Monday, April 22, 2013
A (not so) short reflection on international living
International living. Amazing: see new places, meet new people, eat varied food, discover new cultures, religions and ways of living. Fantastic right? Right! It is all those things and it is great, it is amazing, the coming of age for the jet engine (around the time I was born), online booking, free wireless videophony has provided the possibilities to travel and live anywhere you care to and opened the world of work incredibly.... The modality of international living though varies, moving from your home country to another and staying there is not quite what I mean. Ongoing mobility, contract work as a part of international living is what I would like to talk about, and it has to be said,.....its not all its cracked up to be.
In my adult life global mobility has been a very long trend. I started traveling in 1985 and before I moved to Malaysia in 2004 I had not lived in the same city or country for more than 21 months, including remote towns and the bush in Canada, Australia, Afghanistan, East Timor, Vietnam, Chad, Sri Lanka andTunisia, Ecuador since I was 21. For periods more than 21months I have lived in Kathmandu (3yrs), Kuala Lumpur (4.5yrs) and Beirut (3yrs)...these last two consecutively when the boys came along....kids tend to do that stick you down, ground you out, anchor you... not a bad thing at all. International careers are like this (mobile) and whether you work in the private or public sector mobility seems to be unavoidable. Certainly as part of the international civil service (working for the United Nations, World Bank, European Commission, etc) as an international consultant or staff member you are usually only in a certain country for a certain period of time, then you are moved along. This has been my experience over the past 25 years.
I find myself (approaching 50 pretty darn fast) no longer necessarily enamoured (I'll explain) with such mobility. What the mobility doesn't provide for is continuous quality connection with extended family and old friends which is a significant part of what I will call Identity. This needs un-packaging a bit because it is all inclusive of being present in person for marriages, births, funerals, injuries and moments of truth... and other 'life-turning' events in the lives of those we hold dearest emotionally...but not nearest in the physical sense. They come and visit if you're lucky, you can skype with people, but otherwise you weren't there to support the happiness, the joy or the grief, you aren't in any photos, your absence proving the point! Certainly you can travel and be there for pitiful few of those events but not nearly all of them...and you miss out on some great parties. These things define at least who we are from, our tribal roots and while Identity is the knowledge of who you are, knowing where you are from, your roots is a good starting point.
I have fond memories growing up in the same place, knowing every nook and cranny of my neighbourhood in Edmonton, Alberta....Lansdowne it was called. A neighbourhood of some 700 homes surrounded on 3 sides by ravine wilderness and farmland (until one side became a freeway) and then a main artery on the 4th side. I went to the local primary school, played at the local playground and playing field, worked at the local supermarket, shovelled sidewalks, cut grass, delivered newspapers on the same streets that I rode my bike around for years. We knew people and they knew us in a friendly suburban way that leant to our Identity.
Identity is under-rated. And in case you were wondering I am not referring to Identity in the 'nationalistic' sense.....or as personal sovereignty as an individual concept of global living or citizenry. Rather I am simply referring to knowing where you are from, who your people are, your tribe and thus a anchoring point in your otherwise anchorless world. For example my sons don't really know how to respond when they are asked where they come from....born in Malaysia, French mother, Canadian father (never lived in Canada or France), lived in Malaysia, Lebanon and now Ecuador but soon to be moving to Nepal. They speak English, French took Arabic for 3yrs in school and now have a smattering of Spanish. Some would say it isn't important.....'i come from the world'....a nice ideal, but I beg to differ; knowing your roots is important to knowing who you are. Their only place locator as an anchor is their grand-parents' house in France.
Community also infers Identity, but refers to more of an external factor than internal ones. Theres that nice little quote coming from rural communities in Africa.... where people rarely leave their home-place they say....'it takes a village to raise a child'.... substitute village with community and you get the gist of what I mean. Community; those people around you who support you, who will be there for you in times of need, who invite you to their gatherings and celebrations because you are part of the greater whole.
