Home Everywhere, Anywhere. Or Nowhere

Popping in to Bangkok for a weekend, one of my favorite homes, reminded me of an earlier blog text I wrote about my feelings about belonging everywhere and nowhere. What does a “home” mean? I’m still facing these same questions, but am even more confident now that I can and shall define my own identity. I make my life, I live my life. I define who I am and where my home is – or more like, where my homes are. For there are many places I feel at home.

The below text was posted in 2014 in my previous blog site, at a time when my physical home was in the beloved city of Ho Chi Minh. It remains on the list of homes – where I feel at home.

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Recently I read a very interesting and well written article on an expat’s life and how complicated it is to explain and understand a concept of feeling at home.

It’s not easy explaining the different aspects of an expat’s life – not always even to fellow expats but especially not to those staying at “home”. I’ve noticed, that outsiders always seem to consider Finland as my home. Are you going home for Christmas? Are you thinking of moving back home someday?

Finland is the country I was born in and grew up in. It’s the country where my parents, brother and other relatives live. It’s the country of my passport. But is it my home?

What is a concept of home, even? Wikipedia defines it as a dwelling-place, used as a permanent or semi-permanent residence. In that sense Finland isn’t my home, or my home is not in Finland. On the other hand, I believe a home is more than just a residence, a place close to one’s heart.

Here’s the thing. Finland is close to my heart and it’s a very special country to me. But I don’t feel at home in Finland. In honest, I feel more uncomfortable in Finland than elsewhere in the world. It’s not because of Finland. It’s because I’m supposed to belong but I don’t feel like I do. It’s the only place in the world where I should feel rooted in, where I should feel like I’m one of the many sames. I look like everyone else, I speak the same language, I know the customs and share the cultural heritage. But I don’t feel I belong – I don’t feel “us”, I see “them”.

Finland is the only place where I should fit it, where I’m expected to fit in. That’s what makes me uncomfortable because there is no reason for me feeling that I don’t. Anywhere else I can feel free and comfortable, because I don’t need to pretend I belong or fit in. I don’t naturally do.

The writer of the article defined perfectly how “the beauty of nomadic life is that you are detached from the flaws of the surrounding society while you soak up the best it has to offer”. Because we don’t quite belong, we don’t have the same constraints as the locals do. We are not bound by the same expectations.

For me living abroad is liberating. I’m more free to just be me. I have an excuse for being different, acting weirdly, not liking something or getting ridiculously excited about other stuff. I’m a foreigner, I am allowed to look at things from a different perspective. Living in developing countries is also a good eye opener. Makes one appreciate the own comforts and possibilities even more.

Years in developing countries have in fact made me more intolerant towards the petty complaints in the more developed countries, such as Finland. In the newspaper today I read Finnish soldiers who had returned from Afghanistan describing this. How they can’t cope with their kids misbehaving or people complaining about little things. They had seen real suffering, lived in real dangers. They can’t relate to Finnish people’s troubles.

I haven’t experienced war, but I’ve seen real poverty. People who truly are homeless and have little or no means to get their daily rice. Others who get by but barely. Poor people in rich countries like Finland might lack the means to live well. Poor people in poor countries lack the means to live at all. No offense, not meaning to hurt anyone’s feelings. Everyone is entitled to complain about their sufferings and to want for more and better. I’m just saying that I struggle relating to such problems, especially when complaints are aimed at government not doing enough for their citizens. But that’s another story all together.

In the developing countries, I don’t belong and I definitely don’t share their daily struggles. I can’t relate to their suffering as I never have and likely never will be in same desperate situation. But in Finland, I also don’t feel I relate to that life and the locals’ daily struggles. I feel an outsider. I observe, I see and I hear, but I don’t quite understand.

Maybe it’s just me. I have always felt a sense of not-quite-belonging. Maybe I’ve become a world-wanderer because that is just who I am. I don’t belong anywhere so I can be at home anywhere. Everywhere and nowhere – that’s where I belong. I belong to my life.

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Diving in Singapore

imageWhen one is thinking of Singapore, many things come to mind. Diving probably isn’t one of them.

