February 11th, 2009
You can blame Peony for this. Her musings on place in this post set my mind wandering, and this is the result.
Peony sarts in Istanbul with a dream, then moves to Venice where the Turkish sultan’s ambassador is knocked off-centre, then intrigued by an Italian Renaissance portrait. Then a side-trip to Manhattan where some guy who’s always happy in the countryside insists on living, in pursuit of a dream that it’s just too late to achieve, because Manhattan is the centre of the universe, even though he’s clearly miserable in the big city. She quotes her friend who tells the story of Miserable in Manhattan:
Giving up is underrated. Sometimes it’s the only thing to do, and sometimes a place is just a place.
Indeed. But from here we keep moving, to Orhan Pamuk and the dislocation, even humiliation, and compensatory nationalist chest-thumping of Turks as they struggle to cope with the tension between centre and periphery and the imposition of Western-style reforms. But this phenomenon is by no means limited to Turkey. As Peony says:
I see this conflicted kind of expression in the some of the translations I do for older generation Japanese business executives. It seems to inevitably rise to the surface in their speeches and writings– a conflict between self and place; center and hinterland. This is also part of the project Eiji Hattori has written about which interests me as well– this desiring need to be heard.
Yup. And I’ve seen similar things happen both here in China and in New Zealand. Thinking back to my short time in Norway, I remember a couple of instances which could’ve been motivated, or at least given a little push, by similar conflicts.
And then a brief look at Peony’s experience of Adonis’ empire- and although my own experiences have been different, I can certainly appreciate her point of view. My own experience of place seems to have been fairly similar.
Then back to Istanbul, but this time with Candide and a garden, and, of course, the ambiguity inherent in all literature. Did the author mean A or B? Or both? Or X? At least in the case of Pamuk, we can ask the guy, but Voltaire’s a bit on the dead side for that. And since when did actually asking the author help clarify matters? Trouble with authors is they’re so good at spinning words into pretty shapes and patterns, conveying meaning but always leaving you guessing as to what meaning exactly is conveyed.
Well, I’m talking about good authors here. Not storytellers like Tom Clancy who have all the subtlety of a nuclear bomb.
But where was I? Apart from being distracted….
Well, my own experience growing up in New Zealand is not uncommon in at least one respect: I spent a lot of time well aware of a big wide world somewhere beyond that ocean where everything was happening. I felt, not isolated (we did have TV and books and newspapers and magazines and movies, even back then), but distant. Perhaps a little suffocated as well. And to an extent, a little bored. Nothing ever seemed to happen in boring, stable (apart from Wellington’s rather frequent earthquakes) New Zealand. All the excitement seemed to be far, far away across the oceans that surrounded my childhood.
Add on top of that my childhood fascination with National Geographic and its British, Australian and New Zealand counterparts, and the vast amounts of time I spent reading and dreaming myself in far off lands.
And I’m always surprised at the sheer length of time I have lived out of sight of the ocean, because I always used to be drawn to the seaside. I was born almost literally within spitting distance of the South Pacific, in a hospital (long since closed, but last I saw, still standing) separated by only one low hill from the sea, and from the time I was big enough to have earned some autonomy and the strength to cycle outside our immediate neighbouhood, I would regularly go to the very edge of my island and sit there staring out across the vast distances, imagining….
And sure, the nature of growing up in Wellington means most of the time I did that I was staring towards Antarctica, but hey…
And then there’s the sheer power of the ocean, seductive and terrifying. Rivers can be nasty buggers, especially when they’re in flood. But oceans, when they’re in the mood, swallow the most collossal, well-designed ships whole and bite huge chunks off coastlines. Even when they’re quiet, you can feel their deep, ancient power, like a slumbering Taniwha.
But I’m getting off-track again.
One day, when I was 23 and a half, recently graduated, I finally got a chance to escape the distance of my island, cross the ocean and see this big, wide world I’d only heard and dreamt of for so long. It was a funny trip- a perfect morning like only Wellington can put on, solid cloud all the way across the Tasman, perfectly clear, blue sky over Sydney, and for whatever reason we flew right up to the northern edge of the city before hanging a left and cruising south into the airport- meaning although my experience of Australia is limited to four hours in the transit lounge of Sydney airport, I’ve seen pretty much all of Sydney. Then I was thinking, hey, cool, I’ll get to see the Outback, too. Cos, y’know, never having seen an actual desert before, never having seen anything more barren than Central Otago or the North Island’s Central Plateau as you take the Desert Road from Waiouru to Turangi, and having seen so much Aussie TV, I thought that’d be pretty interesting. But no. Solid overcast from the Blue Mountains all the way to Indonesia intervened. Then Hong Kong, arriving in darkness, then thinking I’d stumbled into a sci-fi movie. Then the next evening the flight to Changsha, and the drive from Changsha airport first to a restaurant, then to my apartment- a drive in which I saw every kind of person, animal, and conveyance moving in any possible direction, a scene even Salvador Dalì would’ve struggled to portray, chased down with full-on Hunan food washed down with baijiu- I’m sure that night I saw all the way through eternity.
