Keeping Not Going Back

Yes, he could go back to England - and it was that phrase that made him stay. Going back to England: it was difficult to think of four words more redolent of defeat... And yet, at the same time, he thought constantly about going back to England. Returning was a tormenting possibility, simultaneously to be resisted and draw strength from. How comforting to have been forced into total exile forbidden to return on the pain of death. To know that there was no choice but to begin a new life, to learn a new language, to start over definitively and construct a mythic, idealised vision of the homeland that could never be challenged or undermined by experience.

The weeks passed and like stayed in Paris. More exactly, for the experience expressed itself negatively, he kept not going back to England. (From "Paris Trance" by Geoff Dyer 1998)

Keeping not going back: how many of us are where we are for this negative reason? We might reach ninety in our host country and still talk of "going home" to Australia.

Refugees have left their birth countries because the conditions there have become intolerable. Having no choice they emigrate and build a new life - completely. The new country, be it Australia, America or Canada, becomes home. As for their birth country, they still keep in touch but many never return, even for a holiday.

As well, these refugees and others not in that class but leaving their country for negative rather than positive reasons, approach their new country in a positive way. The comparison is nearly always in the host country's favour. After all, they left their birth country for a new and better life.

Such immigrants are often joined by immediate and extended family members. In their new life they are comforted by other family members, usually living nearby. Not for them the anguish of the aging parents far away. They may have some relatives still "back home" but the closer ones have been brought with them, or joined them later.

A friend of mine recently commented, "I've never met a nationality like Australians - unlike other foreigners here (USA) they LOVE their country." Yes, we do. We did not come to wherever we are because life in Australia was unbearable. We were not fleeing famine, poverty or political repression. Quite the opposite. Most long term Australian expats were relatively affluent professionals when they arrived. A career opportunity, a marriage, a quest for adventure; these are the reasons most Australians move overseas.

The fact that we didn't flee Australia puts many of us in a quandary. When will we return? - and most of us imagine we will one day. There's been no surgical break, no severing of the tie for a new life. We wanted a change. When will we change back?

And there comes the pain. We are "not going back". We aren't "staying". And we are always "going back", sometime. This means there's not a full commitment to the host country. Many of us keep many of our possessions back home. We don't buy everything we need, feeling that is isn't really home, even if we've been where we are for a decade or more. If we are Australian born, we cannot even take out another citizenship. And this means we cannot vote in either country. Not voting means we do not take a real political interest, and for those of us normally interested in politics this is an diminishing of a vital part of our personas.

Unlike the true immigrant, the expat is often alone or one of a couple. The couples may have children, but the largest expat unit is still the nuclear family. Parents become too old to travel for a visit. And grown-up children back in Australia have their own lives. This makes the expats life in many ways a lonely one. Apart from a spouse and young children, friends are either fellow expats or people from the host country - friends who can never fully commit as they know we will not always be around. Having two homes we have effectively none.

Not for us the immigrant's joy of buying a new house, putting down roots. However friendly and comfortable the host country, it can never, by definition, be home.

Still, we choose this life and old friends back home often believe our lives to be glamorous and interesting. Our complaints cut no ice with them. But WHY don't we go back?

To go back is a defeat. It must have been too hard, we didn't have the guts to hang in there. The fact that going home is seen as a defeat is understandable. Leaving is always easier then returning. And then we are afraid that Australia won't be as good as we imagined. So what do we do? We can't be global nomads forever.

The dilemmas of the expat... poor babies. Strangers in strange lands we are condemned to belong nowhere - forever looking for answers to an impossible dilemma. Half our luck!

Kate Juliff
October 2000