When I was offered a job in Singapore, I wasn’t too excited. About the job, yes, but not about living in Singapore. To me Singapore embodied the boring developed side of Asia – being organized, clean and, well, organized and clean. Over the years in Southeast Asia, I’ve grown very fond of the opposite. I love the chaos of HCMC and Bangkok, the motorbikes, noises, never-ending hustle and bustle of the thrilling cities. They are original, authentic, so very Asian.

I used to travel to Singapore on business a lot so I thought I knew the place. And I was right – it is organized and clean. It has plenty of superficial entertainment, upper-class feeling and high ceilings.

But it still has “Asia” in it too. In the hawker centers, on the streets of Little India, in China town. It also has much more, it has the fantastic Arab street, cute Bukit Timah, and pretty much all possible sports one can think of available. Even diving.

See, up until now, I’ve been praising Singapore for it’s fantastic sports opportunities and naming only diving and skiing missing. Well I haven’t figured out skiing yet but diving, I went diving in Singapore waters. A 10 minute boat-ride from the shore and voila! We were on a reef.

Needless to say, it wasn’t among the best dive sites I’ve dived on. But it was better than what you’d expect a small city-state with a massive harbor could offer. Much respect to those environmentalists and conservation enthusiasts who have fought for the reef and for underwater education. The Sister’s Trail in the Marine Park offers 2 dive trails along which one can learn more about the species and conservation and take part in the efforts, by observing, recording and sharing data.

Visibility was as expected very poor, but I’ve actually dived in worse conditions. With the lack of visibility, there’s no need to keep eyes open for big stuff that might swim by, allowing an undisturbed focus for the interesting macro world. There were many nude branches, seahorses, critters, schools of fishes and interesting corals to see. Much, much more than I’d ever have expected. I was sincerely interested in looking around and our dive master is convinced to identify completely new species in the near future.  He kept his eyes open for a pink seahorse for me.

Singapore – you’ve given me thrilling experiences from dragon boating by Gardens by the Bay, abundance of netball games, yoga of all kinds in amazing small studios and in a park and so much more. Now you’ve given me an opportunity to go diving for an afternoon, and at the same time learn more about the underwater world and its inhabitants and help to protect them.

And I have to say, coming back to surface, floating in the warm waters between two uninhabited islands, looking over to the beautiful Singapore skyline – that’s pretty remarkable. Something different, something unique, something memorable.

 

Work-Life Balance

imageI’m looking at my breakfast box – cereals and muesli – and wonder where the day disappeared. It’s 9 pm, the breakfast I had scheduled for 9 am, but there it is, waiting untouched. For another morning to come.

I find it mighty amusing how Europe is conversing on shortened work days and excessive work loads needing to be reduced. Where a starting point is 36 – 37 weekly hours. Technically my contract binds me to work from 9 am to 6 pm, which with 1 hour lunch break would make 40 weekly hours. But that’s purely a utopian scenario to  think I’d get my work done in 40 hours. Ha. And that has nothing to do with me lacking efficiency or motivation, quite the opposite. I feel that with the level of motivation and efficiency I’m showing, I keep been given more responsibilities, more roles to fill.

And I’m not complaining. Not at all. Why leave work at 6 pm when you still have important tasks to complete – and are enjoying doing them?

It’s interesting how differently people can think of work, and what a work-private life balance means to us. I highly value my time off, enjoying it to the fullest and cherishing it – there’s not too much of it to for wasting any.

I’m not alone, obviously. One colleague is sitting opposite me, another one keeps sending emails from home. And there are countless others out there doing the same. Eager and motivated, efficient but loaded. Hard-working, hopefully with a reward.

Reducing daily working hours to 6 as France and others have suggested, isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Neither is it automatically a good idea. Thinking that people work better when they have enough leisure time doesn’t equal efficiency at work or higher motivation. Based on my experiences, the motivation to work hard, efficiently and still happily, derives from the pleasures the job itself provides, not from what comes after the day’s work has been finished.

You know you’ve found the right job when you can work 12 hours straight and are not feeling bad about it. That’s not opposing loving your job for 6 hours and no more, either. What’s important, is that we don’t categorize people’s skills, motivation, efficiency and other qualities based on the length of their working day. Many of my Vietnamese colleagues in my previous job were always working very late, but much because they had their best friends at their work place, so it was fun to keep hanging out in the office. They were excellent employees, not because they stayed at the office late but because they provided excellent work quality. Many of the Nordic employees I know, work at full speed for the given 36-37 hours, but oblige of their quiet time after that.

