How living between two cultures left me searching for a place to belong
Home. Surely one of the most evocative, powerful words in any language. Everyone has an idea of what home means to them, be it the home they have, the home they want or the home they’ve been told they should have. The word can bring up sensory memories of days gone by, hopes and dreams of a future yet unwritten or, as in my case, a gaping aching empty hole that has always desperately needed filling. My parents, despite living in the UK for longer than they lived in Sri Lanka, still referred to the island of their youth as ‘home’. The jarring cold, the lack of family, the basic cultural disconnect and relentless racism that imbued our everyday life meaning that although they wished desperately to belong in the Mother Country, that one word could still transport them back to a place and time that were actually theirs, a place and a feeling I tried to imagine, an idea of a soothing warmth and acceptance I had never experienced. Somewhere to just be normal.
At the grand old age of 23, I had never been to Sri Lanka. In fact, I hadn’t been to Asia at all. Having suffered through four years of university with all the white folks around me bleating on about their gap yahs in exotic locations, I felt provincial and unworldly, my brownness somehow tallying up with my backwardness, a lack of location in a culture I supposedly belonged to. Meanwhile my white peers held forth as pseudo-experts on countries they’d visited for a few months, places where they had ‘found themselves’. As if having their own culture farmed out around the world wasn’t enough, they felt they had the right to adopt the culture of us brown people too. All the weed-smoking, bongo-playing, henna-sporting be-dreadlocked idiots preaching about the benefits of yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and Buddhism were so ridiculously entitled in their cultural appropriation, yet I had no resources or experiences with which to challenge them. The unsettling feeling that they knew more about my supposed home than I did only added to my sense of dislocation.
When an opportunity finally arose for me to travel east, I jumped at it. Never mind that I had to go by myself, unblessed with those university ‘friends for life’ with whom most folks my age shared their adventures, I was ready to embrace my South Asian heritage and off I went. Young and naive (obviously), I anticipated a joyous discovery of my spiritual home. After over two decades of exclusion, racism, and bigotry, with no cultural landscape to call my own, I couldn’t wait to arrive into a sea of people just like me. The reality was heartbreakingly different, and although the intervening years have modulated much of that jarring first encounter, it will always stay with me as the moment I realised I existed between two worlds but not in either – a ghostly sensation I still retain.
As my plane touched down in Colombo for the first time, it looked exactly as I’d imagined. Arriving from South-East Asia where I had travelled across Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and mostly been treated like any other Western backpacker, I felt acclimatised, overly confident, primed and ready to claim my own little corner of the continent. The thick, hazy air, tall, dirty palms lilting in the breeze, every building dating back to at least the 1970s and more people and vehicles than could feasibly fit into any allotted space all felt expected and familiar. I’d been navigating similar landscapes for months, and the mix of feeling like a seasoned traveller combined with the sense of returning to my roots created a dangerous combination of assumption and expectation, the kind that comes directly before a fall. Needless to say, 23 year old me went about behaving exactly like myself. That is to say, exactly like someone who grew up in the UK with virtually zero knowledge of Sri Lankan culture, language, or social mores. And of course, everything was wrong. I was stared at and spat at for my clothes (skimpy, it was hot and I was young), called a prostitute for my pink hair (I thought it was cool), was unable to communicate with most people my own age (Singhalese, which my parents never taught me, having replaced English as the national language), and frowned at every time I drank (so, a lot). Ultimately, I found myself too culturally white to be truly brown in as much as I’m too physically brown to be accepted in a white culture.
My family, though more tolerant, found me puzzling at best but more often ridiculous. I had to be taught how to eat with my hands, liked to sunbathe in the garden (‘what do you want to make yourself all black for?’), slept til past noon and heaven forfend I leave the house without a chaperone. My people, it seemed, were not my people at all. You may query my lack of cultural insight, my crass insensitiveness, my blatant ignorance, but these were norms I had simply never encountered, a whole new set of rules to adapt to and behaviours to learn when I had expected to finally arrive somewhere where I could just be myself. The disappointment was crushing. To be rejected in my true form in both the country where I was born and the place of my heritage felt like being branded an international failure, a person with no home, no place to belong. So many second or third-generation immigrants seem to come away from their homegoing experiences filled with a sense of belonging, of their history, their roots. I just felt like a lost child, inadequate, abandoned and helpless.
It wasn’t a lost cause. My beloved late aunt was my beacon of hope, the one person who understood me and took me, quite literally, under her wing. Although she was a strict, fiery Sri Lankan matriarch who would never have let her own daughters dress or drink like me, she was an educated, well-travelled woman who grasped the nature of my situation and loved me fiercely exactly as I was. The world will always be a dimmer place without her. My father’s old friends are also an amazing bunch, full of tall tales of their misspent youth shared over plentiful whisky, without the dreary expectations and strictures that seemed to permeate Sri Lankan culture during its insular civil war years. As they pass away in increasing numbers, I’m filled with so much sadness at the loss of so many special individuals, but also of a generation who retained so much hope and joy and camaraderie.
Things are easier now. Since the war ended and tourism increased, I no longer stand out like the sore thumb I once did. And of course, I am older, a little wiser and better able to modulate my Western excesses, at least in front of those they may offend. The prevailing cultural snobbery against ex-pats still exists, but although I’ll still get ripped off every time I take a tuk-tuk, I no longer get harassed in the street on a regular basis. That said, Sri Lanka still doesn’t feel like home. We may have adapted around each other to reach a set of workable compromises, but we are not entwined as one in the way I imagine ‘home’ would feel like. And although my connection to the UK is stronger now than it ever was, it still isn’t my home either – I’ve suffered far too much prejudice and exclusion to ever feel like I truly belong there. Living in America, the traditional home of the homeless, seems like a good solution but of course it is much too early in my tenure here and probably too late in my life to assert that this, either, is home. If home is the place you belong, the place you are accepted, the place where you are safe and whole, that you crave when you’re gone and kiss the ground when you return to, it seems that I simply do not have one.
February 20th 2020