Unrequited love of place

In a recent recommending reading post I linked to Mariam’s “break up letter” to Dubai, the city her family just moved on from. There were some things she wrote at the end of her letter that I found particularly poignant and worth some further reflection:

Dear Dubai, my bags are packed, my goodbyes are done. My memories are now strewn all over your glittering skyline. Your streets will forever feel like home, your parks and beaches are the background of my kid’s childhood photos. How many times over the past four years have I posted pictures of you and me together on Instagram and used the popular hashtag “#mydubai”? But then wondered, are you really mine? Can you ever truly be mine?

Today I wonder, why does it hurt so much to leave a city that was never mine to begin with?

Falling in love with you Dubai, is like falling in love with someone who says “I’m not looking for any commitment. Nothing serious, please.” Once an expat in Dubai, always an expat in Dubai, because there is no path to long-term citizenship in the UAE.

This is why I have to break up with you Dubai. Trust me, it’s for the best. I need to move on. Some relationships are short like yours and mine, but it doesn’t make them any less meaningful. Better to do this sooner rather than later, when it will hurt even more.

This captures beautifully the tension felt by many expatriates, and especially by many TCKs. Relationships are not unilateral. There is a two-way street. Can a place ever be truly mine unless it embraces me, too?

An immigrant is a person who has this two-way relationship with a country. They have chosen the country, and the country has chosen them. There is acceptance in both directions.

Expatriates do not have this.

An expatriate is someone without a long-term commitment. For some, it is because they do not want a long-term commitment. They want to go back ‘home’ after their time is done. For others, the country they live in does not want a long-term commitment. There is no path to citizenship, no way to legally become a local. This is where the “unrequited love” of the post title comes from. There are many expatriates around the world who have fallen in love with a country that will never fully embrace them.

That’s my situation, in China. I love this place, I really do. But I can never become Chinese. Not legally, and not in the eyes of Chinese people. I must live with the uncertainty of a constantly changing visa situation, and never having permission to remain more than one year at a time.

Many TCKs live with this. The place of childhood becomes inaccessible. There is no legal rights to belong. There is no recognition of their connection. The place they love, and were raised in, does not acknowledge them.

Perhaps a better relational analogy for the TCK experience is foster care. Temporary guardians, not permanent family. Some foster situations are joyful and warm, others are difficult and even traumatic. Some can lead to permanent adoptive situations; I’ve interviewed a number of TCKs who were able to gain citizenship in the country they grew up in as expatriates. But for many, that is not an option – even for those who wish it was.

There is a particular pain that goes with unrequited love of place. To feel at home in, identify with, love, a particular place – but have no security there. A place that says, as Mariam put it: “I’m not looking for any commitment. Nothing serious, please.” 

Amy Medina wrote about this feeling in a post I included in a different recommended reading list. She called it “forbidden roots” – creating those connections in a place you know won’t be forever. She also used relational terminology to describe it, writing: “It’s like coming to the realization that I’ve fallen in love with something that I can’t keep.

It’s hard to keep giving yourself to a place that won’t ever love you back, so to speak. To invest in a place that won’t invest in you. Mariam wrote of the choice to leave, before it hurts too much. Amy wrote of the choice to invest, knowing it will hurt much.

But here’s the crunch for TCKs, again – the lack of choice. This unrequited love of place is the result of choices made on their behalf. But as with anyone, in any life situation, all we can do is choose how we respond to what life has brought us. We can choose where to invest ourselves, our lives, our love – in this moment, and from now on.

erlizhuang.JPG

This quiet back road was part of my regular commute during my first year in Beijing (back in 2004).

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