In September 2015, my mother and sister came to visit me in Belgium. That was their first long trip, as well as their first time visiting me in my ‘new home’. I constantly willed my brain to remember every detail, every smell, every sound. Not only because I got to re-experience Europe through what they see and feel, but also because I hadn’t seen my mom and sister in nearly a year and at the same time, I’m not even sure when I’d see them again.
Such sacrifices one makes when one chooses to live abroad.
I had to bid farewell to my mom and sister in a train station in Nijmegen, Netherland. They had to fly back to Indonesia on Monday through Amsterdam, and I have to go back to Belgium since I have to work. When I boarded on the train and watched their face disappeared from my sight as the train went away, my chest ached. I felt like a little girl all over again, reaching for my mom as she left me on my first day of school.
It is my third year living in Belgium, before that moment, I thought I was fine. I spent most of the time by myself, struggling, taking care of myself, and have to deal with stuffs. I didn’t realise how much I miss and continue to miss them. But sometimes, it’s more than that. As their faces faded, I couldn’t help but feel a bunch of guilt I’ve never experienced before. While I believe that guilt is not always right or rational, there is often truth to it. In that moment, I felt guilty for choosing to live so far away from my parents, my loved ones, my home in Indonesia. Even the fact that I couldn’t make it home when my father passed away to be with my mom and sister is still a huge hurdle that keeps me from forgiving myself.
Make no mistake, I love living in Belgium and I’ve loved traveling the world. Since I was a kid I always believe that I never belong to one place. But as my family gets older — as we all do — I can’t help to ruminate on the choice I’ve made to live so far away and think, what have I given up?
Most the people only talk about the joys of living abroad, seeing the world, experiencing something new and bigger than a life spent in the community you were born into. This is my life, the life that I’ve tailored through series of choices I’ve made, and I don’t regret it. But as much as we talk about the merits of living abroad, we rarely talk about what we lose in exchange.
I haven’t lived in the same city as my parents since I was 18, but for much of my adult life, they were never more than a few hours away. Calling was easy since we always were in the same timezone or it’s only an hour or two away from each other, but not half a day. We called each other sometimes for no reason, only to share joys, sorrows, or sometimes.. just to argue. But there was an ease in connection that is now thwarted by multiple time zones and thousands of miles.
When my father first collapsed in 2009, I was also in the middle of my exam period, however, I was able to hop on the earliest train to go back home to be with them that afternoon. When I got horribly sick, my parents were able to come to my aid quickly and without too much financial or physical hardship. As my mother ages, I fear that one day, a 15-hour flight might not be fast enough for me to reach her.
When my sister posted a picture on the rituals that we always had together — her birthday, watching Teater Koma, celebrating mother’s day, eating durian, having my mom’s cook for Christmas, having a long drive with a car from Jakarta to Bali — part of me longs to take part in such ‘everyday milestones’. Communities and families are not built on huge extravaganzas or the occasional, remarkable occurrence; they are built on the intimacy made everyday. With my family and friends, I have not shared such an intimacy in years. And sometimes, I feel like an outsider even though in many ways I am actually now an outsider.
You may ask, “You’re crying over birthday parties and lunches while you are living a life that so many people dream of but never get to live?”
The answer is a plain ‘yes’.
Since the first time I boarded to Belgium, I knew that I’m going to leave everything behind in order to pursue what I believe to be my dream. I knew the road I decided to take is gonna be the road of solitude, yet I still cry over it from time to time. Because in fact, there is no perfect answer to that question. No life choice is perfect. Sometimes I wonder, if I really looked before I leapt, would I change my life choices? Would I choose not to see my father’s last day over my exams and thesis? Probably not. It might sound cold, but do I wish that I had better understood the ramifications of my choices? I think so.
Along with missing my family and friends, I find that I am somewhat distant from the culture I grew up in. I am an Indonesian, I grew up in Indonesia. I was educated in Indonesian system that is full of etiquettes and social structure. There are certain behaviours and beliefs that I can’t seem to shake it off as an Indonesian. However, I find that when confronted with Indonesian culture now, I am a bit out of touch. Indonesia is both familiar and foreign to me.
While any news and politics related to Indonesia are still important to me, my understanding of the issues affecting my hometown are sometimes just that, an understanding.
Through these years, I keep asking myself if there can be a balance?
Is it possible for a person to live abroad but still hold onto the important parts of their life ‘back home’? Or is it only part of finding peace with what you gave up as part of living abroad?
I think at the end, everything will come down to what you are willing to hold onto, to fight for, as well as to gracefully accept 🙂