Sunday, October 10, 2010

"So, what is home, to you?" - Part 3

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(Reposting from November 2005)
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"So how would you answer that question: Where are you from?"

Me: "I will try to understand the context, and try to make it short."

"What do you mean?"

Me: "Well, after a while I was sick of telling the long version over and over. So I will think of an answer that will require the least explanation."

"Typical you. But what is home to you? As I can sense, English sounds like your first language now ..."

Me: "Hopefully soon enough West Vloms will be my first language. As I wrote in my blog, someone once told me that home is where your heart is, and my heart belongs to the people, the experience, and the enjoyment of the things that I do. It's not a physical thing. My last home--Memphis--is no longer there. The people who worked the nights away with me are no longer there. They are now scattered all over the world. But if I have to pick a place ... right now, Ieper, is home.

"But why? They think you were a scum who stole their jobs away?"

Me: "Once I was beaten up in the streets of Jakarta and was denied a spot in Indonesian public universities. Tennessee would not issue me a driver's license. True, Europe has its problems. But just because you have Hitler as your neighbor that by itself does not make the entire neighborhood racists. I mean, Bush gave Americans a bad name, but it was some American strangers who funded my education. Then a different American family welcomed me with open hands and helped me to integrate into the American culture. Here in Ieper? I would not have survived my first month without a lot of help from the vast majority of Belgians who enjoyed having me here. In return, I would be glad to show those extremist few that they were wrong: I too can make a positive difference in their little world. Giving up is like letting the bad people win."

"So why did you decide to go to Belgium?"

Me: "Well, why not?"

"I mean, what happened to your US permanent residency and citizenship? Don't you have to give them up to come here?"

Me: "You know ... that was among the most popular questions but also the easiest one: I never started the process."

"Why not?"

Me: "Then I would've not been able to be flexible and move to Belgium when I wanted to."

"You are making a circular reference."

Me: "What was your question again?"

"I forgot."

Me: "Works all the time ..."

"Will you ever settle down?"

Me: "Why is everyone asking me that? Somebody else asked me this before, and in the end she spoke to me less and less, then not at all. Maybe. One day."

"Who is she?"

Me: "It sucks to have to move all the time, learn new language, adapt to new culture, and build new relationships. It always feels lonely at first. But at the same time, I am willing to pay that price for all the experience. For example, I now know many people who work for the EU at the time when Europe is struggling in building a Union that will potentially direct where the global pendulum is swinging. It helped me widen my perspective."

"So what did you do when you get lonely?"

Me: "Ha! I went on a speed dating once."

"You what???"

Me: "Hey ... you got to try everything at least once!"

"Did it work?"

Me: "No."

"Where do you think you'll eventually settle?"

Me: "Two years ago I went to Zhengzhou, China to support a manufacturing plant start-up in December when temperature dropped to 20 Centigrade below freezing and people didn't even own heaters. So we bought portable heaters. But the locals--believing artificial heating was bad for health--resisted them so much that we had to type emails in our "office complex" wearing gloves during our first month there ... yes Zhengzhou was not what many Americans would call a "civilized" world. With me, there was some cultural connection, but not much. I eat similar food. But I am still what they call a banana. Once a taxi driver looked at me confused: 'You don't speak Henan, you don't speak proper Mandarin, what the hell do you speak??' I use my engineering handbook to make decisions and I don't give much respect to some ancient wind-and-water references. I mean, they had engineers who did not believe in thermodynamic laws. But they were all hardworkers. Together, we worked the winter and brought the plant up and running within the 6 weeks time we were given. And when we finally bagged our first pound of product 1.3 billion frustrations later, there was a different feeling. It's a feeling you'd get for securing hope and opportunities for the people who've given their all for the common goal. And, afterall, what can be more priceless than watching the superstitious Chinese flock around their much-hated portable heaters two months later? That was home."

"So China was home?"

Me: "No. Over there I was just a foreigner who looked exactly like the locals but don't behave like the locals. Home was with the people, the experience, and the enjoyment. I would in a heartbeat come back there for a similar experience, but it does not have to be China. Maybe I will have a different but equally satisfying feeling here in Europe. We'll have to see."

"In a sense, you'd never settle down?"

Me: "I'll tell you when I do."


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Five years later ...
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Yeah, I am still in Belgium. In Ypres (Ieper) in the far southwest corner of West Flanders, of all places. Even the Belgians call it "the end of civilization" (it's quite accurate if you think about it ... it's the last stronghold of Flemish civilization against the continuously pushed borders of Fran├žais Flandres ...)

About a year and a half ago, I actually was called to go home by my bosses. Yes, home means America.

And about a month ago, I was called to go home by my parents. Yes, home means Indonesia. Or, in their terms, "at least Singapore" ...

But home is where your heart is.

To be continued ...