Wednesday, November 03, 2010

La Vida Expatica #6: The Place I Once Called Home Yet Never Truly Belonged

I had lunch with my best friend from high school today. She is due to have her first baby on Tuesday. It was incredibly nice to see her, even if just for a few hours, and the Thai crepes place (how's that for fusion!) we went to in Fremont was divine. I had the peanut chicken crepe and it totally satisfied my craving for spicy comfort food.

M. is my closest friend here in the Bay Area, despite the fact that we haven't really spent a lot of time together since we were 16 (I moved to Brazil to do a student exchange that year, and we subsequently lost touch for nearly a decade). Ironically, life brought both of us to California. She and her husband fled Hurricane Katrina and resettled here. Rico and I, as you know, moved here just over a year ago for his work, to be near my mom, and so I could go to school at CCA.

M. lives over an hour away, but we manage to see each other once every couple of months. I deeply miss having girlfriends nearby, and am reminded of how wonderful that kindred connection can be every time I see M.

Today she asked if I miss living in Mozambique. The answer is yes and no.

Yes a thousand times over to missing our friends, our social life, our global nomad community. The quick bonds formed with people from faraway lands, the dinner parties, the comfort in knowing that you are sharing a common experience. I miss the road trips, the Sunday lunches by the Indian Ocean, the animated discussions about how - and if - development work can really make an impact, about why projects fail, about why we were all there in the first place. Many an existential crisis was sorted out over gin-and-tonics and king prawns.

I have never felt so at home with a group of people in my life. I miss that immensely, the feeling of belonging, of understanding and feeling understood.

I miss many other things, too. The view of the Vila Algarve from our balcony, the tiles crumbling a bit more with each passing day. The streets lined with flowering trees, and the way I started tracking the seasons by what was in bloom: jacarandas, red acacias, yellow acacias. I miss catching bursts of the animated chats had by our building guards, full of whoops and hollers and shrill shrieks of excitement to punctuate the stories being told. I miss Dona Lidia's laugh. Zeca's warmth and reliability. The humility, kindness and hospitality shown by so many Mozambicans. The rich local culture. The mini global melting pot that is Maputo, and increasingly the rest of the country. I miss the pool at Hotel Terminus, site of many a sun-drenched, lazy afternoon, tanning and eating sandes de galinha maionese. I miss the piri-piri, obviously. I could make it at home in the blender, but somehow it's not the same as out of a small communal container on a wobbly restaurant table. I miss the sunrise at 4:30 in the morning in the summer. The nights spent dancing or listening to live music. The markets. I miss bumping into friends nearly everywhere we went. I miss Mozambique because it holds such a special spot in my heart as the place where Rico and I met each other again, fell in love, and started our life together as husband and wife.

Despite all of these wonderful things, there are many I don't miss: the in-your-face poverty, the inefficiency and inescapable bureaucracy, the lack of customer service, witnessing the abuse and exploitation of maids/waiters/workers and realizing that for many well-off Mozambicans that kind of treatment is acceptable, the exploitation of locals by foreigners and foreign companies, the sensation that you were always getting somewhat ripped off because you were white or a foreigner, the often false or tense relationships with the Mozambicans, the finely-tuned hate of "the stare" - an empty-eyed look accompanied by silence that became par for the course in many interactions...the frustration that the Moz experience wasn't what I'd expected - that in many aspects I'd become the typical expat I so swore I'd never be, the sad realization that I, too, looked at people in "local" vs. "expat" categories, that I was overflowing with cynicism, that I continued to do a job I didn't believe in for way too long - one of the motivations being a fat paycheck (the same fat paycheck to international consultants that was so often the topic of our rants on what was wrong with the development sector), the hypocrisy - my own and that of others...the ever-present shadow of depression...the corruption of government officials and others in positions of power, the fleets of white Mercedes and the massive mansions, the decision to give bribes to police or otherwise grease the wheels of the system - and wondering exactly how fast that particular slope would get too slippery to be controllable...the inability to ever be anonymous or feel truly comfortable living in the country.

Some days I am all the way on the "dying of saudades" end of the spectrum; other days I still feel very cynical and am glad that we left when we did. It is all very gray, even as the passing of time affords me a wiser, more objective perspective through which to view our experiences in Mozambique.


NOLA said...

ah, good timing for me to read this post. Figuring out my place as a foreigner in Liberia is quite a challenge!

ditdit said...

