are "from" there. Perhaps that's part of it. When you truly are from somewhere, it's taken for granted. Only years later with many other experiences under your belt do you really begin to feel the uniqueness of your place and how it's formed you.

For us, though, there is no belonging except what we choose, and so the places and experiences are things you either push away from because of that sense of separation, or you find that you love this place that isn't your own and you see it with the eyes that take nothing for granted. You love it for all those small things, you commit yourself to it with intentionality. And also, as Alysa said, it is so unique and different. Once you have experienced it, it does not seamlessly integrate into life elsewhere. It is uncommon, and so we love that rare experience and place and those few who experienced it with us.

My sister wrote about it here, and she's a stunningly beautiful writer so you should just go read the whole thing!:

And all the little imperfections over there–the blemishes that would seem to some like inconveniences of the developing world–are what make the culture so endearing to me. And it makes me feel all the more foreign and uncomfortable amidst the neat and clean and pristine of the sanitized and modernized West and their tireless pursuit of the latest and greatest and prettiest and fastest. 
And sometimes I just long for the creaking doors and old marble floors and the rickety picnic tables with peeling green paint covered in fallen pine needles and sap. And I’d trade all the expensive restaurants for one perfectly run-down chai shop at the side of the mountain road. I’d trade a four dollar Starbucks coffee for a perfectly stained cup of steaming sweet chai and a handful of pakoras wrapped in last month’s grease-spotted newspaper. I’d trade electricity and fluorescent lights for one night by the glow of flickering candlelight. I’d trade the sounds of intersection traffic for the sound of birds and musical truck horns and the call to prayer drifting from the loudspeakers of the mosque through the valley at the crack of dawn. I’d trade the dryer for the sight of clothes hanging on the line in the sun and the breeze blowing through them. I’d trade the TV for time to sit outside together with cups of chai and conversation. I’d trade the sight of traffic lights and all these expensive cars for a knuckle-whitening ride with a crazy driver in an old beat-up suzuki on winding mountain roads. I’d trade the overwhelmingly large grocery stores with artificially huge and shiny produce for a small fruit and vegetable stand buzzing with flies by the side of the dusty road.

Not everyone who reads this blog now read it back when I wrote bluntly about my deep longing for Papua, the place I grew up and love. I've returned only once, six years after I left, and it's been another six years since that visit. The first six years did little to change my love and longing for Papua. The last six have made me afraid of how I've romanticized it, and so I am far more hesitant. But still, oh. Rain on a tin roof and the smell of the jungle after the rain. Cicadas at night. Visitors said they couldn't sleep with all the noise, but between the fan (no AC) and the cicadas, it's the lullaby I love. Roosters in the morning. Jasmine tea, mostly sugar water, in a juice box. Children playing soccer in the street with a tattered old ball. Going to market on the back of a scooter/motor cycle, driven by a man with too-long fingernails. Traffic that has only one rule - don't hit anyone. Church where everyone sings with all their might, no matter how bad they sound (and they sometimes sound pretty bad).

I am so keenly aware (and afraid) that going back as an adult to the place that I love and knew as a child will be very different. I know it's possible that some of those things I love will now drive me crazy. It's also possible that I will be fiercely defensive of them, and that my appreciation for them will help me integrate into this utterly different and uncomfortable place. I am so thankful that I already have this appreciation for many things that are seen in this culture as imperfections.

(photo courtesy of Michelle!)


Naomi VanDoren said...

This really resonated with me. Thanks for sharing your beautiful words.
I love Indonesia. It has been 7 years since I graduated from HIS and so very much in my life has changed. I share your feelings of apprehension about going back someday. I long too... but now isn't the time.

Nate Johnson said...

Thanks, Kacie. I think this is a good description of how I feel as well. My time in PNG was more like your sister's in Pakistan and I often caught myself wishing I had spent more time there so that I could justify the sense of connection and identity I had/have with it.

Now that I've returned, I think I begin to take things for granted the longer I'm here (it rained hard on the tin roof almost all night my first night back in country and I felt like I was in heaven; now I love it sometimes but also sometimes sigh because it means we can no longer hear what anyone says).

Also in the States I could come across as the unofficial "expert" on PNG, but here I can be reminded again and again that I am still a foreigner and there are many things I still don't know!