Monday, November 29, 2010

The secret to BELONGING

I've had my fair share of foreign experiences. Nine years of experiences. I've lived in four countries, which means I've had to learn and speak four languages. Four cultures. Five cultures, actually, because the cachaco culture in Bogota is quite unlike the costeño culture of Barranquilla.

I've had to adapt--a friend of mine, Kat, sent me a wonderful present to Thailand after hearing me complain for about 3 months: Not home sweet home? ADAPT! 

I've had my fair share of adaptations. Ranging from silly things, such as clothes, to more important things, like food, and then to necessary things, like traditions and values. It's been fun, though. I think it's more fun to learn a culture than to learn a language--and I love learning new languages, so that's saying something.

I remember the first time I said y'all naturally. I remember the first time I bargained in Thai. I remember the first time I spoke in formal voice in Spanish. I will most certainly remember the first time I say moin moin.

You see, learning the language is only the first step to learning a new culture. It's very important to say, Hello, my name is, but in order to start adapting to the culture you must say it like they do.

Haah, y'awl, I'm Nattie. (**that was my best attempt at writing a real Southern drawl)
Sawat dee kah, chan chu Natalya-ka.
Buenas, me llamo Natalya.
Moin moin, ich bin Natalya.

After you learn the language, the real language, not that which you learn in school, you must learn their culture. What is important for these people? What do they celebrate? How do the celebrate it?

I know that, for Americans, Thanksgiving is very important. How do the celebrate it? They eat.

For Thais, Loy Krathong is very important. How do they celebrate it? They eat.

For Colombians, El Día de las Velitas is very important. How do they celebrate it? They eat.

For Germans, Advent is very important. How do they celebrate it? They eat.

Ok, so clearly festivities are not so difficult to learn and understand. When one is happy, one eats, regardless of what continent or hemisphere one lies in. I have clearly celebrated too many festivities.

But even when you can speak the language, and use it they way they do; and even when you can understand and appreciate their culture; and even when you can live they way they do, you won't feel like you belong. You will always feel like the foreigner. You will feel that your skin is not dark or light enough; that your hair is not straight or curly enough; that you are not tall or short enough; that you are not... well, just not enough. You are not them. You don't belong there.

And you might then be lucky enough to go home for vacations--but you will not feel like you belong there anymore. You see, you have changed. You have adapted. You have seen the world--and your family has remained the same. Maybe a few more gray hairs, maybe a few pounds more or less, maybe a few changes to your house. You may find that you no longer have a room. But your parents and your family are so happy to have you there, so eager to make you feel at home. But it's no longer home. It's the home where you grew up, where you lived, but no longer your house. You don't belong there.

Then you go back to your new country, and you feel more uncomfortable than before. The cycle does not end. It has taken me nine years to get used to it. My room is now the guest bedroom. Well, my sister moved into my room the very day I left, and then I was assigned the guest bedroom--I'm a guest at home. Don't get me wrong--I love going home! How I wish I could go back just a few days right about now (the weather, you know!). But I also made Augusta my home, and Lampang, and Bogotá, and now Kiel...

I will tell you my secret--my secret to surviving nine years away from home. My secret to surviving in 4 different countries. My secret to not going insane. My secret to having no regrets after all my adventures. And it may sound lame and corny and ridiculous and overly simple--but it works. Ready?


But real friends. Not those acquaintances with whom you meet to drink a beer. I mean friends, those with whom you are not afraid or embarrassed to be vulnerable. Not those acquaintances with whom you meet to go to dinner once in a while. I mean friends, those with whom you share good and bad news. Not those acquaintances with whom you party. I mean friends, those with whom you sit down and just talk.

What makes a real friend? A person with whom you can relate. A person with whom you can sit down and be quiet, and not feel at all uncomfortable. A person with whom you can laugh until you pee a little, but also with whom you can cry until you fall asleep.

Augusta is, and will remain, the best four years of my youth, because of my friends. Friends who are reading this, in spite of being busy with husbands (most of them are married!), kids, work (teachers, lawyers, doctors, media people...), school... Augusta is my home because home is where the heart is, and a huge chunk of my heart stayed there. My friends were by my side every time I broke up with a guy (weekly, almost), and every time I got together with another. My friends where there when I spent all-nighters studying or at The Phoenix. My friends were there when I decided to move--all five times! My friends went to see me off at the airport the Monday after graduation. My friends were there to translate when someone spoke "too Southern", and were there to explain what I meant. They invited me to their homes, to meet their families. Their families welcomed me, too. They made me feel at home, they made me feel welcome, they made me feel good.

They made me feel like I belonged.

Lampang was a particular experience: although I never quite felt like I belonged, my friends, as foreign as I, made me feel welcome in our own tiny foreign circle. Three Japanese girls, Tomoko, Miharu and Naoko, made my 11 months and 20 days in Thailand bearable. Even though they don't believe in Christmas, they celebrated the holiday with me. You see, none of us belonged there--but by making our little circle, we created our own little world and somehow belonged. Tomoko was my traveling buddy, and together we went places no foreigner should go to alone. Every Monday our boss wanted to kill us, since the subversives had not done so.

My friends made me feel like I belonged.

Bogotá was a test: new life, new job, new career, new everything. I was home, in Colombia, but not home (not in Barranquilla). I spoke the language, Spanish, but I didn't speak with the right accent--or any accent whatsoever. I knew the culture, but didn't like it. I was quite apathetic. I didn't agree with the idea of life there. Then came Honey--and he made me belong. He made me belong back at home, back in Colombia. He made me belong in Bogotá. He introduced me to the wonders of my country, which I had been too arrogant to know. He showed me a life that I thought I did not deserve. He opened his life, his world to me, and welcomed me into every single corner of his life. His friends became my friends--real friends. His life became my life--but also, my life became his life. He learned to appreciate poetry, literature, art, wine. When I met him, I was desperate to find a home and stay there. When he met me, he was desperate to fly away. I guess we complimented each other right from the start. He became my best friend--

--and he made me feel like I belonged.

Now I'm in Kiel. You'd think 4 months is just not enough time to find friends, real friends. But my Frauen, my Mädchen, are just my favorite experience in Germany. You see, we have so many things in common, that it would be impossible to not be friends. We are all in Germany as foreigners; we are all here with boyfriends or husbands who are German; we all have the same level of German languague; we have all been here for 6 months or less; we are all arbeitsloss, and we all hate it; we all wish to further our studies; we all have temporary visas... you see? We are the same--only we are Polish, Ukrainish (?), Chinese, Chilean, Morrocan, Russian and Colombian.

I love Honey, and I love my German family--but my friends, meine Frauen, ah. They make me feel like I belong. And being so far away from home, it's very important to feel like you belong. Otherwise, the loneliness will consume you and devastate you.

Real friends are not collected; they are not those who comment on your facebook the most; they are not more than a handful. They are those with whom you feel the most at home. And when you feel at home, you belong.


  1. oh.. you just made me so nostalgic about my days in Estonia and Lithuania!