I was having a nice email exchange with a fellow expat friend who I know from Korea, but had recently visited London along with his wife. We met, talked, had a pint, and then they left. He was returning to Korea to head back to work and was muddling through the particular expat sensation of being in two places at once, being in two emotional, conflictive, states at once. I thought as we were discussing this simultaneity of place and emotion that this expat scenario holds a lot of meaningful application to online interactions and virtual worlds (communities we interact with online).
Being in two places at once is easy enough to understand. Your mind lives in both and endlessly, almost simultaneously, longs for both. If you travel and live in enough places (or just one other place from where you were born), this is a natural enough phenomena. If someplace has made an impact on you in any way, you will pine for it even if you are better off now. So I can be perfectly happy in London and still think of Seoul and Princeton. I feel as though parts of me are still there, will always be there. This can be a fragmented existence or a perfectly sublime one, depending on how the mood strikes you that day.
The emotional bits are a little more complicated. Pining for a place is one thing, being in perpetual conflict is another. We are in a state of being content here, yet restless there. Same is true for my online communities (University of Edinburgh, MobiMOOC, ICT4D crowd, etc.). It isn’t a zero-sum game necessarily, but renewed or increased interaction with one has me pine for the other. Yet these here/there emotional attachments are, in some sense, possession masquerading as nostalgia. We are trying to possess these memories and these worlds in which these memories inhabit and adjust them to the particular contours of our mental maps. Just as we try to personalize our online communities, to invest in them a sense of self (make them contextually specific), to bend them a bit towards our inclinations. And to lament the ones we aren’t participating in or have disengaged from. But this is possession.
Departures as Signposts
The waypoints on this perpetual here/there tug of war are arrivals and departures. Departures, mainly. They mark passages from one orbit to the other, from one state of here/there to another. To be here physically, but there mentally (or intellectually or emotionally). A perpetual shift from one state to the other made visible by a departure trigger. I said it to my friend this way:
Our lives are dynamic, exotic, and the price of that admission ticket is just this endless departure or being departed from. A perpetual goodbye.
So all of these departures are triggers for conscious reflection in which state one is currently existing and people like me do reflect (a lot). These reflections lead me to believe that it is about simultaneity, of existing in multiple states of being and consciousness (some conflicting) simultaneously. It is this simultaneity, a simultaneity I believe is reflected in society at large, that represents the foundation on which we are reconstructing our societies. Well beyond trite discussions on whether the iPad is lessening our attention span or if Facebook is making us less social lies the truth that many of us live in an exaggerated consciousness where singularity in thought and action seems anachronistic. We are expected to be here/there at all times and advancements, progress, success even will be measured against this backdrop. But there is an emotional component there, one I am only starting to consciously realize. We are everywhere and somewhere at all times. And, suddenly it seems to me, we are alright with that conflict.
I leave with my final thoughts to my friend, which is unfair in its statement that only expats can understand this emotional conflict, but I wanted to be true to what I originally wrote. I would qualify that statement by saying expats are acutely understanding of this phenomena, but not exclusively so. Nor do I now believe that this feeling is a sort of an emotional schizophrenia; it might involve distinct ‘identities’ existing simultaneously, but I am not sure it is destructive. It is highly productive in context. Either way, parting words to a friend.
It is hard to be in two places at once, as I imagine you are. People who haven’t lived overseas can’t understand this, but I can be longing for Seoul even when I am loving London. We all become schizophrenic looking for home. It is what we have done, are doing, and will do. Even if those are three separate places.
Thanks for writing this. I’m not an expat, but this simultaneity is something I’ve observed in friends (and, more generally, in expat blogging). I first noticed it more as a rhetorical/textual effect in their writing, one that seems to apply to narrative as well as space. I like the connection you make with our digital selves, and I wonder about its effect on our sense of time, this feeling of being in multiple places at once, as though our experiences are no longer ordered in a chronological narrative, but as series of synchronic layers, maybe? If you look at our digital traces, we have all these constant, pristine reminders of what we thought or saw last week, last year, last decade, and they lack the texture of age to mark them off as “then.” It makes for a much longer “now,” one that can include geographical dislocation and many sense of home.
Thanks for the comment! Truth be told, you said it much better than I ever could:
“I wonder about its effect on our sense of time, this feeling of being in multiple places at once, as though our experiences are no longer ordered in a chronological narrative, but as series of synchronic layers, maybe?”
This is absolutely true. Narrative itself has been reconfigured away from the linear/chronological. These synchronic layers (nice phrase) affect a certain timelessness, a very acute one (one I am hyperaware of). We are never allowed to forget anything as our digital selves (and services like Memolane, which throws me for a loop almost daily) are constantly reimported back into our immediate existence. So we have this nebulous cloud of memory, activity, perception, paths, pursuits, and emotional states. It might have been always like this but for whatever reason this lifestyle (expat) and these digital selves/services make me intensely conscious of this repositioning of past, present, future and a mess of geographical ‘realities’.
Thanks again for the comment! Would love to dialogue more about this!