This is how I feel about the Big Island of Hawaii. It's definitely where I left a big chunk of my heart, the first place my grown-up self felt truly at home. Way less foreign than an African country, but oh so different than the Midwest.

Ali la Loca said...

~NOLA - I can only imagine. There must be an additional very complex and interesting layer to all this in Liberia, given the country's connection to America. I look forward to hearing about your experience.

~Ditdit - It's amazing how different parts of the US can give an experience akin to going abroad - you definitely can get culture shock, reverse culture shock, etc!

sayama said...

Your thoughts echo mine.. my contract is up in Jan, and when I think about whether I would like to stay longer, I run into the same conflicts as you describe. Some of the best of life is here, and at the same time, some of the worst.. Before I came to Africa, everyone told me that 'it gets under your skin'. I think it's true. To live here for any length, you have to let a little bit of Mozambique become a part of you... and it will probably always remain there..

Anonymous said...

Nice article. I am a Mozambican living in USA for 14 years. Strange how things can be similar. Materially, life is great here, much better than home. The paycheck is fat, no corruption; everything is in place. Yet, something is missing. The feeling of being (considered) foreigner is always there. There other days, however, when I miss home so much. It is just strange. But then again I am Mozambican. That could be the difference.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ali,
I echo the thoughts of the Moz living in the US. That was me a few years back as well...and after 8 years in the US - half for school the rest working. i just had to leave! i love the conveniences the US enabled me to have, and yes customer service is top of the list. but at the same time, i felt like my life was hollow, that i was just going through the motions and not fulfilled. it was time to go. Living in Mozambique has its frustrations, in particular if you already know a different way of 'being' but i am so happy. and i hope everyday that i can make a difference, be it by working in development/supporting few people who have come across my path/and trying always not to fall into the corruption schemes. i reminisce about the US, and i even ask myself 'what if?' form time to time...but this is where i belong in Africa. i am mozambican - even if i am white.

Ali la Loca said...

~Sayama - I'm over a year out of Moz, and I still haven't even begun to fully process what I felt about living there, and how the experience affected me. It's so complex, and I feel like with each living abroad experience, it becomes more so. Best of luck with your relocation, amiga!

~Anonymous - I so understand what you mean about the feeling of being a foreigner being always present. I think, in some ways, the place doesn't really matter: there is a tremendous, hard-to-explain feeling of comfort in "belonging", even if one doesn't agree with everything that happens in the place one belongs. I think there is a constant, subtle stress of being a foreigner - even a well-assimilated, comfortable, fluent foreigner...and it's really nice to go HOME, even if just for a visit.

~Anonymous - I feel like my experience was like what you describe. I loved so many things about living in Moz - about living abroad in general (I've always been the global nomad, from a relatively early age) - but the pull of home became so strong. There are obviously many "issues" with the US, but the feeling of being here again is wonderful, such a strange sort of relief.

For me at least, a lot of the joy of going "home" is a result of finally finding peace with my cultural and national identity. Being able to be American and proud - in the specific way I interpret and value being from the US - made it possible to come back here and feel like I'd found my place, like all was right in the world. Perhaps something similar happened for you with your Mozambican identity??

Anonymous said...

Hi Ali,
the search for where we belong can take all our lives...i am glad you have found it.but even though you feel comfortable and love being in your 'home' is your life not much better because you were a global nomad? your perspective will never be that of a 'regular' offense to anyone. for me, as i live in different places around the world, i feel like my 'home' becomes smaller and smaller. there are things that i cannot relate to anymore, and so many other things i will not tolerate or want for myself as well.
hurray for the possibility of exploring the world.

Ali la Loca said...

~Anonymous - Yes, my life is most certainly richer thanks to being a global nomad. Although I've moved "home" and don't have plans to live abroad again, I still feel like a traveler and expat. Perhaps it's because we've settled in a city that is new to both me and Rico, or maybe - more likely - because once you venture out as a global nomad you can never really go "home" because of how you've changed as a result of the experiences...

At the end of the day, I think once you've chronically lived abroad, you can make any place and any situation home, to one extent or another. Casa Cali happens to bring together so many of the things that are important to me: proximity to family, the ability to "fit in" yet also be anonymous, the diversity of a big city, etc, etc.

Ali la Loca said...

In re-reading my previous comment, I realize that it sounds like a total contradiction: after being a global nomad, you can never truly go "home" because of how you and your worldview have changed...and yet you become so adaptable that anywhere can become "home". Sounds odd, but it's exactly what I want to say!