On Being An Ex-Pat I: Identity
I’ve always felt like an outsider. You would think that having lived nearly 28 or my first 30 years in the same city (and close to 20 of those years in the same house) would have given me a strong sense of local identity. However, having been reckless enough to spend the first two years […]
I’ve always felt like an outsider. You would think that having lived nearly 28 or my first 30 years in the same city (and close to 20 of those years in the same house) would have given me a strong sense of local identity. However, having been reckless enough to spend the first two years of my life outside Australia, it didn’t matter what I did from that point, I would always be an outsider. This point was driven home to me within a few weeks of arriving in Delhi. I met an Australian at a Gallery opening and by way of introductory conversation, we shared part of our life stories. After finishing my account, the Australian said to me “so, you’re not a real aussie then?”
It is was a dismal comment that blew a hole in my tiny sense of national identity. Oddly, I had never really felt Australian till I left for London in 1999. Somewhere between cheering the sucesses in the Cricket and Rugby World Cups and in having people recognise rather than question my accent, I had started to see myself as part of the Australian Diaspora (PDF download). However, the “real aussie” comment reminded me (as did several others since) that back in Australia I would never really be “one of us.”
Being an ex-patriate raises a lot of profound questions, in part because you are forced to negotiate difference. In a place like Delhi, with a very small ex-patriate population relative to the overall population, you negotiate difference in everything you do. People respond to this in a wide range of ways of reclusive (and often depressed) denial, to full-scale (and sometimes manic) engagement. The stereotype of neocolonial gin and tonics by the overstaffed pool is occasionally true, but far from universal.
For many, this experience either hardens their relationship to where they originally grew up (the local reflex), or problematises it (the global response). For me it helped me realise the ideal that G.K. Chesterton mentioned,
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
As one of the children of globalisation, I know realise every land will, for me, be a foreign land.