Repatriation is never supposed to be easy. But after roughly a decade of feeling severely depressed and homesick, I decided it was time to go back to my heart-home.
I was born in Indonesian New Guinea 35 years ago and was issued both a British Birth Certificate along with an Indonesian one. As a blond-haired, green-eyed descendant of Europe, I was a sore thumb amongst the local people. We lived in a remote jungle village without modern conveniences and spent our days playing in the jungle with the local boys. At our international school, we interacted with Papuans, Asians and Westerners in a multi-layered onion of cultures. Then, when I was fifteen my family returned to Britain. A year later we moved to Canada. These were not easy times. After much deliberation, I decided to return to my true home: Indonesian New Guinea.
Making the decision to return home
In Britain, I was presumed to be American because of my accent and treated badly as a result. In Canada things were a bit better but I was treated as odd – the Westerner who knew little about Western culture. These struggles, coupled with my already entrenched desire to return home, pushed me harder into seeking a way back to my heart-home.
What I felt was much more than just a casual yearning for home. The passionate homesickness left me severely depressed, and I realized I was psychologically merely ‘existing’ in my passport country.
I missed the laughter of friends gathered around a fire, with the tropical rain beating down on the the thatched roof. It was the murmur of soft voices in the deep of the night when people unable to sleep would talk amongst themselves, cocooning you until you fell asleep. It was the morning mist in the high mountains and the silver leaves and cliffs reflecting the full moon on a hunting night. It was the friend weeping beside you at the loss of another friend and it was the feel of the wind in your face as you ran towards the river. It was missing life itself, as if the life in the West were merely a shadow.
So I decided to do what few have done. I decided to go back to my heart-home. Permanently. Not as a transient expatriate, but as a resident, a contributing member of the local society.
Ironically, when I discussed my plans to return to my heart-home, it was my fellow TCKs who were most opposed to the idea. They told me that returning to my heart-home was not possible, that I would be back soon enough with my tail between my legs. Others told me that getting visas would be difficult, if not impossible. Still others said, “You cannot live in the past.” They meant well, but they were wrong.
Staying home for good
During one of my short trips back to Papua during 1997, it dawned on me that if I were serious about living in Papua for the rest of my life, I would almost certainly need to marry locally. I got lucky. I returned to Canada and during the course of my studies met a Papuan woman studying in the US who seemed to be what I wanted in a life partner. In 1999, we married and happily moved back to Papua. But this didn’t mean that everything was settled and easy from then on.
As an expatriate, finding work in Papua when one is fresh off the university press was almost impossible. Companies wanted to hire highly qualified and/or experienced expatriates because of the country’s complex immigration laws. Still, because I was married to a local woman, it was much easier for me to get visas, to reside in-country and most importantly of all, I had family. I cannot emphasise the importance of this enough. We actually were living in a part of Papua where I knew few people. Yet because of my marriage, I had access to an extended family that gave me social support, places to live, friends and even financial support. I did not need nor did I ever seek out old TCK friends.
This leads to me to the second and third keys for successfully returning home: friendships and language/culture. Many of my TCK friends lacked meaningful friendships with local people, and those who returned to New Guinea did so as expatriate workers on a non- or semi-permanent basis. Still, those who stayed for good were usually those with local friends. Growing up in the village, I had developed close friendships that have lasted until today. If your friendships are only with fellow TCKs, it unfortunately means you’ll likely have no social networks to return to.
Developing meaningful relationships once I got home was possible only because I was fluent in the country’s language and culture. Because I spoke the language, I was not a true outsider, and was easily able to make more friends. Further, once I had children, even more doors opened as my kids played with the neighbours’ or went to school, bringing all of us into closer communication and interaction with local Papuans.
For me, being a real part of the local community meant deliberately avoiding a privileged lifestyle. As kids, we were raised to live simply within the community and it was not until we were much older that we understood what this meant in how terms of how to interact with the local people. While many TCKs may not necessarily be wealthy by their passport country’s standards, they are can often be wealthy in the country they consider heart-home. If this is the case, it means that the TCK is affluent in comparison to those around them, potentially preventing them from making the leap into the local culture. Often, the expatriate’s world can be like living in a bubble, built around the interactions of transient and wealthy expatriates, in stark contrast to the local’s world. I could not, and did not want to, go back to that world.
Finally, perhaps the most important key of all is that of commitment and sacrifice. It sounds simple, but many do not think through what it may mean to return permanently to their heart-home. If your heart-home is truly very different than your passport country, like Canada vs. Indonesia, then culture and distance will require that you seriously commit to life in your heart-home. You may lose access to western healthcare or social assistance programmes. Further, airfare is expensive, and you may go years without seeing your parents, siblings and other relatives, and immigration laws may make it hard for family to visit you or for you to visit them. I myself have not seen one brother in nine years and I see my parents once every two or three years. If you are not fully committed, you may find yourself stuck between two worlds in a literal sense, one that exceeds the typical TCK definition.
Today, I am currently filing for citizenship in Indonesia, marking a symbolic completion of the journey I started many years ago. At the end of the day, a TCK who seeks to return home must ask where his or her strongest cultural roots lie. I think many TCKs may be surprised to find that their strongest roots, albeit coloured by other cultures, are still in their passport country. I may have been raised in Papua, Indonesia but was still schooled in a very Western tradition, which influences my worldview today. Still, my 24 years in Indonesian Papua have changed me profoundly. Most people who know me, including Papuans, will describe me as Papuan.