I’ve moved in my working career from 36+ hours to not counting. I’ve seen both extremes. I know intelligent, motivated, skilled people at both ends. What I wish for my future, is that no matter the hours, I would keep enjoying them all. Work-life balance is found in everyone’s own definition of it.

 

How Do You Know What’s Normal

IMG_5477In lyrics of my all time favorite band, there were always deeply philosophical thoughts and provocations. One of the songs has struck in my head lately, questioning normality. The person in the song is pondering how living a normal life  seems like an endless dream which can be tolerated, but how do you know what will be normal tomorrow?

It doesn’t make much sense to seek to be normal – to be as others expect you to be  – because there’s no knowing how to please others endlessly.

For many years in my life I tried living “like everyone else”. I did what I thought was expected of me, was trying to be normal. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t necessarily unhappy either, but I wasn’t living my life. Then I met someone who was living a completely unnormal life – unconventional, unique, uncommon life. That encounter opened my eyes to realize it is possible to define my own life, live it the way that feels right for me.

That was over 8 ago, and although I had already done some unconventional life changes previously, the sense of “normality” had still always been present in my decision making. I see that now as a period and steps of preparation and courage gathering, for the future self-defined life.

When I realized that I don’t need to be just like everyone else, that I don’t need to want the same things from my life as others do, I became free. I was liberated to live my own life, define my own path. This Saturday morning, living one my newly-established traditions of reading the weekend’s newspaper by the pool soaking in the sun, I was truly appreciating my life choices. Not just because I have eternal sunshine available, but because I’m living a life of my own choice. I’ve had options, I’ve had hesitations, but I’ve made my own decisions listening to no one but myself.

I trust I’ve become a better person since I’ve learned to listen to my self and executing my desires. I’m living my life, a life that suits me and which lets me be me. I’m not being held back by the definitions given by others or by their expectations.

There’s nothing wrong being normal if that’s the right thing for you. But it doesn’t have to be desired. It also shouldn’t be something to seek. As the song reminds, who knows what’s going to be normal tomorrow. Life your life today. Your life.

Onions, Layers, Identity

imageI like to think of myself as a clean person – my apartment might be messy but not dirty. My clothes are always matching and clean and appropriate to the occasion. My nails are polished and I even keep the bills in my wallet in the right order. I’d never wear the same clothes two days on a row and can’t stand cracking finger nails or unevenly done make-up – including on others.

How then, am I having the time of my life on a dive boat, being wet all day, with messy hair and greasy face? Needing no toiled paper for days, eating dry rice, spitting on my mask, skin cracking on fingers? Things that in slightest moderation on my city life would drive me nuts, don’t bother me the least when I’m on a dive boat.

It’s liberating. Many people have multiple sides in them, and mine are clearly divided between the city-girl and the diver.  Allowing your different layers to bloom at their times, cherishing the ability to shift in between, enables a deep dive into our who we are. Our true selves don’t need to be easy to define, nor present at every single moment.

There needs to be no holding back on exploring out the potential of our many sides, the known or yet unknown ones. Outsiders’ perceptions of us ought not to hold us back. I once was on a dive boat with a friend from a city, who was new to this side of me. When she saw me spitting after coming up from a dive, she was horrified and told me that’s not “lady like”. It was absurd, not only the fact that she’d expect me to behave like a lady on a dive boat, but the fact that she seemed to think of me as a “lady”. It’s definitely not a term I’d use to describe myself, not even the city me. But that shows how differently people look at us, how they think of us. Those who only know one side of me, don’t really know me much at all.

Embracing and understanding the many layers we have, is a great gift and allows us to enjoy a very diverse life. It also allows space in our lives for many different types of people. There are people with whom I enjoy eating a Sunday brunch in a city, but would not choose to go on a dive trip with. Others are splendid company for a hike or a dive trip but would be out of place on a wine and cheese night. Shrek said it so well, “ogres are like onions, they have layers.” It’s a blessing to not be bound down to one lifestyle, one type of people, one setting for the life.

