Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Concept of Home

newpaper article SEPT 1 2002

My country, but not my home?
Richard Lim

In today's decentered, plug-and-play world, is home an outdated notion? Isn't one rooted to ideas, rather than to places? Why be a citizen of a small place, when one can be a global citizen?

'SINCE I was 14,' she says, 'I lived my life as a stray cat.

Global citizens who live outside their countries, and those who have no choice but to live in their countries but who refuse to make a commitment - they may soon become the norm rather than the aberration. -- ALAN LIM

'Whoever gave me warmth became my instant family and my home. So I guess I don't have any attachment to one country where I can call my real home.'

'But,' my Japanese friend adds, 'there is one thing that has kept me rooted. It's the aesthetic sense and morals that were repeatedly taught at home and at schools.

'Now, no matter where I am, I cannot get rid of a certain sense of responsibility. I feel as if I were a representative of my country. It's a bit stressful, but I guess it keeps me from mischief.'

My friend has had her fair share of mischief. In her days as a stray cat, she had drunk too much, and partied too much. But now in her late 30s, and married with two children, she's a proper professional and a dutiful wife.

A Kobe native, she had her university education in Tokyo, then went across to the United States to do further studies. She had worked in Japan, Hongkong and Kuala Lumpur before coming to Singapore last year, after her Malaysian husband was posted here by his employers to head their regional office.

She confesses though that she still has no place to call 'home'.

'But in a sense I'm lucky, because I can feel at home anywhere,' she says.

'No matter where I am, in Singapore, in Kuala Lumpur, in Hongkong, in the US, or even in an airplane, the moment I hear the good old Kansai accent, that space becomes my instant home.'

Where would you want to retire, I ask her.

'Oh, you know I don't plan to live long. But if I could afford it, I'll spend spring, the season of the sakura, in Japan; and summer till autumn, when the leaves change colour, in Paris; and winter in a tropical place like Singapore,' she replies.

'I don't want to be committed to one country. I'll get terribly bored.'

She's your prototypical global citizen in today's decentered, plug-and-play world.

One in four people on this tiny island are not Singapore citizens, and probably one in eight young Singaporeans see themselves as transient as they are (although actually, a not insignificant number out of every wave of foreigners who come through will choose to settle here).

They may invest in property and equities, but they certainly are not rushing to make emotional investment in the country.

Global citizens who live outside their countries, and those who have no choice but to live in their countries but who refuse to make a commitment - they may soon become the norm rather than the aberration, what with the world becoming one connected playground and workplace.

With such a world, there can be no geographical centre. There are, instead, scattered nodules competing for people's attention.

'New York, Warsaw, Tehran, Tokyo, Kabul - they all make claims on our imaginations, all remind us that in a decentered world we are always simultaneously in the centre and on the periphery, that every competing centre makes us marginal.'

This, according to Eva Hoffman, the Polish emigre who made good in the United States, in her 1989 book, Lost In Translation: Life In A New Language.

How to resolve her bivalence? Be here now, is her answer.

'I am the sum of my languages - the language of my family and childhood, and education and friendship, and love, and the larger, changing world,' she declares.

But after finishing her next book, Exit Into History (1993), a chronicle of her journey through the newly opened Eastern Europe, which was recorded with the eyes of an outsider and the love of a native daughter, she chose to leave New York where she worked as an editor of the New York Times Book Review to set up home in Cracow, Poland.

She may have made a choice, a commitment, in the end.

To be ambivalent, to be committed to no particular place, may be to suffer what the exiled Czech writer Milan Kundera has famously called the unbearable lightness of being. How can one take oneself and one's endeavours seriously?

Of course, the Salman Rushdies of this world will retort, if rather fancifully: 'One of the effects of mass migration has been the creation of radical new types of human beings: of people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things ... people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves.'

But go back one generation, and you had a V.S. Naipaul lamenting, after having been transplanted from the West Indies to England for eight years:

'I find I have, without effort, achieved the Buddhist ideal of non-attachment. I am never disturbed by national or international issues. I do not sign petitions. I do not vote. I do not march. And I never cease to feel that this lack of interest is all wrong.

'I want to be involved, to be touched by some of the prevailing anger.'

My friend and one-time mentor, the Malacca-born poet Shirley Lim, who has spent almost all her adult years in the US, records in her memoir, Among The White Moon Faces (1996):

'Everywhere I have lived in the United States - Boston, Brooklyn, Westchester - I felt an absence of place, myself absent in America.'

Of her frequent returns to this part of the world, she says: 'Returning, I am filled with an ineffable sense of completion, a satiety of recognitions. No matter how urgent my struggles to escape childhood poverty and the country's racial politics, I have continued to feel an abiding identity with Malaysia's soil.'

My Japanese friend may say she doesn't want to be committed to any one country. But on the other hand, she admits she feels responsible as a representative of her native country.

That can be stressful, as she has pointed out, but it sure is better for the soul than to be floating weightlessly through an endless multiplicity of events and places.

Living a day at a time, plug and play, easy come, easy go, and to be comfortably numb - that's not being a radically new type of human being. That's being a cop-out.

To be a citizen of the world is to be an orphan in a free state with no stakes and no responsibilities. But that free state is not real, because it is nowhere land.

Call me an old geezer, a stick in the mud, but I'm persuaded that one needs a home, and in that home, one finds meaning in others who share it, and tries to mean something to them as well.