Saturday, April 11, 2009

Re: Expat Life


Dear Saloni,

It was fantastic to talk to you the other evening. You have such a lovely laugh and a matter-of-fact way of being supportive, as if the kind, the helpful, the sympathetic response is simply a matter of common sense, with no subjective take of me, your friend, entering into your opinion at all. Life here is hard, and the only people Shannon and I have to commiserate with over this fact are each other. I don’t think many of our families and friends really understand the stresses and creeping uncertainties of living in (rather than just visiting) a culture 180˚ across the globe from your own culture, let alone doing so while trying to make a living on art. I figure first and foremost that you are good at understanding all of this just because you are you: kind and empathetic and street smart in a sweeping Great Art of Living sort of way.

But then there is the expat factor, you having lived in New York, a long way from Jamshedpur. When you are a traveler, a visitor, there is movement to your days, the adrenalin that comes with adventuring and discovery. Settling into one house or one town, finding work, developing new habits and the practice movements that make them, that is an entirely different kind of adjustment. You are taking the Life of Adventure and trying to, needing to, make something stable out of it. And that’s hard, hard, hard. Some days I go to the public market and wander the food aisles, trying to remember what I used to cook at home and what to buy to make a dinner. You get seduced into thinking you are in some kind of home because you pay rent every month to the same person, and then small things such as a meal, or the standard practice of local weddings blasting music through a Stones-concert-worth of speakers at five a.m., or the disregard for driving with lights on in the dark sneak up and smack you with anger or confusion or exhaustion.

The other ingredient to these past eight months is the fact of a writer’s life. Writing anything worth a damn is hard enough at home, and though you make well the point that I’m absorbing too much stimuli to get a good piece of fiction going, I get panicky when stuck in that rut. There is only so much time!, only so much money saved!, only so much endurance and oh so much that must come out of this situation Shannon and I have created. Family and friends ask us why don’t we come home and spend another year teaching, ask us what we have sold lately, ask us when we will be coming home because they miss us. They miss us for us, but for themselves too. They don’t understand what we do and that makes them scared and uncomfortable. They don’t understand that the requests they make of us may make them feel better but will hurt us greatly. When your calling lacks a regimented progression of achievements, it can get very hard to assess your own accomplishments. There is no pre-determined flow here, no widely accepted system of cause and effect such as: Kaplan school...clerking...employment. So we end up trying to keep up our own spirits in the face of confusion and even anger from those we love while trying to actually work at and accomplish something at the same time.

Doing all of that in a thoroughly alien environment is profoundly difficult and draining, as you know. Just existing here for eight months is an accomplishment, a success in its own right. I know this, but hearing it from the mouths of others is so important. That part of Jay that’s ambitious to the point of desperation and fatigued disappointment, the worming Doubt, those get in the way of that recognition. I know you know all this, and I know you know it more profoundly, having come out of a much more conservative place than I have. In retrospect, I can think of times when you tried to convey all or part of this to me, and though I thought I understood, I did not, could not, could not understand it fully anymore than loved ones back in the States can understand where I am now. I have a much greater understanding of how you must have felt your three years in New York and a real admiration for what you did there. You are very brave, I now understand.

I sit writing this, and I remember you singing that Jain prayer to me and Quincy on the pier at Maribar, and though I remember that is was so beautiful, I cannot remember the way it was beautiful. Though the notes are lost to me, I have the memory of being shocked at the beauty of the song ringing out over the water and beneath the moon and how much it moved me, moved me though I will never understand its meaning, and so I believe that your voice announcing your presence to rural Virginia and the way it stole my breath away are surely creations of an expat life as worthy as any short story or essay.

Much love... your buddy,


1 comment:

E.A. Durden said...

Something I have learned is this: in times of writer's block and writerly frustrations, one must strive to take the long view. You work some every day, and you read, and you throw yourself into new experiences, and though these things might not have the immediate, tangible results our culture insists upon, you must have faith that they are taking root somewhere in your work, and you are becoming a better writer, and one day, people will be moved by the stories you create from this creative soup. (Incidentally, people already are moved by what you have to say (witness this blog), whether or not you're getting paid for it, and that is no small thing.)