This past few months my sons and I have lived in a small southern Andean town of Vilcabamba in Ecuador, a place I first visited in 2001 on perambulations to learn Spanish (and surfing) during the first break from work in Afghanistan. I bought land there in 2001 and returned on another break from Afghanistan in 2003 to build a house (and ended up with more land). I have returned nearly annually since then until last year when we came in September and have stayed until now, May. We have watched the dry season give way to the wet (albeit not a very wet one) and seen the early return of the dry season... but we have enjoyed the blossoms and the greening up of the valley and noted the cycles of the varied flora in our garden and the valley.
We have developed community. Vilcabamba is a small town and, having been here over the years I have the benefit of knowing and being known to many local townsfolk. I have known their children since they were babies, and while my visits have afforded me only snapshots of the changes over time, I feel accepted here and known, even liked. In this evolving community there have been waves of expatriates coming and going. It is such a place that many are attracted to its year round very pleasant climate, it is known as the sacred valley for its tranquil ambiance, its waters are famously clear and clean, and it is heralded as one of the safest places in the world, free from chemtrails, GMO crops with an abundance of organic food. The current 'wave' of expatriates, these past 3-5yrs has included a number of small families and so, myself now with children, we have many friends who also have kids and bonds have been made.
When I consider the notion of community ala Vilcabamba I mean also the adult friends of my own and of my children. People who help guide them, like my neighbours, people who reinforce healthy living in diet and attitude and socialization, like their tutors in homeschooling and other significant people who have come into our lives enriching our experience in multitudes of ways. The community is very widely experienced and so they benefit from exposure to alternative views like the composition of the universe, they study sacred geometry, learn music from India during kirtans and music class, learn about growing seasons, medicinal plants, caring for farm animals and the list goes on. I too of course have benefited greatly from the friendships that have come about we live only a 10minute walk from town and you are quite likely to meet the friends because they are in town too and the conversations commence! Happenstance, serendipity and coincidence tend to dictate who you meet and where you might spend the afternoon.
These things, Community and Identity have become increasingly important over the past 30 yrs or so of travelling. In KL and Beirut we developed community, friends we would see on a weekly basis and then.... we left. They are still our friends but time and distance incurs the same penalty: a disconnect that only grows, as it does with the folks back home. Skype is no substitute for live face to face time. We will leave Vilcabamba in a couple of weeks and get back on the carousel of mobility. Next stop France for a short stop (visit the French grandparents) and then to Nepal. For me and for the boys this will be dislocating, even jarring, the only cushion upon landing being that they will be reunited with their mother and the family will again be intact.....at least once in Kathmandu we will all be in the same place!
I've rambled on long enough....so here is the qualifier....if I were to settle somewhere and really put down anchor, develop roots, how long before my only real life experience (residing everywhere only temporarily) as an adult prevails and I get itchy feet and long to move on? This seems to be the real conundrum. Lately I have been reflecting on where, doing what and with whom will I be doing it in the next decade or two...even where to 'retire' too? (Retirement...what an inane, contrived concept...can't believe I even think that way!) And about relationships; firm ones, ones that will endure with commitment, how do you make these when you are perpetually moving on. And what (?) between now and then whenever that will be. Do I embrace the idea of becoming sedentary, if so where? Or embrace the probability of remaining mobile? Which is it to be? I rest in the knowledge that Life has its way of providing the answers, I can see myself returning here to Ecuador (again and again) until I decide to stay. But I can see myself finding a beach somewhere and being happy there running a respite for burned out aid workers an orphanage (or both) or something like that. I can see myself doing both things.
I have given my life to making a contribution to humanity in almost all the work I have done so that is not likely to change. And given that perhaps I should accept that as the underlying them...not dwell on where or for how long....just let that all go. Only time will tell anyway and there are no definitives..... my favorite quote to describe life in general terms is 'the only certainty is that there is no certainty' (and say that with the Indian head waggle please). And so I carry on into the uncertain future.