20 Years An Expat
Looking though some old passports reminded me this is an important anniversary. On this day a long time ago I started being an expat.
On this day twenty years ago, I boarded a plane from Sydney to London and became an expat. How could I know the path this would open up?
At the time, I needed to rebel. Not against my family, my upbringing or anything so naive. I’d made peace with who I was, in that sense.
I needed to rebel against a culture that increasingly felt like a suffocating straitjacket. I need to find somewhere where I wouldn’t be told to “Fuck off back to where you came from,” just because I looked a little different, or dared occasionally to speak a foreign language in public.
I was looking for a better place but I was dreaming of the perfect place. But that perfection was always missing, as I moved from London to Delhi, then Hong Kong, Singapore, and now Tokyo. Every place was weird in one way or another. Every climate had something wrong with it. Every country had its own kind of bizarre bureaucracy. Or idiots that made you feel like you didn’t belong.
Having grown up feeling like I could never fit in, made it easier for me to move from place to place. Belonging came to mean something very different from being like those around me, or even being liked by them. Rather, it meant how much a place gave me the things I longed for. Which I had realised some time ago were essentially work and love.
The last twenty years have been about art, writing and family. I’ve made friends, an amazing collection of talented people, none of whom live near me. Whatever a “social life” might look like for someone my age, it isn’t part of my life. I’m far more likely to be having coffee with, or preparing a meal for, a friend visiting from overseas, than someone I know who lives here. And this has been true, more or less consistently, for these past twenty years.
The highest highs, most notably during my years in London and here in Tokyo, have been when my work was clearly defined, challenging and meaningful. And the lowest lows, during the first half of my time in Delhi and for much of my time in Singapore, were when it felt impossible for me to do any meaningful work.
While there’s been some sense of continuity in taking books, guitars and other personal things with me from place to place, every home has been one we rented, and I’m weary of that, of worrying about marks on the walls, and whether I can hang my art the way I want.
Sometimes I get asked if I’ll ever return to Australia. But, I don’t quite know what there is to return to. I miss my parents. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about them or want to talk to them. But as much as I enjoy my visits down under, it’s hard to take the way the country presents itself, with the vast gulf between the sameness of the faces on TV and the diversity of the faces on the streets. Who am I when I’m in Australia? I’m someone who doesn’t belong.
Of course, in a way, I don’t belong in Tokyo either. There are almost no faces like mine on TV. But that doesn’t bother me. And I’m not sure I can really explain why. An internet pundit might say it’s because Japan’s politicians don’t claim this country is a multicultural success story with no racism, the way Australia’s politicians do. But, it’s not that.
Here in Japan, I feel like I’m learning all the time.
And I feel respected, which as I get older, feels increasingly important. It’s OK to be an older guy. To dress your age. To be a grown-up. I don’t have to pretend to care about every sporting event, or some pop music greatest hits list, or the latest bit of celebrity gossip.
And being an outsider here doesn’t weigh on me the way it did during the years of my childhood I spent trying to fit in. Maybe it’s like the way we are kinder to our friends in adulthood than when we’re kids and we manage to make relationships last longer because we’re more forgiving. And we realise our own potential to be the arsehole in the wrong.
Because if these twenty years have taught me anything, it’s how much that young guy who got on a plane to London those years ago didn’t know about how the world works. I’m not sure how much more I do know now. It might be that it’s how much I don’t know that matters. So, I keep learning, travelling and seeing what the world has to reveal.