“We have now landed in Heathrow Terminal 2.”
I have heard these distorted, muffled words leaving the airplane microphone a dozen times. As I exit the aircraft, mentally preparing myself for another 4 hours of travelling to rainy northern England, my anxiety is nowhere to be found. Frustrating isn’t it, that this feeling of finally being settled has only just arrived when, in a matter of months, I will be packing up my life into cases and boxes back to Thailand.
Like many of my friends, nobody prepared me for how long it would take to adjust to living in a different country. The first year after a big move involved social interactions with anyone and everyone, Skyping friends I knew I wouldn’t see in person for another year, and experiencing culture shock after culture shock. I tried convincing myself that these feelings were a symptom of my early twenties, not realizing until my last few months at university that most international students were feeling these internal and external dilemmas just as strongly as I was. Why did it take us so long to talk about it? Was it because it was too difficult to admit that we were lost, or was it because we didn’t fully understand what we were feeling until we were about to be ripped apart from each other again, forced to return to a home that didn’t feel like it was truly ours anymore?
Forming platonic or romantic connections with British people who didn’t have a similar international experience was a challenge. These relationships often fell into the teacher-student or inferior-superior structure. I’m either spending my time un-teaching problematic racist behaviour and ideas, or perceived by my peers as showing off about how “well-travelled” and “cultured” I am. As a person of colour, moving to a white man’s world also means coming to terms with the discomforts of being a minority. Even more than that, I was expected to immediately assimilate into a culture that didn’t necessarily welcome or understand diversity.
There’s a long-standing stereotype that international students only become friends with other international students. A stereotype I hesitated conforming to initially, I had the aim of truly blending into the British student lifestyle. But because I had grown up in an environment where nobody had the same ethnic origin, I couldn’t shake the anxiety I felt when I was the only brown person in a room, having to explain to every new person why I was a Thai person who “didn’t look like one.” It took a full year for me to admit that there was some truth to the clichés; only by befriending those who required no such explanations, nor saw me as “exotic,” was I able to feel normal again. It’s not that I didn’t understand the responsibility I had in helping other British students become more tolerant and open-minded, but it was a weight too heavy to carry on my own.
After years spent moving across the globe, what emerges out of these transitory social experiences is the creation of multiple selves, either a purposeful choice or an unplanned result of trying to fit in. I’m a different person with my Thai friends, a different person with my British friends, but I’m only truly myself with my international friends. True, this feeling of multiple identities doesn’t only exist for internationals. However, because we are the physical embodiment of multiculturalism, this feeling exists on a more deep-rooted level. It’s not as simple as feeling like you can’t be your rebellious, badass self in front of your parents; it’s the feeling that you can’t be yourself around anyone who cannot see beyond archaic concepts of nationality.
It’s not just our identities that are scattered around the world, but also our sense of belonging. Home is a feeling, not a place, but do feelings and places always have to be mutually exclusive? To function as a fully formed human being, it makes sense that one would need both a solidified support system, as well as a permanent base in order to live a full and enriched life. An American friend once said to me that her happiest days were when she was returning from the airport to her family apartment in Japan. Since her family and best friends no longer live in Japan, she fears that returning to a place she used to call home will only make her feel more lost. For many young internationals that have moved halfway across the world without their families by their side, the country one grows up in, or the country listed on one’s passport as the motherland, may not necessarily be the country one is able to continue living in.
My motherland no longer feels like home. It’s a fact that has taken me a while to come to terms with: I moved on, but Thailand did not move with me. Plagued by patriarchal ideals, political instability, limited job opportunities, and censorship – there are too many things I cannot do and too many things I cannot say. Coupled with the fact that my Thai language skills are worsening by the day, there is an overarching theme of me being unable to express myself the way I truly want to within these borders. The people in this country I used to call home seem like strangers. For those high school friends I left behind, I’m a new person to them too. The things that used to bond us have disappeared and I no longer belong here.
But it seems I’m not allowed to belong anywhere else either. After three years of moving back and forth between Thailand and England, it became clear to me that constant travelling only reinforced the ephemeral state; the feeling that everything is, and always will be, temporary. Just as I began to feel settled into the English way of life, graduation day had come and I was on a plane back to Thailand.
While humans have made great strides in fostering multiculturalism and cross-cultural connections – political elites and immigration laws, however, have not. I had big dreams before I left Thailand. I planned to enjoy three adventure-filled years of university, secure a full-time job in London, and settle into the metropolis as a young working writer. The older I get, the more futile this dream becomes. As I need to go through a month’s long process to get a visa even for a weeklong vacation, imagining permanency in a world beyond where I grew up is arduous. UK work visa regulations state that all British candidates must be deemed inadequate before a working visa can be granted to a non-EU individual. As a person who has seen the benefits that diversity can bring to communities, it’s unfortunate that such a developed, economically prosperous western nation cannot. If you’re not one of the 6% of international students who are able to secure a job after university, students who have built new independent existences have no choice to return once more to a life of readjustment, Skype calls, and culture shocks.
In a world overwhelmed with xenophobia, I don’t know if I’m ever going to experience a sense of belonging on my own terms. I do know, however, that there are many other internationals experiencing the same internal conflicts. So, where do we go from here? As the most open-minded community I know, we can create a world less defined by nationalism and the borders constructed by those who came before us. For now, instead of seeking to form connections with cities and countries, perhaps we should seek to form connections with the people who live within these borders. Though it may seem a daunting task: talking about feeling lost with the very people who may be enablers of alienation, only by starting to have these uncomfortable conversations can there be possibility for genuine coexistence, despite our many differences. As advocates of diversity, perhaps a life of transition is a cross we have to bear in order to be the change this world needs.
Words: Angana Narula
Illustration: Charlotte Tymm