Every once and awhile, you hear something that seems to stick in your mind.
It might have been something said in earnest, or merely in passing.
Perhaps you overheard it.
But it lodges in the back of your mind and stays. Tumbles around and around like a load of clothes in the washer.
You know it has some intrinsic value, beyond it’s more obvious meaning. You’re trying to make sense of it, but you can’t quite figure it out.
Until that one day the washing machine of your mind completes its cycle. Your brain has finally divined a larger message, a deeper meaning. It’s finally been able to place it into a perspective that means something to you. Something more.
For me that conversation took place a few weeks ago. Or rather, there were two conversations. In each instance we had gotten together for coffee, conversation and other purposes. Several expats from various countries, differing amounts of time and experience under our belts.
In the first conversation, we were discussing identity, gender and race. The discussion was supposed to be open, engaging and truthful, which it was. To a point.
For a number of reasons, the discussion seemed to focus mainly on those topics with regard to two specific countries. A bit of ‘compare and contrast’ but without the smugness of which was ‘better’ or ‘worse.’ It had been an honest, frank dialogue.
Yet driving on the way home, a nagging thought lingered. There had been other women of color in the room, yet none had taken part in the conversation. As I waited at the traffic light to make a turn, I pondered whether they’d felt uncomfortable with the conversation.
Or maybe they’d just noted that the focus was on the two specific countries, so didn’t feel compelled to share their questions or views. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal, not something that preoccupied them. Perhaps it had been huge – too personal an issue to take out in the light of day and discuss, even with a group of fellow expats. Perhaps not.
Fast forward a couple weeks to another discussion. This time it was about how various national holidays are celebrated, or not, when you live abroad. How, even when fellow countrymen do their best to recreate the holiday, it sometimes falls a bit short.
For most of the attendees, it was a wonderful chance to celebrate their country’s traditions, bring a little bit of ‘home’ to their current country of residence. Share the best of traditions among themselves and with others. In this instance, the well-intended efforts just didn’t quite cut it for a couple expat children attending their first such holiday ‘away from home.’
Every carefully orchestrated detail reminded them of how much it was not what they were used to, not how it had always been.
While we know as adults that the best way to stretch and grow and encounter new things is to get out there and do it, we sometimes gloss over the sense of loss that comes with what we must give up to gain those experiences.
Moving to a new country can be a marvelous adventure, filled with new places to see, people to encounter, ways of doing things. But it also means having to say goodbye to others, give some things up, leave people and places and activities behind.
The second comment that has been rattling around in my head came from a woman from another country, one that didn’t celebrate the holiday in question.
‘Our family attended that and had a great time. And all this time I was thinking how fun it was,’ she offered, the value that the others had placed on the holiday celebrations slowly sinking in. ‘I just thought it was a nice little holiday that didn’t mean a lot.’
The conversation continued about what that particular holiday meant to those who celebrated it, what it was roughly comparative to in other cultures, and so on. And it got me to thinking: what holidays, both formal and informal, that others celebrated in their home countries was I unaware of?
Today is just another day for me. Yet for someone else, is it a day of importance that I don’t know of? Are they desperately missing something, someone, somewhere? Or has the loss and longing lessened?
Have they been ‘away’ long enough to feel only a fleeting wistfulness? Perhaps they’ve been gone long enough to have added new experiences, holidays, celebrations to their repetoire. When they reminisce, do they feel a bit of nostalgia, a gentle tug on the heartstrings? Or do waves of semi-forgotten memories wash over them, hitting them hard, as if punched in the gut?
As I learned from the first conversation, sometimes what goes unsaid is every bit as important as what is actually spoken.
And in the second, I was reminded that sometimes it is the ‘light bulb’ comment from another that in turn sparks your own ‘aha moment.’