Tag Archives: working abroad

On Boxes & Belonging

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a very long time I’ve been trying to decipher this quote by the wise Ms. Maya Angelou. 

 

Can you be in no place and every place? Looking back, I remember my first place fondly where I first belonged.

I was born in Canada in a small prairie town in Saskatchewan which from above appear as big blocks of green and pale yellow – the colours of canola and wheat.

My first home was this Hostess potato chip box. Quite ingenious of my Mom so that she could keep her eye on me as she and Dad worked in my Grandpa’s café.

Home was a small room in a boarding house near the café for a short while. I remain grateful that my parents were able to squeeze in a crib as I didn’t fancy sleeping in that chip box. But I should have known then what was in store for me several years later.

We then moved to what we all called “the BIG house” because it had to fit us all in: Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Uncle, Auntie, four Cousins, and Grandma and Grandpa!

After awhile each of our families moved into our own homes. And after graduating from college, my parents decided it was time for me to see the world. In other words, “You’re on your own now.” So I left where I belonged and closed the door to find a new one to open as my own.

Since then I’ve had many homes. I’m extremely fortunate to have lived and worked in, not to mention travelled to places, near and far, some exotic and exciting, some not so, some twice –

Here’s a list: apartments in Regina, Saskatoon, gated 3 bedroom row house in Lusaka, Zambia, a farm in Kemptville or I remember “UnKemptville”, more apartments in Ottawa, basement apartment in Vancouver, a gated palatial new 5 bedroom home in  Ujung Pandang, Indonesia, one room loft in Calgary, top floor of a heritage house minutes away from Lake Ontario in Oakville, and Toronto where I once lived inside my factory for 4 years when I had my food business. That one had plenty of boxes the same size as the Hostess chip-like box.

So many homes, so many places to belong, so much packing and unpacking….lots of boxes! Will I always be a newcomer … even in my own country?

Learning to belong is not easy and I’m sure you have your own stories. I believe this has something to do with what is known as “reverse culture shock”.

Lusaka, Zambia

Upon returning from working in Zambia for two years, I remember the feeling of shock and awe in a supermarket, trying to decide which toilet paper to buy – the choices seemed infinite – tough choices indeed. We only had this mossy dark green stuff in Lusaka.  Is this where I belong?

Ujung Pandang, Indonesia

Upon returning from working in Indonesia for three years, I remember the feeling of frustration, trying to find the right word in English after speaking Bahasa Indonesia for  three years. I would literally inverse the word order like coffee table to table coffee, bookstore to store book as we do in Bahasa. Is this where do I belong?

I also remember being equally frustrated if not more, in a business meeting in Jakarta, trying to find the right word in Bahasa but all I had were sentences starting with “Saya” which means “I” and sounding like a naughty kid in Kindergarten. “I am, I want, I need, I have…. Saya syndrome!

Ms Maya Angelou, what do you mean belonging no place, belonging every place, no place at all?

Finally I arrived at  my AHA moment:

Toronto, Canada

It was in June this year when I was attending as an instructor a convocation ceremony for adult learners. I  had recognized one of our Program Directors and went over to greet her. Alongside her was her guest and I extended my hand to introduce myself but she spoke first.

Her guest said, “No Ho Ma.”

I replied, “No Ho Ma, I’m Jean Chow. And I’m an instructor here.”

At this point, the Program Director jumps in and said, “Jean, we’re so lucky to have Nancy here today to help us celebrate. She’s the CEO of  a big law firm in Chicago.” Hmmm…I thought in that cloud that hovers above our heads, I’m thinking, “Nancy? Her name is Nancy?”all the while making small talk.

Still thinking in the cloud, “Of course, it is. But she said “No Ho Ma”. Oh my God. She was saying “how are you” in Cantonese to me but I can’t speak Cantonese!  I totally missed her kind attempt to connect with me.

Not only that, she probably thought I was asking her “how are you?” too when I repeated it back to her when I was actually repeating it so I could remember her name. It hadn’t occurred to me how I looked to Nancy. She assumed I spoke Cantonese.

So Ms. Maya Angelou, I think I got it!  No matter where I live and work, I truly do not belong to any place but I belong every place because I will always be “new”, always a “newcomer”, and always be arriving, adapting, and belonging.

As two distinguished members of the Order of Canada would say:

“Very few of us share the same past but most of us will share the same future.” – Rita Deverell, Citizenship Judge

“As life long learners, we are learning to be, learning to become, learning to belong.” – Dr. Bruce Kidd, Former Olympian Runner 

Remember: there’s no place like “home” because home is where the heart is.