In one way or another, we are all slaves to our bizarre fears. They are born with us, they grow with us, and they haunt us until we know better. Or perhaps, worse. I’ve been a loyal servant to only one fear: the fear of inertia. More specifically, it was a fear of dying before seeing other lands, growing old without getting a taste of different cities. I feared being suffocated by what we call borders. Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed of leaving Turkey after high school. Did I hate my native country? Was it miserable living there? Hell no. On the contrary, I feel grateful for being born there. I think nobody can deny the unique charm of that geography. I loved my home and I associated myself with Istanbul more than I’ve ever done with anything else. Yet, I still had to go. I believed that as I traveled further, my connection with my roots would strengthen. As I stayed away longer, I would appreciate the idea of “home” more. I also believed that building homes easily and adapting were two skills that I needed to master in order to become a part of this world. I wanted to be fluid. Setting should be a variable. It changes. Places flow. Stage transforms. These should not matter.
Living in and out of a suitcase became my religion. Airports were a habitat. Visa stamps were food. Cities left behind were old friends; they never had resentment. As high school came to an end, my desire to leave was at its peak. I repeated over and over again: “I cannot stay here, I cannot be stuck in this city. I will never have the courage and vigor to leave again.” Being stuck. That’s exactly what I felt and the reason is still a mystery to me. It’s nearly impossible to be stuck in Istanbul. Some people would do anything to “be stuck” in Istanbul. I think it spoiled me too much in the 18 years that we spent together. I knew that it would always be there, waiting; Istanbul is a loyal lover.
Sometimes I define my irrational fear of “being stuck” and strong passion to “be fluid” as a state of being a voluntary refugee. As a sensitive political scientist, I would care about being politically correct more than most people. I’m aware that defining this as being a voluntary refugee is disrespectful towards what we might call real refugees. I wasn’t forced to leave my home, I can’t imagine the hardships that they face and my life standards are pretty high compared to them. However, an expat is perpetually stuck in the mental state of a refugee. We don’t need aid, we don’t need international community to care for us and we certainly are not traumatized by violence or suppression; however, our own brains traumatize us. Being divided into two continents is difficult. Our minds get weary as they travel through time zones on a daily basis. Nowhere is home for the expat.
When I’m at my parents’ house, I know that it’s only vacation and that I’ll have to leave soon. When I’m at school, I am aware that I’ll leave here whenever I graduate. When I go to Netherlands to do a field study on international law, I know that my stay won’t be too long.
“Don’t grow strong connections!” my mind keeps yelling at me. “You never know when you might come back.” I can get an internship in the States for this summer; it might just pop out from out of the blue. Then Istanbul would become a distant dream again.
Whenever I think about it and from whichever angle I look at it, I always come to the same conclusion: expats are privileged refugees. Yes, mostly by choice. But I beg you, don’t reduce “choice” to its simplest form; if the expat is infected with the virus that makes her uneasy whenever she feels like she’s settling, then there’s something more than choice there.
An expat is nobody without a passport here. Nobody should dare to tell her otherwise. This expat lost her passport last semester, for instance. She survived as long as she led the life of a vegetable. If a cop had asked for ID, she might have been detained. So yes, if she calls herself a voluntary refugee that might be the words of a spoiled little brat. However, look at the word countries other than her native one define her with: alien. She’s not just a non-citizen, but also an alien. Different from you all. From a different world. And the difference is no more than a piece of paper.
An expat starts to grow a special bond with the ones who stop for a minute when they want to hear her name again.
– Wait, how do you say it? I want to get it right.
Her eyes shine with excitement but she never lets you see it. She repeats silently: “E-ce. Like A.J. Or edge-jay. It’s Turkish.” And all the better if the conversation continues with “What does it mean?” Then, she might actually start to feel home. For a moment. A flick of a second.
A quick moment of caring is a home for the expat. She’s used to people not asking her name and butchering it whenever they do. She’s always tolerant, cheerful, nonchalant, smiling. Though she knows that it is impossible to fully belong somewhere. She knows that whenever she goes home, she’ll feel the same way. Whenever she does something funny or awkward, people won’t only laugh but also add: “Oh, she came from the States.” Whenever she does something culturally inappropriate, people will frown but also add: “She thinks everywhere is like the States.” She doesn’t think that at all. A place is a place, after all. Location is irrelevant in her mind.
In the end, an expat would reflect on her experiences but would never regret making “living in and out of a suitcase” her practice of religion. She will be at peace with herself as long as her being stays fluid on this world. She will not care whether erasing borders means being called an alien. She will gladly carry that word on her back.