Phantom pain: feeling the pieces of self you leave behind

While I’m living in Beijing again now, four years ago today I left – for good.

I left Beijing with very little expectation that I’d return. I hoped I’d visit, but I really didn’t think I’d live here again, and certainly not so soon. I wasn’t ready to say I’d stay in Australia, either, for that matter. But there are other countries. One thing expatriate life has taught me is that there are always options you haven’t begun to dream up yet!

Near the end of my first year back in Australia I was talking to a friend about my feelings about leaving China, my home of over a decade, and moving to Australia. I am an Australian citizen and my family all live there (albeit scattered around the country) but Australia didn’t really feel like home. Not completely.

I had settled into a routine, I had made friends, I liked the place I lived. But something didn’t feel right. I could still *feel* another place, a place that felt like part of me. I could feel the person I’d been there, I could feel the routines I’d had there, I could almost smell and taste the place I’d left.

And I said the words, without thinking: “It almost feels like phantom pain.”

Later I went looking for information about phantom pain, beyond my general layperson concept. It turns out that “phantom limb syndrome” affects about three-quarters of amputees. They feel as though the amputated limb is still there (although it may feel shorter) and this can be accompanied by severe pain.

Once I made the connection, it made sense. Something that had been such a big part of my life for over a decade was gone – out of my reach – but it still impacted me. That piece of me, the person I was in that life, was cut off. But I still felt like her, still felt like that was me.

I wasn’t in China, and as far as I knew I wasn’t going back. But I still FELT my China life. And sometimes that feeling came with pain. Pain of not being that person any more. Pain that no one in my new life knew me in that way. Pain of losing a place I loved – even for good reasons, even by my own choice. Some days it was mild nostalgia, but some days it was really painful.

I’ve felt a mild version of this the last few months living in Beijing again. Those three years in Australia changed me. I made a life for myself there eventually, a life I enjoyed. There were people and places and activities that mattered to me. I was a different person there than I am here. I was known differently. And just as it sometimes hurt that Australian friends couldn’t see or understand my Chinese side, who I was in my Beijing life, I sometimes feel a longing here, too. My friends in Beijing, even those I’ve known a decade or more, don’t know me in that Australian setting. I miss college life, living on campus. Don’t get me wrong – I was ready to go (and my anxiety has decreased markedly since I left such a hugely social environment)! But there are pieces of me that came alive there which aren’t exercised here.

I suspect anyone who moves around has the potential to develop this kind of phantom pain. The pain of sensing a part of yourself missing – a part of you which only exists in one place, one context. Losing a language, a role, a position – something you were or had becoming invisible, unreachable. Perhaps this is an inevitable (or at least highly likely) part of connecting deeply in and to more than one place. Another price we pay for this life.

sydsunset

One thing I miss from Australia: regular glorious sunsets, no filters required.

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