“Pursuing employment or climatic relief, we live in voluntary exile from our extended families and our longer past, but in an involuntary exile from ourselves and our own past.” John ThornA friend mentioned to me the last time I saw him that my blog makes me seem a lot sweeter and more gentle than I really am in person. The last time I saw him. The last time. Not that we get to see each other often. Since varsity days we've always lived on different continents or in different cities. It's one of those friendships that drifts along, maintained by the occasional quick coffee or catch-up dinner when we happen to be in the same city. His words keep coming back to me, here in my self-imposed exile.
"You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés." Hemingway
“'...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone...” Conrad, Heart of Darkness
“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself – silence, exile and cunning” Joyce, Portrait
Exile is a strong word. It has strong connotations. Connotations of great meaning and personal sacrifice for a worthier end. Sometimes the exile is personal. Sometimes there is no great reason to excuse the betrayal of leaving. Like men returning from wars that have no popular support and descending into PTSD because their reason for risking so much is questioned. Self-imposed exile doesn't have the cultural, social acceptance of exile for a good cause. It lacks the automatic support-structures that come with self-sacrificing exile. Often it is seen as selfish. It is selfish. It is choosing to be truly alone. I suppose in some ways it is true exile. A tangible expression in space of the choice not to fit into other people's boxes.
Choosing not to fit into other people's boxes leaves a void of meaning. When you reject the ready-made reasons that are offered on a platter if you'd just accept the societal limitations and do what other people do, you have to start creating your own reasons, your own meaning of life. I don't mean reasons to get out of bed in the mornings. The ordinary reasons – that there is work that has to be done and money that has to be earned, apply just as much far from home as they would any other day. But the bigger reasons, the larger questions.
I've never really struggled with this before. I'm hard-wired to assume some very large and sometimes overwhelming reasons in the form of massive and seemingly insurmountable problems that need to be fixed. Africa provides plenty of reasons, when that's your definition. And to some extent those reasons remain. I feel more strongly than ever, being here, a deep desire to return and dedicate my days to helping fix Africa's problems. My greatest fear is that something will prevent me from going back, that for whatever cause I won't be able to go home. Slightly irrational, but perhaps an acknowledgement or a new understanding that my dream is not just to fix problems, it's to work at fixing problems for Africa.
In the meantime, I find my days a little less full of reasons. What happens in Africa, much as it is close to my heart, is, after all, a very long way away. And there need to be reasons, there needs to be meaning in between the ordinary mundanity of everyday. There needs to be something bigger. Some forms of exile provide ready-made meaning in the work itself. That's not the case for me.
What I'm doing in not big or important and will not change anything. It was never meant to. For me, this is a temporary exile and I'm not here to fix anything. Some things about that context bother me. I've never worked in the private sector before. Every bit of work I've ever done has been somehow related to a bigger cause. Perhaps this is normal for the private sector world, but the people around me don't even seem to be seeking reason. What I've gathered so far about the cultural context is that work, in and of itself, is seen as enough of a reason. That doesn't satisfy me. It's not enough to be working unless you're working for something. In a classroom setting, I find myself longing for the rigorous definitions of outcomes based education with its broader philosophical point that things need to have outcomes – to have reasons. I realise that there are many people for whom life is quite fine just being. There is something that a little pretentious about needing to have reasons.
But I do need reasons. I also realise that part of the point of this type of reflection and experience is that you need to construct at least the framework within which reasons can exist – if not the actual reasons. How does one go about creating the space for reasons? The first observation, for me, is the extent to which hanging around with other jaded expats will absolutely not achieve this. Several people around me keeping pushing me to make friends and meet more people, possibly in terror that I'll upset everything by getting homesick and leaving suddenly. I don't know quite how to tell them, without sounding terribly self-satisfied and offensive, why this really isn't the answer. Nor is foisting me on unwary Koreans who are expecting the kind of expat who really just wants a good time.
Spending time getting to know the place sometimes helps. There is plenty of space for reasons and meaning in exploring a new place and learning to understand and appreciate where you're living. That's how I fell in love with Grahamstown and later Cape Town. But I miss being able to share it. I struggle to turn random wanderings into meaningful experiences without someone to tell. Perhaps that is the real challenge of exile – the constant struggle to create meaning from unrelated things and moments and experiences without being able to explore them through ongoing everyday conversations. So many of the big experiences that have shaped who I am have been mediated through shared lives and discussing ideas and thoughts and feelings. For the first time, so far away, and because this distance is not only physical but a distance where context and experiences simply so foreign as to be unintelligible to those whose opinions would normally mediate and help to shape mine.
At some level I still cherish hopes that creating my next reality – back in Africa fixing problems – can be a group effort. I love working with other people and frequently I love very dearly the amazing people I get to work with. Perhaps being here is partly about learning to do without the luxury of other people. And part of that is learning to be totally honest with myself and to put myself on paper , to create meaning with words, without the protection of the sweeter blog persona. If my greatest new fear is not being able to get home to Africa, I suppose the greatest thing I'm trying to learn is how to make meaning alone and how not to be afraid, any more, to do that for myself.