Friday, 8 March 2013

I'm an alien (or am I?)

"He knew he was a foreigner but had lost the notion that he was anything but an Indian foreigner..." So Kiran Desai, in "The Inheritance of Loss", describes the situation of a Swiss priest who had spent 45 years in India. She also makes an Indian immigrant in America, accosted by a Lithuanian Hare Krishna, wonder, "What was India to these people? How many lived in the fake versions of their countries, in fake versions of other people's countries? Did their lives feel as unreal to them as his own did to him?"

I think I know what she means, but having lived for more than half my life in Belgium, am I living in a fake version of the UK, or a fake version of Belgium?! Is there even a (single) "real" version of any country, which only someone born and/or bred there can define? Especially a country like Belgium, whose citizens don't necessarily think of it as a "homeland", and will tell you they feel "Belgian" only when abroad, or perhaps when the Belgian football team is playing, and otherwise identify themselves by language community - French-/Dutch-/German-speaking - and/or Region of origin - Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels. They will also tell you that the only true "Belgians" are naturalised foreigners!

Anyway, the Algeria-born French writer Albert Camus wrote, "ma patrie c'est la langue fran├žaise" (my homeland is the French language). Similarly, I am at home in English, even if also comfortable in French. And as a long-term expatriate, I'm at home not being "at home"! 


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