But there I was, in the Big Wide World, that place I’d dreamt of where everything was exotic and exciting and where Things Happened. I was living my dream.
But it didn’t take too long to discover that the things happening around me were in essence no different from the life I had lived back in New Zealand. People working to pay the bills, get the kids through school, save for a rainy day, and hopefully have a little left over for a bit of fun here and there. Sure, there were differences in the details- sheer population density being the obvious one- but it was all essentially the same. But I wasn’t disappointed, this was just one more step on the road to enlightenment.
There were more travels, more experiences, more little eye-openers and moments of gradually increased understanding. 6 weeks in Norway, a year in Taiyuan, a year in Beijing, then 6 months back in New Zealand.
6 very boring, frustrating months in which I couldn’t wait to get back to China. I felt so lost, so dislocated in my own hometown! Why doesn’t anybody warn you that the worst culture shock comes when you return ‘home’? I’d long since lost touch with my high school friends, but I had managed to just barely keep in touch with university friends who, like me, had left Dunedin soon after graduation to move north where the jobs and opportunities were. Except that they had only crossed the Cook Strait, whereas I had crossed the Pacific and had managed to squeeze in some time at the farthest end of the Eurasian landmass. But in the time between graduation and my return from three short years in China, they’d all been getting married, popping sprogs, and settling in to regular, middle New Zealand life. It’s really hard to relate to people after such a separation and such wildly different experiences. It’s really very jarring when the only thing you have to talk about is some country thousands of kilometres across the ocean, and your mates’ eyes glaze over as soon as you open your mouth. It’s shockingly difficult to reintegrate, to get yourself back into that Kiwi frame of mind in which your reference points are local.
I enrolled in French classes at l’Alliance Francaise. One lesson, the teacher turned to me and said, “What do you think? You’re a foreigner too.”
Excuse me, mate, but I was born and raised right here in this very town! He saw the look on my face and said, “Well, I mean, you’ve spent a considerable amount of time overseas and so, like your British classmates, you can also see New Zealand from an outsiders point of view.”
But that was the point. Despite all these new-fangled contraptions like cinema, the telephone, television, the internet and email, distance still maintains its tyranny. I was able to keep up with the news from home as it happened just as well as anybody living in Wellington, but I was only able to view it from a distance. And the advent of Google Maps, Earth and Streetmap has done nothing to change that- no matter how good it may be, the technological representation of your hometown is still just an image on a screen, and therefore inherently physically distant. If anything, technology only enhances the isolation.
And what will happen next time I go back to New Zealand? It’s been slightly over 6 years since I last set foot outside Chinese territory. I suspect my wife will deal with New Zealand better than me, since for her it will all be new and exotic and exciting. I will be caught in an ever more fearsome trap between the native-born familiar and the outsider.
But have I come to a point of settling in Beijing? Yes and no. The primary reason for my continued presence here is family. My wife has said a couple of times that she reckons had we not met, or had things not worked out between us, I long ago would’ve disappeared down south, perhaps back to Hunan, or Yunnan, or somewhere like that. I’m inclined to agree, although I suspect the direction would’ve been more west than southwest, towards Gansu, perhaps. But don’t get me wrong: I’m happy in Beijing. As happy as I would be anywhere else. And therein lies the secret.
Place, as in location, is irrelevant. Place, as in where you are grounded, can only be in yourself. Sounds like some silly new age bollocks, I know, but that’s how it is. Well, sure, there are some people, like the aforementioned Miserable in Manhattan, for whom location is important. Some people can not be happy in a big city, others can not be happy in the countryside. When it comes to location, we all have our preferences, and for me, Beijing falls short in many areas- size, climate, flatness… But even so, location can never be more than of secondary importance.
I mean, I remember having good times in provincial little Changsha and Taiyuan, and I have memories of being unhappy in Beijing (am I the only expat in this city who finds the local nightlife boring, oppressive and depressing?). I really enjoyed my short time in Norway, although I didn’t realise it until I got to Taiyuan.
And although, apart from 4 months in Auckland, 1 year in Te Awamutu, and, of course, holidays, my childhood was spent in Wellington, my childhood was still very nomadic. Hey, open Google Earth or Maps or whatever and check out that huge, wide harbour and all the hills and valleys. Wellington’s the kind of place where a move from one part of the region to another involves a fair bit of uprooting- especially for a young kid.
And this is a ridiculously long-winded way of saying that for me place, as in location, could only ever be of secondary importance. My turangawaewae could only ever be a certain acceptance, something that comes from within me. Because what does it matter where you were born or raised, or where you are now? Even if you’ve spent your entire life in your hometown surrounded by family and friends you’ve known for generations, if you can not find that grounding within yourself, then regardless of how familiar the landscape and people may be, you will not find that turangawaewae. Or you may have travelled alone for thousands of miles, and feel perfectly centred and balanced, because somewhere in your heart you have found that spiritual turangawaewae. You prefer the familiar sights, sounds and smells of ‘home’, whereever that may be located, but no matter where you find yourself, you are home.
Thanks, Peony, for getting me thinking about these issues. It’s something I’ve been feeling for a long time, but have not yet managed to put into words.