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Uprooted lives

(Published in The Malay Mail on 12 March 2014)

The obituary of 91-year-old Ms. Mavis Gallant, who died in her home in Paris a couple of weeks ago, struck a cord with me.

Gallant wrote passionately about “uprooted lives and loss”, making frequent reference to the personal histories of expatriates who left their home countries in search of a better life, but had come to feel lost or isolated in the process. The New Yorker magazine published all 116 of her short stories over the course of 40 years.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Canadian writer had experienced firsthand what it meant to be dislocated and dispossessed. She was abandoned as a child: packed off to a boarding school near her hometown of Montreal at the tender age of four, and placed in the care of a guardian at 10 after her British father died and her American mother remarried and left Canada.

As an expatriate in Paris, she embarked upon a life in the literary world. And her writing, fired by her childhood experiences, became a lifelong passion in which the ties of marriage and children played no part — “those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing” poet Janice Keefer wrote in “Reading Mavis Gallant”. She’s not wrong; I regularly find myself tapping away in the still hours of the night.

The heavy veil of unsettledness that accompanies making a go of life in a different country rang true to me, particularly when I think about the last couple of years of our nomadic existence. The heady excitement that used to accompany a move has been replaced by a deep longing to belong after a decade of being on-the-road, living in 11 different homes spanning four different countries.

One of the downsides of being an expat is forever having to say goodbye to familiar faces, places and the comfort of daily routines. Harder still, is managing the distance between you and your family and friends back home: the pain inflicted on grandparents who cannot easily see their children or grandchildren as much as they would like never goes away. Neither does the worry of them getting older or falling ill.

Connections with family thousands of miles away inevitably become fragile and weaken by the year, old friends lose interest, and the new expat friends you make along the way either end up being left behind, or do the leaving themselves. Keeping in contact with “new” friends becomes a job in itself, although “the real friends stick around, for no matter where in the world you find yourselves living you make the effort to link up,” as my lovely Dutch mate I met in Texas points out. And she’s right; I’ve already had several amazing (and costly!) reunions in Paris, New York, Bangalore and Kuala Lumpur.

Based in Beijing now, awaiting news of their next posting (the tenth move in 17 years for her family of five), she “loves not knowing what will be next” and embraces each move like a true expat warrior. I admire her gutsy resolve.

What keeps her going is a deep-rooted fear of returning to the mundaneness of her home country of Holland, “where the role of a housewife and visiting the in-laws on the weekend” would occupy her time, but also the “strange, shocking and often intriguing experiences of living abroad.” Take China, where, beyond the usual touristy observations of filthy public bathrooms and the ubiquitous spitting, she delights in scenes like: “the nightly gatherings in town squares of karoake parties, ballroom dancing grannies kitted out in Madonna-like outfits, brides and grooms in matching pastels having their photos taken and old men stretching their elastic legs up the length of a tree…”

We too have rich memories of our times in Texas, Malaysia and New York; but I don’t know, it’s like one day it was fine and the next it wasn’t. I can honestly say all this moving around has left us feeling travel-worn, rudderless and temporary. Feelings that Gallant would have undoubtedly nodded her head in keen recognition of.

The one big upside of the past ten years — in addition to the cultural experience and making a dent in our UK mortgages — is that my family, our circle of six, has become very strong and self-reliant; but this is not always the case for expats. I’ve witnessed several marriages fall apart as a result of husbands or wives spending too much time in work, or with “work colleagues”. One question Tom my husband was asked by his female work colleagues at a leaving lunch in Kuala Lumpur was: “Why Tom, did you not go with the any of the women here?”. He muttered something about liking his family, and the “wife!” But it was a question that spoke volumes; working expats were almost “expected” to stray.

We’re slowly shedding the last of the expat trappings, lately the rent-free fancy house has been exchanged for cheaper digs — that we can afford. The company car will be the next to bite the bullet. While they, plus the funded private schools and the so-called hardship allowances, have allowed us to live the Life of Riley as the saying goes, it’s been at the expense of losing control over our lives. Not to mention the absent husband (working the “pound of flesh”) and being wildly subject to the whims and woes of a corporation.

France is our chosen home, not the UK, as like my friend, I couldn’t face going back; it’s that feeling of being “trapped” and of going backwards.

It is close to family, but not too close, and there’s the adventure of living in a foreign country still tapping on our door, or is that the soothing clip-clopping of horses passing by? I rather like our new town of Maisons Laffitte, the town of the cheval. Quite a turnaround from the 24/7 sirens of Manhattan we lived with a little over a year ago.

I’m hoping we can finally put some roots down. I think Ms. Mavis Gallant would approve.

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