Many expats and long-term travellers talk about that sense of belonging nowhere – of never really becoming accepted as a local in their adopted country or the places to which they keep returning. And yet they return home to find they don’t fit in there anymore either.
By contrast, after having lived abroad for sixteen years, being at home anywhere and having sense of belonging everywhere is how I have come to feel, no matter where I travel. It doesn’t take me long to make myself at home, no matter where we are. It’s a brilliant feeling, but emotionally it keeps me busy.
At Home Anywhere
From time to time, I look at a photograph I have of a cook whose food stall we frequented when we lived in the Thai capital and I fret about her. I wonder if her life has been impacted by the coup or the floods or whatever events are occurring in Bangkok.
During the floods that submerged much of the city in 2011, I imagined her living on the ground floor of an old Chinese shophouse, rising each morning in the darkness to cook in her cramped, dimly lit kitchen, and I wondered whether she managed to store her valuables on a higher floor for safe-keeping as I’d read the government was telling everyone to do.
I worried about whether the woman was be able to continue to run her business as I knew she supported her family in Bangkok, as well as extended relatives in the northeastern Isaan. Though by the determination and strength on the hardworking woman’s face, with which we had become so familiar, I guessed she’d do just fine. At the peak of the floods, she was probably feeding her hearty food to her neighbours at a refuge centre.
These are the sorts of things I ponder when I scan the images and stories on the news sites each morning. Because we’ve lived in and spent time in so many different places around the world, I see old neighbours and friends in so many familiar faces. People no longer look foreign or strange. They look like someone I should know or might have met.
People’s customs, rituals and religious practices don’t seem peculiar or odd anymore. I know more about some than others, but those I’m not familiar with I find myself eager to discover.
That sense of tolerance and open-mindedness are things I have come to truly value, things the world, and my parents, gifted to me. In a way, they’re souvenirs of our travels.
The irony is these things I value so much were free, they didn’t cost me anything. I didn’t learn them at university. They weren’t job skills I gained from work or techniques I developed. My upbringing and heritage certainly had something to do with it. But I tend to think that most are largely the gems of experiences we’ve had as Terence and I have traversed the planet that have most enriched us.
The result is a willingness to understand, accept and appreciate a culture and place that in turn inspires its people to welcome strangers into their lives, even in small ways. Take that attitude with you wherever you go and you will quickly begin to feel at home anywhere in the world.
Having a Sense of Belonging Everywhere
But I did once know that feeling of not belonging. I began to feel it a few years after we moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates in 1998. Ironically, I started to experience that sense at the same time that I started to feel very much at home there.
It came with the wisdom of recognizing that the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.
At the time I felt that we could only understand so much, only be accepted so far – we knew something about the local history, we knew a lot about the culture, we worked and lived with locals every day.
And yet still I told myself that no matter how long we lived there we could never really know all the things that people innately understand who are born into a culture and place.
Back on Australian soil it was a different yet similar experience altogether.
When we went ‘home’ for the first time after a few years living in Abu Dhabi, I felt I’d missed out on so much – the 2000 Sydney Olympics, for starters, that had boosted the confidence of our nation and strengthened an identity that I was starting to feel that I had lost. I no longer knew the city I had been born in and deeply loved as well as I had.
Rather than return ‘home’, Terence and I spent our turn of the millennium new year’s eve in Barcelona, drinking champagne in the streets with tens of thousands of strangers from around the world. It was an act that would say a lot about how we’d spend the next decade and a half of our lives.
So when did it all change? Slowly and over time. I guess, as with any relationship, the longer I came to know the world, the more I began to lower my expectations of it and of myself. I began to take it as it came, accept it as it was, and stop demanding too much of the planet.
The more accepting I became the more I felt that the world and its peoples were welcoming me and, in turn, the more I came to care and started having that sense of belonging everywhere.
The challenge of staying connected and being engaged
Now I have that sense of feeling at home in a world that was once strange, I probably care too much about too many places and their people.
That’s what I meant when I said emotionally it keeps busy. Every morning, after I check my email and before I start writing, I read the news. I don’t have one particular news site to which I go, but rather I visit half a dozen or more, depending on where we are and what’s going on in the world.
At the moment, I feel like a news monitor. My first stop today was the Bangkok Post to check the flood conditions in Thailand, and then the Phnom Penh Post to see how things are going there. Next, I went to Al Jazeera English to see what’s happening in the Middle East – my main interest for now is Syria, but I’m always keeping an eye on Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. I’ll take a super quick look at The Daily Star, before heading over to The National to read the latest news in the UAE, then, depending on what’s going on in Argentina, I might look at the Buenos Aires Herald. I’ll nearly always finish with the Sydney Morning Herald, my ‘hometown’ newspaper.
I love social media, especially Twitter, and I love exchanging emails with friends around the world. But nothing enables me to stay in touch and stay engaged with a place like its local news. I don’t need to know the minutiae of politics.
Sometimes it’s just the mundane details of the everyday, like a new metro line opening in Dubai, that keeps me connected and helps me slip more easily back into the swing of things when we return to that place again.
Of course, the more we travel, the more we know, the slower we go. We naturally find we want to spend longer in places.
And the more people we meet, the more everything on this planet seems so connected and interconnected, someone always knows someone we knew from some place, and we start to feel like a link of some kind.
Despite the increasing connectivity we have with our family, friends and acquaintances from social media, it can be a challenge to stay connected and be engaged. It can be overwhelming to stay in touch with everyone and every place we’ve been. But it’s worth trying.
When you return to that place that you made your home for a while, it will all feel familiar. That sense of belonging anywhere and everywhere, that sense of feeling at home in the world, will be strengthened and deepened with each return visit.
And you’ll feel all the more enriched because of it.
That’s why I travel.
Are you at home in the world or do you feel disconnected? Do you feel like you belong anywhere and everywhere or nowhere?