For in one person, I am many.

Hello, Goodbye

I moved from Vietnam to Singapore 5 months ago, but sitting now at the departure hall of HCMC airport, it for the first time feels real and eternal. End of an era, end of the HCMC life. This was the third time back at my old Saigon home, this time to say bye to my closest friend in town who is about to move back to the States. Singapore and HCMC are “just around the corner” in expat-lifestyle terms, but Singapore – Washington DC is a different story.

Having lived in 7 countries, I’ve had my fair share of goodbyes. They are always bitter sweet, knowing that true friendships conquer any obstacles but the good old times will be just that – old times, the past, memories.

As an expat one has to develop an ability to make friends quickly, approach new people with an open heart and embrace and treasure every moment together. For an expat, life and its precious moments are always right here, right now. A best friend of today might move to the other side of the world tomorrow so there’s no time to lose.

It’s nothing sort of easy to open your heart time after time, to new people, knowing that the day of goodbyes is already being scheduled. It’s hard and it’s painful. But it’s worth it.

The best part of the expat life are these moments making new friends, sometimes even meeting soul-mates. People you would never have met had you stayed living in one place. Moments you would never have had without trusting your heart being strong enough to handle yet another goodbye. Expat friendships are fast, deep, and full of emotions. They are made of short experiences that make all the difference because they were shared. They are full of realizations of how small and how big the world is, and how soul mates can be waiting at the oddest corners of the world.

Goodbyes mean an end of something special. Goodbyes don’t end friendships but they change them. As with anything special, it’s painful to let go. But letting go is a natural effect of an expat life. Our journey is filled with hello’s and goodbyes, with the value of the hello’s out weighting the sadness of the goodbyes. Even with the most difficult goodbyes, the saddest moments, there’s always the gratitude and joy present in having had a chance to meet that person, to be part of their lives and share special moments together.

I let the tears come to my eyes for a moment, allow my heart to ache, but keep a smile on my face reminding me of the time we shared together. It’s only hard to let go of something unique, something special. I’ll treasure the great moments we had and look forward to a thrilling reunion someday, somewhere. I’ll keep the gratitude and love in my heart and in the memories. And I’ll keep my heart open, not letting the fear of a future goodbye limit the opportunities ahead. Expat life is a journey filled with big emotions, amazing adventures, memorable moments and special people. Even at the times of sadness and longing, it’s a life that makes me feel alive and happy.

Friend, I’m sad to see you go but I’m eternally happy to have met you.

Of airports, of the joy of living

Most people I know love traveling, exploring new places, and typically referring to the part of being on holidays.

I love traveling, exploring new places and holidays included, but what I really mean by “love traveling”, is the act of traveling itself. Being on the road, in the air, going to places. My favorite travel song says “the destination is out there, ahead of us somewhere, let’s go but drive more slowly”. There’s no rush, we’ll get there, let’s enjoy the trip itself, the getting there.

Part of my passion for traveling is flying. I love flying. Sitting on a chair, in the air. It’s nearly as good as breathing underwater. So unnatural, so me. Further to that, I actually love the airports. Not all of them, Manila for example has about the worst terminals one can imagine, but most. The feeling of stepping into an airport terminal, looking at all those potential destinations displayed, dreaming of new places to go to, and getting excited about soon boarding one of the planes. That’s magical. No matter if the board shows 2 destinations like a small airport in Laos on a wooden, hand-written board, or hundreds like the big airports, there’s always that feeling of a world being out there. Near and far, within my reach.

There have been many memorable airport experiences, and one of the never disappointing ones is Changi in Singapore. It has that feeling of a cozy living room, with many cool amenities such as a movie theatre, swimming pool, butterfly garden, couches and free massages – and then of course the gates leading to all over the world. Every time I’m at Changi I’m partly hoping for a flight delay, to get just a bit more time to enjoy that special feeling of soon being on my way to somewhere.

Airports embody to me the essence of life – it’s right here, right now, meant to be lived and enjoyed. The destination is out there, you’ll make it there, but stop first to embrace the place you are in now. This moment. When that moment is Changi-like, remember to value and treasure it, that will get you through those Manila airport moments of life.