When going home gives you a headache.
I caught up with a former colleague recently. We haven’t seen each other in close to 7yrs which was weird to discover. In the manner of these things, we spent some time just filling each other in on lives that diverged wildly when she was smart enough to cut and run from a company we’d both worked for. She’d spent the intervening time in Singapore, Japan and Australia with jaunts throughout the region and into the US. Clearly, I’ve also done the jaunts throughout the region and into the US as well as stints in India, China and back here to Mumbai so we now had that in common as well. It was strange, catching up with someone for whom I had had an enormous amount of respect but hadn’t been able to figure out how to be more than Facebook friends with. In many ways, we no longer knew each other but in others, it was like returning to a cafe in a city you no longer live in, you know the rules and while things have changed, you already have a foundation there. Since she’d spent a considerable amount of time as an expat and I was now one, eventually, that’s where the conversation headed and she said something that has stuck with me ever since because I had felt its grief as well: “going home gave me a headache”.
When she said it, I knew exactly and instantly what she meant.
Sydney, home for both of us, has an amazingly specific light. It’s crystal clear, bright white and razor sharp. The light in Mumbai by contrast is warm, golden and slightly hazy, just enough to ever so slightly smooth out the edges of what can be a highly confronting place, as if the world were softening the edges of that which it demands you see. The light in Shanghai was always grey and almost always weak. In Sydney, I sunburn in less than 5 min. In Shanghai, I never did. The light of a place seems to filter into every aspect of your interaction with it. Shanghai always felt grey, unclear and suffocating to me, even while I knew I had a lifestyle there that I highly valued. Mumbai is somehow a little bit more merciful but clearer. You can’t hide from truth in Mumbai but there’s hope and happiness here. Sydney is a stunning city but also uncompromising and the light is so uniquely blinding that, if you aren’t used to it, you’ll get a headache just staring out the window and this was what my friend had meant. We grew up here, mostly, so it should have been welcoming, stepping back into a place where you feel the familiar just looking around at the ephemera of a city but we’d been away from home so long that going back, literally, gave us a headache.
It’s a somewhat gut wrenching feeling, knowing that you’ve somehow unfit yourself for the place you call home. You know you’ve chosen your life but you want home to stay there for you, to be able to go back when you need an escape and in many ways, you want it to wait exactly as it had been when you left. Friends don’t. Family doesn’t. Life, certainly, doesn’t. You can try hard, and most expats do, to keep in touch. To mend fences damaged by your leaving and to build intercontinental bridges but some day, we all come to the realisation that life is often in the small moments, not the large ones, and we generally miss those. After a few years, it’s harder and harder to get people to meet when you do manage to get home and while you understand, it still hurts. You know people change but when all that starts to crack, you want the places, the buildings and the businesses you knew and frequented to stay there, to remain the same for you. You want to be able to go to the same beaches, ride the same ferries down the same rivers or stare out the window at gum trees and kookaburras and cockatoos…until the day you realise you will need sunglasses to do so because your eyes are used to a city with so much smog that the light dims or more ozone layer than home or are just so much more populated that your near view is shaded by apartment construction or high density housing.
I’m told it wears off, that my friend who has now been Sydney based for a while, no longer needs her sunglasses so much but for a while in Mumbai, we both sat in silence at the loss of something so precious but so strange. Something we didn’t even know we had, until it was gone. We’ve found adventure but we’d also made going home… a headache. It’s a strangely sobering thought.