‘Things do not change, we change.’ Henry David Thoreau
I had felt a looming sense of dread as the last of our suitcases was loaded into the taxi heading towards Manchester airport. At the time, it had seemed difficult to pinpoint why I felt how I did. Was it a premonition? I didn’t dare think about it. For fear of retaliation, I was afraid to openly express my concerns to anyone. Each time I had brought it up in the past, it had either been brushed aside as not a big deal, for in their eyes, I was simply ‘returning home’. In other instances, I had been made to feel guilty about my lack of enthusiasm. But was it home that I was returning to? Or was it home that I was leaving?
The term Home has multiple connotations . For me, the concept of home is not restricted to a geographical place that I was born into. Neither is it limited to a physical station where I reside. Home, to me is much more than that. It is an extension of my own sense of being- my personal identity. A place where I can truly be myself; where I feel happy, safe, secure and free. It is the comforting environment in which I blossom and thrive. A place where I integrate easily and feel a genuine sense of belonging. Home is a special place for which l have a deep sense of emotional attachment. It is the strong foundation that goes beyond the bricks and mortar; the loving bonds that I form with people who I can easily relate to, even if we don’t share the same genes. It is a place where I feel welcome and ‘at home’ -wherever that may be on a map. I discovered the truth to the old adage “Home is where the heart is.’ Indeed.
Bidding farewell to my home in Britain, and moving back to India after well over a decade, I experienced a sense of overwhelm and disorientation upon my return. My fears were akin to the apprehensions of an expat moving to a new country. Except, there was a key difference. I could not justify a culture shock experience as I was already familiar with the culture. Hence I was bereft of any form of sympathy or understanding that an expat commands. Moreover, my situation lacked the initial excitement and novelty known as the ‘honeymoon’ phase in expat jargon. The biggest challenge was trying to live up to other people’s expectations of me, which was clearly defined by a past version of me. But, I had evolved.
Nothing had prepared me for the difficult road ahead as a repatriate. I grappled in the dark with my emotions and feelings, not knowing who or where to turn to. I could understand why my worries were un relatable to the family and friends that I was returning to, as they had never been on the same boat. In stark contrast to repatriation, the expatriation process has often been in the limelight, with much awareness raised on the challenges of adjustment, the culture shock experience, the isolation as well as the more glamorous aspects i.e. the endless brunches, making new friends, learning new skills, visiting new places and exploring new opportunities amongst other things. Psychologists and relocation experts go to town writing about these issues, so as an expat you almost know what to expect – which in turn makes the landing in a new country a little bit softer and the journey a little bit smoother.
Repatriation on the other hand is always put on the back burner as it’s not deemed important enough. So when it hits you, it is a shock to the system as nothing has prepared you for it. This is a lesson that I learnt the hard way and only through experience. Having experienced both sides of the coin- first as an expat in Britain and now in Singapore, and then as a repatriate in India, I can safely say that in my case, the latter was much harder and more complex. Talking to other friends who had repatriated to India or to their home countries be it the UK, US or Europe, I noticed that the better adjusted and integrated one becomes in the host country as an expatriate, the harder it becomes to repatriate. Is it because you become the apple that rolled off, far from the tree?
Upon my return to India , I noticed that people were quick to take offence about the most trivial of things. I recall an incident when a family friend was offended simply because she had sniffed the mosquito repellant that I had slathered (rather discreetly) on my children’s bodies as we sat out to dine in her lovely garden which was not immune to mosquitos though. Having personally suffered the debilitating effects of malaria as a young adult, there was no chance I would risk exposing my children to it. It was frustrating to have to justify such a rational, commonsensical action in my defence as I was being accused of acting like a ‘gora’ ( a white person/ foreigner) My nervous joke of ‘once bitten, twice shy’ didn’t seem to go down too well either. Similarly, politely turning down an offer of ‘Pani Puri’ a street side delicacy that clearly lacked basic food hygiene standards was proving to be more stressful than being coerced into eating it. I felt under pressure as I valiantly popped one into my mouth, secretly praying that the outcome would be a mere diarrhoea rather than the nastier bout of Typhoid that I had once suffered from as a child after one such gastronomic episode. Discarding my logic out of the window for the sake of fitting in and thereby proving my unwavering allegiance to my roots seemed to score me a few brownie points. But, at what cost, I wondered after my numerous trips to the loo!
