The current issue of Cha features a review of Todd Swift’s latest poetry collection, Seaway: New and Selected Poetry. One of the poems in the book, “Kanada Post”, offers this meditation on the expatriate experience.
I remember some other life as if it’s mine.
My country has become a stamp, weather,
And what my mother says, over the phone.
As all the editors of Cha currently find themselves living outside of their home countries, we thought it may be interesting if we each wrote our individual responses to Swift’s lines. Below you will find these responses.
I have been thinking about home a lot over the last few weeks. I guess you tend to do this when you are travelling, and the idea of home is necessarily fluid. Every few days you are faced with the prospect of finding a new place to lay your backpack (an undersized tent, an antiseptic hostel, the bed and breakfast with the dictatorial landlady), learning new streets, and locating a restaurant at 10 o’clock at night. And then after two weeks and a string of temporary domiciles, you return to your actual home—although if you are an expat, return to your place of residence is more like it. Even in your own house, you discover the idea of home is fluid.
Stepping off the train last week at St Pancras station, being enveloped by London’s familiar unfamiliarity, I felt the ambiguity of home very strongly. I found a strange comfort in the scheduled tube station closures and obscene ticket prices, but I was still new enough to the city to be surprised by them. And I recalled similar experiences I had had while living elsewhere. Once while teaching in Korea, I had taken a ferry from Pusan to Fukoka in Japan for a brief trip. Despite having a perfectly fine time on my vacation, I was inexplicably relieved when I had set foot on the ferry back to the Hermit Kingdom; I almost enjoyed being rudely shoved by middle-aged Korean women, was at ease among men draining soju bottles. Boisterous Korea seemed much more like home than ordered Japan. But of course it wasn’t home; no one will ever confuse the Republic of Korea with Canada.
Perhaps it was because I was consumed by these thoughts that I was so taken by the quote by Swift, a fellow Canadian: “I remember some other life as if it’s mine. / My country has become a stamp, weather, / And what my mother says, over the phone.” I think that these lines offer some of the most concise and insightful I have read on the expat experience. Perhaps as a Canadian myself, his lines struck me particularly hard: there have been times that I too felt that the second largest country in the world had been reduced to a postage stamp, remembered Canada’s climate only through discussions of unseasonal weather with my mother. But the power of Swift’s words lies in their universality, as much as their Canadianess. I am sure they would resonate with expatriates from anywhere. They certainly did with my co-editor.
She seemed to experience the poem in a different way than I did. As someone who has been an expat for a number of years, I share the slight resignation in Swift’s tone, a sense that this disconnection from his homeland has become a matter of fact, the normal order of things. But my co-editor, who has been living abroad for a much shorter time, appeared to feel his words more directly, more poignantly. Although in the form of a shipping invoice instead of a postage stamp, her city’s post mark was very tangible; it decorated the box she received from home just last week.
Last week, I received a parcel from my family in Hong Kong. It is the fourth they have sent me; and it is the biggest by far. The contents were nothing extravagant: some snacks, Chinese noodles, dresses, stockings, letters, pencils. Really, it was just an assortment of items my family could easily afford to lose in the post. But I would have been devastated if they had been lost. I was overjoyed for days after the box arrived. They have not forgotten me, I thought.
Although I have only been living in London for about a year, to my consternation I have started to slowly disremember life in Hong Kong. I am now used to the inconvenience of the public transport here, even expect it. I cannot recall exactly the taste of curry fish balls from street stalls. I wonder if my old bunk bed in my parents’ home still smells the same: of mothballs, of ancient stuffed animals. Perhaps they have stored junk on it: broken electrical appliances, redundant pillows. Where did I hide my old notebooks?
This brings me back to Todd Swift’s lines “My country has become a stamp, weather, / And what my mother says, over the phone.” However, there were no actual stamps on the parcels and I do not talk to my mom over the phone (we use MSN messenger). But there is weather, drastically different from that of London. I love to hear news of Hong Kong’s sticky summer. Has this all become “some other life”, as Swift says in his poem?
When I first arrived several years ago, I thought I would never get used to Hong Kong, with all those pushy elbows and shoulders in the MTR. And what kind of abbreviation is “MTR” anyway? I kept thinking that the “R” had been misplaced. In Singapore, the subway is called the MRT.
Yet my five-year-old son enjoys riding on minibuses (which are ubiquitous in Hong Kong) and the MTR. He doesn’t talk about the MRT the way he used to, and he’s picking up Cantonese. My daughter is coming into the world at the end of this month. She will, in all likelihood, spend her formative years in Hong Kong as well.
I am beginning to think that Singapore and Hong Kong are to me what Hong Kong and Singapore will be to my children. They might grow up thinking that the MRT in Singapore is the subway with its “R” misplaced.
What is a migrant qualified to say? It’s an anxiety that besets many the creative person too, those who have up-anchored (up-ended?) and found another country…or a series of them. Where, in fact, is home—and does it even matter? This summer in Beijing—a city I have come to adopt—midway through a short story, “Fatty Goes To China”, I came to an abrupt and frustrating halt. Writer’s block, homesickness, midlife crisis: these are not concepts I believe in. There is always something going on beneath the surface. You learn a wily stoicism.
I needed a pilgrimage. On a sultry July morning, I trekked across this city to the National Library of China where I found, miraculously, an English copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. Here was a quirky, “grotesque” American author who never strayed far from her mother and the peacocks of her rural Georgia home. A writer’s country, she said, is “the region that most immediately surrounds him…with its body of manners, that he knows well enough to employ.”
How well do we know where we are? This, I think, is Todd Swift’s question too. With terror that I might know nothing of Beijing, let alone China, I rather blindly drifted into the woodland behind the imposing library and came upon a lake and adjacent fishing pond. Several days later—”Fatty” sputtering still—I cashed in my hundred yuan library card and, with a Chinese friend and angler, returned to the tree-encircled watering hole. We sat there, like ducks, for hours in the torpid heat contemplating an unbobbing float, retrieving bare hook after bare hook—such a mysterious disappearing bait! Two elderly passersby—a husband and wife, serious fishermen both—had a go and fared no better.
After an entire afternoon (and between humorous exchanges with our new friends) Lei once again idly, resignedly, pulled in the line. This time to discover a tiny fish wriggling, but hooked in its belly rather than lip. Meandering past, no doubt. We looked at one another in astonishment: the behooked, Lei and I, those elderly passersby. Couldn’t we even fish properly? How we laughed. For his part, our tiddler chuckled off the barb and swam away. Catch of the day, at the back of the National Library of China.
As Todd Swift puts it, us migrants, travellers, may have only stamps, weather and, if we’re lucky, mother calls…as passports. We may have Rilke in our ears, “this is the way we live, forever leaving”. Yet somewhere between a fish hook in the gut and wisdom from some peacock-ruffled spinster in Georgia, there lies a country as home as it is frightening, seductive and unpredictable.
Another life indeed. A place where you can finish even a “Fatty” story. And for all its unanswered questions, this existence is a match for “some other life…over the phone”. Defined by our “absence” from them, both are lives we crave and fear, as does Swift, betwixt and between. We find a sanctuary of our own devising, I suspect—the difficulty, as Swift implies, is whether we can recognize a “Kanada” when it comes at us sideways, as it so often does.
Home. All ours to write about…and certainly not a catch.
Jeff Zroback, Tammy Ho, Eddie Tay and Royston Tester / Editors and Guest Editor
18 August 2009