When I was in my early teens, my Sri Lankan aunt (my father’s sister), had my stars read by her astrologer. She asked me for the exact time of my birth, and the exact place I was born. And, after a few weeks, I got a folded piece of thin paper with quite a number of specific predictions about my future. Among them: “the child will suffer bronchial problems” (not so far, thankfully); and “she will marry someone NOT from her country of birth”.
That latter prediction perplexed and saddened me, as I had held out hopes of marrying an Englishman, and yet I was born in London, England. Might the stars (or the astrologer) have gotten confused by the fact that I had grown up in the states? (Apparently not!)
There has been a tradition of expats in my family for generations, starting with my maternal grandmother, who married a young man from Idaho who crossed the sea to study at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. She married him, and then spent 50+ years living in the US. Her daughter reversed course, marrying an English actor, and spending her life in London. And then two of her kids (my first cousins), crossed back over and live in the US. In my case, it was my father who ventured over half the globe to study at Columbia University, and met my mother, committing himself to life in the US. And this was temporarily interrupted by a couple of years that we lived in Sri Lanka, and it was my mother who was the expat.
Now, my children are all expats, of a sort. My adult daughter has moved to England, after obtaining UK citizenship through my status as a citizen by right of birth. And our two boys are expats in the states – although they will grow up as US citizens, I hope that we can foster a sense of pride in each of them for their land of origin, Ethiopia.
One result of all these mixings of pats and expats (or might they be inpats and expats?) is that, by the very fact of having spent some part of life in one country before living in another, one acquires habits, outlooks, and a story that is not shared with the people that one becomes linked to in the new country. And, in all these generations of my family, the spouses who joined one another, or the children who sprang up from (or spring into) families, end up confronting one another with stories and outlooks that may never be fully shared. So, a task that is set forth in forming these relationships is necessarily to share those past stories, opening up continually to one another, and being mindful of not making assumptions about perspectives on how the world is, or the nature of Truth, because it simply may not be as obvious as it might seem if one only approached the world from one’s own background, upbringing and culture.
We bring into our relationships Secrets & Lies – its unavoidable. Mike Leigh’s film of that title from 1996 was so wonderful in demonstrating the destructive nature of secrets that remain hidden, and lies that are told, often with the objective of saving someone from pain, but inexorably leading to more pain of a different sort. So, at least for me, it seems that sticking with honesty, even if, at times, it’s painful or scary, is the best course in the long term.
Growing up, I moved so many times that I felt rootless, and sometimes felt like an expat in my own country, without really having any tie to anywhere that felt like a home base. Now, after many years of relative stability, I no longer feel quite as geographically rootless. But, in my adopted culture and community of Judaism, I think I may always feel like an expat in a world that has its own language, traditions, and foods. So much of identifying as Jewish is about culture, and no matter how much I learn, and no matter how much I strive to take part in that culture, it will, I think, always feel as if I am slightly on the outside.
And, maybe, in a way, being on the outer part of the circle is a comfortable place for me. It’s where I lived my childhood, and, so, in some respects, it is my home base.
As long as there’s honesty, I can live with it.
This post was inspired by mystery thriller novel The Expats by Chris Pavone. Kate Moore happily sheds her old life become a stay at home mom when her husband takes a job in Europe. As she attempts to reinvent herself, she ends up chasing her evasive husband’s secrets. Join From Left to Write on January 22 as we discuss The Expats As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.</em