A returning student’s plea for understanding.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
— TS Eliot
You left home with a heavy heart, at first. You cried and sighed and said various things as patriotic as they were embarrassingly naïve, like vowing to come home and single-brainedly fix the brain drain, etc. The first return home was glorious. You couldn’t wait to attend the happy reunions, to tell all your new stories, to stuff your face with a checklist of local delicacies before you endure another year of cold BLT sandwiches.
That was back in your first year. Thereafter, each return became more bewildering than the previous one.
“There” you easily named shops in their order along the streets and knew which ones gave discounts on which days of the week. “Here” your town has changed so much so quickly — another missing supermarket, another new bakery — and you hardly know your way to your class gathering at the newly-built mall with odd rumours about its air-conditioners.
“There” you walked everywhere, even cycled a little, knew how to get bus tickets cheap, and you could pinpoint precisely where the three street pianos were hidden in the central train station. “Here” you still thick-skinnedly ask for cars to tumpang every time you had to step outside.
“There” you learnt to play covers of songs by the most obscure-sounding indie bands. “Here” you struggled to recognise any tune on the radio.
“There” you could tell off a taxi driver for overcharging. “Here” you stirred your cup of RM4.50 iced lemon tea and wondered if you’d just been conned.
As you spent an increasingly bigger portion of your recent life “there” overseas and a smaller one “here” at home, the “here”s and the “there”s became mixed up. When are you leaving for X became when are you going back to X? X has become home, and your home has become a summer holiday retreat.
Suddenly, you found the things — not things, memories — you’ve amassed over the years packed neatly into boxes to be shipped home, wrapped in thick bubble-wraps of nostalgia. You bought a one-way ticket. When your friends asked “how long will you be back?” you said “this time, for good”, unused to not citing a return date. On the plane you heard the air stewardess say the familiar phrase: “To all visitors, welcome to Malaysia; and to all Malaysians, welcome home”. You shift uncomfortably, under the perceived guilt of being sad to return to your tanahair at last.
The sadness was quickly overcome by bewilderment. The surroundings felt somewhat alien to you, and you felt like some sort of alien in the surroundings. You gasped in the oppressive air, unsure whether it was the heat or the humidity or the haze — or the loss of the independence and solitude you have grown rather fond of. As you struggled with jetlag and lay awake till seven in the morning, you started to miss the littlest things you took for granted. You missed roaming around town on foot at night with a camera without fearing for your safety. You missed leaves that change colour and cars that stop for pedestrians and people who hold the door open.
And then there was the unexpected kind of language barrier. Desperate to be understood, you tried to learn a bit of both accents and ended up ultimately sounding like neither. In one country you heard a condescending “wow, I’m surprised your English is so good for a foreigner!” and in another, you got told to “stop trying to sound angmoh, it’s fake, just talk normally.” You wondered if you had been purposely speaking abnormally all the while.
And then there was the news. Oh, the news. You’ve followed them closely all these years, you still do. But you’ve lost the dramatic gushing and complaining typical of Malaysians, having picked up the art of black humour and quietly resentful understatement. No longer do you post all over social media and call people up with massive rants. Instead, you weep through a half a packet of tissues as you read the updates, and then emerge with a poker face and perhaps a dark chuckle if the issue crops up in conversation. It appears from your silence that you don’t care anymore when in fact, you don’t care any less.
So you’ve changed. They observe, those around you, and you readily concede.
One the one hand, a particularly scathing line became particularly handy against you in any heated argument: “You think you’re so great because you studied overseas?” You try not to show how much it crushes you (it hurts almost as much as “Wow, you put on such a lot of weight! Eat very well over there ah?”). On the other hand, well-meaning family and friends constantly remind you: “You should use your high qualifications to get better jobs, better terms, otherwise what’s the use of that overseas degree?” You struggle between curbing your over-confidence and compensating for your lack of it.
You want to tell them that you’re not trying to show off. You want to tell them that you’re not trying to belittle yourself either. You have nothing to boast or mourn about in your frequent references to “when I was in…/ when I went to…”. You make those references only because these recent years are all you have to define who you are now.
These recent years overseas were significant to you. Cliched as it may sound, these years helped shape you through a series of firsts. The first time you tried to live independently in a wholly foreign land. The first time you took care of yourself when you were properly ill and tried to hide it on Skype. The first time you heard the odd scream coming from down the hallway and wondered if your neighbour was getting murdered. The first time you converted currency and cried at the price of a book. The first time you collected trash at a black tie ball for 12 hours just so that you could see what a black tie ball looks like.
You want to tell them. But you don’t know how to begin to explain these turning points in your life, so you get flustered and say “you won’t understand unless you’ve been there”, which makes you sound like a completely obnoxious idiot. You mentally slap yourself and decide to say nothing next time, which makes you look like a completely pretentious douchebag.
You know very well that you are lucky to have had the opportunity to go overseas, and you appreciate it immensely. At the same time, you look at your peers at home in awe and envy, as they navigate around people and places with the ease of an experienced adult. Despite whispers that you “think you’re superior”, you feel anything but superior. In fact, you feel quite useless. What’s the use of knowing 3 ways to tie a scarf, or the peak hours for the Tube, or foreign civil procedure, when you come home and realise you don’t even know how to live on your homeland anymore? It’s like a reverse culture shock.
You just wish for a bit of time and a bit of patience while you switch your internal gears back to their default setting.
But when you eat your first packet of nasi lemak (and it doesn’t cost RM45), when you see the familiar faces which remained dearly familiar over the years apart, when you sleep in your own bed with all the old stuffed toys waiting, and each of these simplest things fill your heart with warmth — you realise the air stewardess was right: there’s no other place you can call home.
A hug for those who feel the same. Welcome home.