When should I go home? Is it goodbye when I no longer appreciate the feeling of personal safety here, the affordable public transport, the laid-back national attitude? When I tire of the cheap massages, manicures and mangos? Maybe it will it be the prevalance of sleazy bars, being seated next to one too many dumb girlfriends at dinner, or the barking soi dogs that finally get to me.
The longer I wait the easier it is to postpone the decision. Home itself is gradually taking on a different meaning; it?s not exactly equated with a nation anymore. My Man spent several years growing up in each of Italy, South Korea and Japan; why is it he should feel a particular allegiance to the country of his birth? And now I?ve spent five years outside Australia; except for family, why would I want to go back?
I could happily shift to Italy next or I could find a well-paying job in Hong Kong. I don?t read the online Sydney Morning Herald as often as I used to, and many of my friends are now scattered around the globe, shooting emails off and seeing each other probably just as frequently as if we were all living in the same city.
We?re cast adrift: not quite aimless, but with the magnetic pull of ?home? weakening month by month.
?If you wait until you retire to go back to Australia,? some holidaying Kiwi-English friends cried, ?You won?t have any friends when you go back!? That may be; but if I leave now I?ll leave friends behind, and if I stay, many of those friends will simply leave me behind instead.
In his recent book The Global Soul Pico Iyer captures an idea I?ve been inarticulately mulling over for some time: that more and more of us aren?t slotting in to traditional notions of what it means ?to be from? somewhere. Iyer is Indian-born, UK-educated and now divides his time between the US and Japan.
Of himself (and me) he writes: ?A person like me can?t really call himself an exile (who traditionally looked back to a home now lost), or an expatriate (who?s generally posted abroad for a living); I?m not really a nomad (whose patterns are guided by the seasons and tradition); and I?ve never been subject to the refugee?s violent disruptions: the Global Soul is best characterised by the fact of falling between all categories??
Being from multicultural Sydney, I?ve long known that a face doesn?t necessarily reveal where a body is from, or whether that body is Australian. Whether you?re born in Greece, Vietnam, Tonga or Latvia, if you?ve made it through the tortuous application process to become a migrant or a refugee to Australia, official policy welcomes you with open arms to join in being an Australian too. Australia ? or at least urban Australia ? is by definition a multicultural place today.
The opposite situation exists in Thailand. It?s not difficult for most nationalities to get a 15-or 30-day tourist visa. But if you want to live here legally ? whether you?re Burmese, American or French ? you?ll probably face similar amounts of paperwork and expense, but you?ll never be accepted as a Thai. Just ask an Indian whose family has been here for generations, a member of an ethnic minority group in the mountains of the north, or a German woman married to a Bangkok Thai. Where?s home for them?
The more money you have, of course, the more rights you have to be many places and the less attached you may feel to just one ? and you do need money to be Iyer?s Global Soul. With money, you can travel widely across the spinning globe and always feel right at home, with recognisable fastfood chains, beauty stores and supermarkets all arriving at your destination before you. It would be more foreign for many expatriates to head to the poor areas in their own home towns than it now is for them to arrive in Thailand and take a lease on an executive apartment.
But money or no money, bureaucracies are failing to keep pace with people like us. For reasons striking at the heart of what it means to be a nation in the twenty-first century, it still matters very much to governments and organisations where people are from.
Rebecca is an American-born teacher; her dad?s Thai, her mum?s Norwegian. She?s been in Thailand these past few months teaching, and would now like to volunteer with a US-based volunteer program. She can?t because she?s already here. Their forms don?t allow it.
Australian Guy and Thai Jen met while studying at university in Australia years ago; they married there. They moved to Thailand a few years ago and recently had their first baby. Guy still has to pay someone to take his visa out of the country every 30 days; the irony of living in a country where his child is a citizen but he?s not can?t be lost on him. (Although Guy does note that at least his child is entitled to citizenship, which may not always be the case in other countries.)
My first job here was at the Australian Embassy in the political economic section. I was ?locally engaged?, but also Australian – I had to be to acquire the necessary security clearance. I received local wages, had to pay tax in Australia, and could not be promoted anywhere because I was technically a local.
Now I might soon be earning most of my income from outside of Thailand, but there?s not yet an appropriate visa for that situation.
Bureacracies aside though, those with enough money and appropriate skills can still largely take advantage of the technologies of our time, skating along the gaps of categorisation and happily nesting wherever we happen to find ourselves.
But a Swede I met in Vietnam reminded me that not everyone wants to create new homes. She had lived uncomfortably in Johannesburg for a year, where she found it difficult to connect with any of the locals and longed to get home. ?I hate to go to a pub where there?s nobody who?s from my culture, who understands where I?m coming from,? she said. ?I need to have that connection.?
Indeed Iyer quotes Simone Weil: ?To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul.?
The question remains, however, of what it is each of us should be rooting ourselves to.