(originally published on May 8, 2011)
The title of this post was inspired by an online conversation I had with one of the friendliest bloggers out there, Gary over at klahanie. He mentioned that Madman across the Water was an Elton John album he enjoyed very much, and that phrase got me thinking.
There is a madness in being transplanted overseas, indeed. This is not the first time I have lived abroad. I spent a year studying in the UK a few years ago. If you are lucky, you will have friends that might have had a similar experience and can tell you firsthand what it is like. Sometimes your embassies, employers, or schools might provide orientation on what to expect. Perhaps a diagram of the phases of culture shock, and a warning about the sting of reverse culture shock upon return.
However, what actually happens in your head is yours alone, unique as a snowflake and precious as a diamond. You won’t find it in a manual, and it will not resemble anyone else’s story. It will seem similar, but will be completely unrelatable. Study abroad, Peace Corps, military service, work, play, love or marriage, temporary or permanent, transplants break your bones and realign them. I have spoken to enough friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers to know that I am not alone in this, but at the end of the day, all of us are shell shocked in our own way.
We become mad people from across the water when we move into our new host country. The foreignness we bring is a breath of fresh air and a chafe at the same time, both for us and for the people we meet. When we return, we find that we are again mad people, foreigners in the eyes of those who waited for us and who still recognize us, only there is an excess about us that is unexplainable. The foreignness is bred by geography – simple relocation – but becomes part of us, by internalization or stigma [take your pick], and moves in both directions: you feel slightly out of place everywhere you go, and yet you feel that you can now make it work anywhere you go. Words like “belonging” or “citizen of the world” are too trivial to be summoned at all.
My new nerdy gay friend recently came back from a one-year research project in a tropical island country. I asked him how he was coping and if he had any advice for me when I go back. He said, I think you have a novel in you. Little does he know that this blog is already up, but for someone who only met me in person once he seems to have gotten a pretty good idea of who I am and what words mean to me. We have been talking daily and he has been incredibly supportive.
Also, there is still one Aquarian male in my life who has, thank God, proven stable and reliable: my tequila buddy from Europe. He has lived in two different foreign countries, including the United States some seven or eight years ago. As he put it short and sweet, My mind got seriously fucked up in the U.S., but I think I’ve recovered. Even though our online chats are usually jokes about alcohol, work and family [he shocked all of us by getting married and having a daughter about a year ago], he tacitly understands what I am going through. His support comes through in consistent, unmistakable Greetings! whenever he sees me online. Two weeks ago I asked him how he managed to “recover.” He took his time and listed about twenty things that could be helpful, but what topped it off was a clean, masculine, athletic No choice. You’ll be fine.
How come no one ever teaches us girls how to “suck it up and walk it off?” God knows we could use it sometimes.
Non c’è tempo, non c’è spazio
Mai nessuno capirà
Perché fa male, male da morire