Transitory Tales: When Familiar Becomes Foreign

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”.

This extract, taken from an article on being foreign by The Economist, describes how I feel about Sydney, the city I grew up in and called home until the age of 22. The metamorphosis of my hometown from familiar to foreign was a gradual process that began with my first expat experience — a year-long exchange program to a Japanese university — and culminated in the second: two years teaching English in northern Japan.

When I returned “home” just before my 27th birthday, having spent 3 of the past 4.5 years overseas, Sydney and the life I’d had there were barely recognizable. Having spent a year in Australia in between my Japanese jaunts, I knew to expect to feel a little out-of-touch and was ready to take the time to weave myself back into the lives of my friends and family. What I was not at all unprepared for, however, was the dramatic change in my perception of the city.

In my gold-tinged memories, Sydney was all salt air, sandy feet and slow Sunday breakfasts with friends. It was hanging out at my parents’ house and summer scorchers followed by late afternoon thunderstorms. It was Chinese dumplings, Lebanese kebabs and Portuguese chicken burgers. I’d missed all of this so much that I’d insisted on returning and dragged my Japanese boyfriend back with me.

Instead, what I found was a city that had been run into the ground by a corrupt state government. A city characterized by traffic jams, road rage and a creaking public transport system. To make matters worse, my parents had separated while I was away and my childhood house was up for sale. Of course, the beaches were still beautiful, but now I longed for a real winter – you know, the kind that you need a scarf and gloves for, the kind that warrants a wood fire and heartwarming stew.

It took me one year to get there but I eventually came to the rather disturbing conclusion that I’d fallen out of love with Sydney; my hometown no longer felt like home. It’s hard to say if the city had actually changed in my absence or if it was all me — in my head. To be honest, I think it was a bit of both. Anyway, whatever the cause, the affair was over.

I sometimes wonder whether I would’ve done things differently if I’d known that I risked losing my sense of place and belonging by moving overseas. For example, would I have returned to Japan a second time after learning that Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French philosopher, had compared this experience of foreignness with the loss of a mother?

But then I think of everything my Japanese experiences taught me — about the world, my country and myself. I contemplate the benefits of bilingualism, which I would never have achieved without living in-country. I recall feeling free and totally independent during those early years in Japan, and how I became more confident as a result. I think about my friends and husband who I met in Japan — relationships that I treasure and hold dear to my heart.

And I know that I wouldn’t change a thing.

4 comments

  1. Jeno says:

    I couldn’t relate more to your post. Each time I’ve gone to visit Los Angeles, it’s been difficult. My circle of friends shrinks each year and it breaks my heart to see my grandmother get older. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one. Thank you for sharing.

    • Natalia says:

      Thanks Jeno! It was great to put it down in writing… and to discover that Economist article in the process! :)

  2. Caroline says:

    Great post!

    I felt similar when I returned to Sydney from Tokyo. Compared to Tokyo, Sydney just didn’t seem to ‘work’ as a big city. Now I’m happy just going back on weekends and avoiding the rat race :)

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