There were many such instances where I unwittingly ended up on the wrong side of people. Any mere mention of corruption or inefficiency or even the harmful effects of air pollution would not be met with a robust debate but with hostility and the painful accusation that I shouldn’t be ‘finding faults’. It felt as thought the minute you leave your country, you lose any right to criticise it. On an occasion, a neighbour had belligerently knocked on my door and lectured me about paying my cleaner twice the salary ( which wasn’t much anyway) and giving her paid leave and time off work. Apparently, I was thus responsible for ‘spoiling’ the work culture and emboldening all the other workers in our Condominium regarding their rights and entitlements. This in turn was making it deeply distressing for employers like her ladyship as she stood ranting before me. My reasoning about domestic workers rights, minimum wages and compassion were shot down with -‘ Stop acting like a foreigner. You shouldn’t forget your roots. You very well know that’s the way things are around here.’
It was deeply frustrating to be unable to apply my new sets of knowledge and skills as the roadblocks came in the form of resentment and resistance from people whose set ways of thinking had been challenged. More often than not, I reached the same dead end and the same judgement was stamped on me- I had changed and had forgotten my roots! To them, that seemed the easiest diagnosis and conclusion to a rather complex scenario of trying to decipher the process of change. I felt misunderstood as I was perceived as having changed in a ‘wrong’ sort of way. Why do people often view change in a negative light? Isn’t it also symbolic of growth? Isn’t there a distinction between changing when one becomes haughty and big headed versus changing when one rationally questions the status quo in light of new experience? A ‘friend’ had even posted an insinuating comment on my Facebook page in response to my unhappy post about being unethically cheated by an unscrupulous Doctor! Apparently, I was being disloyal by recounting my tale of woe to the world as it projected the country in a bad light. The same ‘friend’ chose to ignore all my posts that glorified the beauty and cultural heritage of India that I had rediscovered. This cherry picking of any criticism that I put forth and finger pointing was costing me a few such ‘friends’. Had I moved on? There is no denying that I had changed. How could I not, as I carried a new life experience with me?
Most of the time, I was walking on egg shells, being mindful of the emotional vulnerability of people who were averse to any form of criticism or unwilling to accept any views that conflicted their own. The line between being culturally sensitive and expressing myself freely seemed to blur. Trying to steer towards the path of intellectual debates and discussions were abruptly aborted with personal attacks and accusations ‘ as if this is new to you’ or ‘ you should know that this is how it has always been.’ My empathy towards certain unfair and unfortunate situations would be deemed as either being patronising or met with ‘ it doesn’t affect you personally, so what’s your problem with it?’ It was difficult to accept this level of complacency even though, I was familiar with it and perhaps more accepting of it, once upon a time.
Excitedly recounting tales of my adventures -be it floating on the Dead Sea in Israel or discovering the secret ingredient in a Paella in Valencia were either met with disinterest or misinterpreted as bragging. Burying my story of the intervening years between the time I left to when I returned seemed to further the degree of alienation. After all, my identity was shaped in part by the places that I had been to and the experiences that I had.
A sad realisation that I had as a repatriate was that people are quick to jump to conclusions and point fingers at you without acknowledging the true story of your personal growth against the backdrop of your life experiences, which are vastly different from their own. They often tend to confuse personal growth with forgetting one’s roots. A part of who I am is also determined by where I come from. It is not plausible nor desirable to erase that part of by life either, as I am equally proud of my heritage and my back story. However, it is naive to suggest that this should translate to a form of blind patriotism whereby I display my unquestioning devotion that is devoid of any form of critical thinking. Things that were the norm once, simply because I knew no other way, may prove to be difficult to digest anymore; because in some instances I may have indeed discovered another route or a better way. Would it be right to then knowingly regress into an older pattern of behaviour just to prove my unwavering sense of loyalty? To me that seems blindly dogmatic, repressive and regressive.
Moving away from my homeland and travelling has been a life changing experience for me. Being confined to a particular place, I knew no different. My perceptions of the outside world were limited and based upon the perceptions of the society and culture that I was in. Stepping away from a land that I was raised in enabled me not only to see a different world but also to view my old world from multiple perspectives. It offered me the freedom and space to question and investigate what I had known so far. Things that were the norm were now under the scrutiny of widespread debate. As I saw the bigger picture, a new dimension began to emerge. Becoming globally aware led to a shift in perspectives as I sifted through my own life. It allowed me to re evaluate my life, priorities,values, attitudes and perceptions.
It has been a true learning experience to gain insights into diverse viewpoints and to then be able to discard certain old patterns of thinking, hold on to certain others and imbibe some new ones, as I evolve. I have become more self aware and independent as my mind has opened up to new ways of life and living. Often times I encounter a different point of view, an intellectual debate ensues that challenges my previously held beliefs and permits me to detect the errors in my previous reasoning thereby enabling me to change.
In my journey of repatriation and life in general, I’ve discovered that standing by my deep convictions especially when it conflicts with a majority of opinions is not an easy task. It is a choice that I have to make – whether to break free from the duress of popular opinion and defend my deep convictions even if it costs me a few friends and family or to lend my unquestioning approval for the sake of loyalty. This has been the most liberating experience.