When a Homebody Becomes an Expat
When I saw that orange box of Arm&Hammer baking soda in the aisle, I must have perplexed the customers around me as I suppressed a scream of excitement and ran to it, eyes glittering. This, strangely enough, was a reminder of my homeland.
This was an unexpected part of me becoming an expat.
Not all of us adapt to living abroad with ease. Some of us were homebodies before we left our homeland, and become a bit too sentimental over our memories when we move.
The Cloak of Homeland Memories
When we move to a new country, there is a lot to adapt to. New languages, new people, new cultures, new stores, new jobs, new mannerisms, new bank accounts, new lifestyles. And for some of us, it’s hard to adapt to so many changes at once.
So we dawn on our cloak of homeland memories. Its cloth is made of warm, fluffy nostalgia that you can’t help but wrap yourself tightly in. It has images of your favorite memories printed all over. It has a special, warm smell of your sense of “home”. It makes you feel safe and secure as long as you’re wearing it. It’s a security blanket to cling to in foreign lands, when everything else feels uncertain.
But people like me tend to wear it too tightly. To draw the hood so far down that we hide ourselves from the new world, and it from us.
We see only what reminds us of home.
We concentrate only on smells that take us back.
We listen only for the familiar.
We live only for memories.
The Power of Memory Triggers
The breeze brushes against my face. I inhale. There’s a faint yet familiar scent.
Sun-warmed grass and August wildflowers.
My mind convulses as I’m jolted into the reliving of cherished moments in the US. I swim in the bliss of that fond memory for a moment, and crave to find that precise aroma again so that I can revisit it. I become frustrated when that moment ends.
In an instant, my cheerful mood is mutated into lonely melancholy.
All within one breath.
Among our senses, smell is the most powerful in triggering vivid and emotional memories.
Sadly for me, I have a hypersensitive sense of smell. And I’m sentimental. So this means that I have the “pleasure” of recalling such intense, abrupt memories often. My past is always intermingled with the present.
I enjoy wearing the cloak of homeland memories. But it doesn’t come without its risks. If you wear it long enough, homesickness overwhelms you. Any little thing can make your heart ache with longing. You’re plagued by the constant reminder that you can’t live in two places at once, no matter how much may you want to. That when you’re living in one country, you’re missing out on another.
The Danger of Unauthentic Memories
When we miss something, we tend to visit only their best features in our recollections. And when we’re left alone with these one-sided memories long enough, our perspective becomes skewed. This is how we set ourselves up for a truly unpleasant experience:
The reverse culture shock.
It is returning to our homeland, only to be stupefied when it doesn’t match our expectations and mental image we’d been carrying. It is having an emotional breakdown in a Perkins Restaurant not an hour from leaving the airport, because everything about home now feels so foreign.
It’s a scary reality to face, when we realize we don’t recognize our own homeland anymore. And more often, it’s not the country that’s changed, but ourselves. The experiences of travel changes us and how we perceive the world.
The Fragility of Nostalgia
I get that familiar scent of grass, and am again brought back to the bliss of recollection. But something else happens. Every time I’m hit by this nostalgia, the breeze seems to take just a bit of that intensity with it.
The cost of remembering becomes forgetting.
Forgetting that special sensation. Diluting it, until it becomes but a memory of something special; a feeling which I can no longer conjure it to its original strength.
No matter how tightly I might wrap the cloak of homeland memories around me, it begins to lose its warmth. The coziness fades, and discomfort increases.
Because I begin to change. I adapt to my new surroundings. I start to associate these memory triggers not just with my past, but also with where I am now. The past blends with the present.
So I develop a possessiveness over my memories. A desperate desire to keep them secret, keep them safe.
“If I just don’t think of them, maybe they won’t fade.” But memories always come to the surface, even in a foreign land. There’s just no stopping it.
Letting Them Go
Since I moved abroad, I’ve lost that concrete sense of what “home” is supposed to feel like.
I feel a part of it now in three different countries, but not completely in any of them.
I think it is this reason that I tend to cling to those memories that felt most like home. Because that feeling is harder to grasp now. That cloak of homeland memories makes me feel safe, secure, and certain.
But we cannot live in the past and the present at the same time. And even if we do hold on to the past with all our emotional strength and desperation, it won’t be enough. Because memories, no matter how precious, are subject to change. Whether it’s their form, their intensity, or our feelings toward them.
But that’s alright. Because life is not about staying the same. Things grow, things change, and things pass. And if we’re stuck in place dreaming of what was, we’re missing out on what matters now.
Learning to loosen our slack on the memories doesn’t mean forgetting everyone and everything in our homeland. It’s about keeping a healthy balance.
Otherwise, our hearts and minds would stay cluttered with the past.
Why not, instead, clear some space to allow ourselves to breathe?
Sometimes we must be okay with allowing some things to fade, and new things to grow.
With allowing ourselves to grow.
Our memories demand careful care:
Hold on too tightly, and the sorrow will consume us.
Change the memories to our liking, and we make our reality disappointing.
Grieve our human tendency to forget, and we’ll miss the opportunity to live.
And that concludes it!
If you could relate to this obsession with memories in your own life, feel free to let me know in the comments.
Thank you for reading!