The double edged sword of “coming home”

Blog / Friday, May 22nd, 2015
Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo

When I accepted a lucrative job offer to return to my hometown, it meant relocating my entire life and that of my cat’s halfway across the world. Accepting academic jobs – or any jobs, for that matter – in a different country to that you were trained in was always something I accepted as part of the deal. It was something I had accepted as fact; hell, it’s certainly better than not having a job and being miserable. I had, after all, moved away from home short of my 18th birthday. To a boarding school, where it was drilled into me that I had to assimilate and accept the new culture if I were to fit in and have an easier time. No matter. I was prepared for it, even if it was extremely difficult for the first year or so.

(East/Southeast/South) Asian students do that all the time. We often move halfway across the world for a better education and a wider choice of careers. You were expected to be adept at the new language, and to be privy to the culture, often with a snap of one’s fingers. If you don’t…well, bad luck for you. No one is going to be sympathetic to the huge cultural changes you have to go through. On a side note, people who have to move halfway across the world into completely foreign environments are often treated as unsophisticated and uncouth, even as you discover that the people you encounter everyday have never been out of their country, much less own a passport. Imagine the irony.

But I digress.

For many friends and family when I announced the move, the news was treated as a given. I was ‘coming home’, after all. What was there to worry about? Never mind that I have not lived at ‘home’ for more than half my life. Yes, I didn’t have to worry about visa issues, which in recent years, have gotten preposterously ridiculous. But the one thing that seemed to have escaped a lot of people’s minds, is that I had left my closest friends and colleagues when I moved. ‘Home’ has always been somewhat of an abstract concept, especially when you’ve lived in 3 countries in the span of your life thus far. Even a simple thing such as acclimatising to the humidity, to the lack of cold is an uphill battle – one which has been met with suspicion by people here. Clearly, having lived for 21 years away from the hometown, I was expected to quickly settle back into humidity lest I appear to be pretentious. Biology teachers my hometown peers ever had must be crying their eyes out right now.

It’s also reminded me of a story told to me by a childhood friend whom I had the opportunity of reconnect with recently. Of how he would spend Christmas holidays back home in an European country where he’s originally from, and his mother, fearing he had forgotten his native language, would force him to go to school. What he found and experienced though, further distanced him from his supposed native culture because that change was so sudden and so radical that it was a shock to the system. It’s how I feel most days when back.

Everything is different culturally; everything has to be re-learned. And often, it requires time that people aren’t so patient to give you. If you don’t acclimatise and adapt quickly, you’re being pretentious and difficult. It’s a lot like being an international student all over again – if you don’t assimilate quickly enough, you’re being stubborn and you’re not realising how truly lucky you are to be learning something new. Mind you, there’s a limit though. Assimilate all you want, but you can never belong.

Where, then, do I belong? Clearly, the answer is nowhere. Probably not ever.

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