When Foreign Becomes Home


Part 2.3

Spring 2013. The never-ending heat of Manipal has fallen for a few hours. Early evening at End Point Road, for a session of frisbee. The decreasing attendance of our classmates pushed some of us to resort to other players. A community of foreign students from Malaysia comes at an impressive regularity, almost everyday, and seems to end up always very numerous – fifteen, sometimes twenty players. The warm-up sessions are long; the teams are decided almost randomly and they play for an hour, animated by a seemingly continuous laughter, and a consistently high level of performance, athletic and non-athletic players alike, females and males alike. Their rather long exile – between 2 and 5 years, for some of them – has already left them with some reflexes of English answers to each other, but it is, naturally, Malaysian, which sets the tone. The syllables resonate to my novice ear just like Chinese, and its sense of exoticism is intact. My two Indian friends and I try to adapt to this new community, but our habitual aggressive competitiveness is brutally put to perspective and rendered ridiculous when we are faced by this relaxed, playful and satisfying game. My two friends represent my adopted culture, my adopted language, realm of my new life and its numerous struggles and worries. Surrounded by the unfamiliar sounds of this new language, my anxious perspectives vanish for a few minutes and I fantasize this language that seems to express only collective serenity and individual joy. The peak of my amazement is yet to come: after a few minutes, another player arrives. His face is definitely Indian, with a rather modern, urban haircut and a fashionable outfit. He greets us from far, briefly, more akin to the subtle manners of East Asians than to the way Indians interact among themselves. The surprise bursts out of the scene when I hear him conversing fluently and with stressed intonations with the other Malaysians. It soon becomes obvious that, while clearly being of an Indian origin, he certainly spent a large part of his life with Malaysians. His face and look seem totally familiar for the Indian dweller that I have been in the last four years. But his language transforms, inverses the whole situation. I am the white man more at ease with Indians than with his peers; he is the Indian probably feeling foreign in his country of origin, and now sharing entirely the national and cultural identity of his Malaysian friends. And this ultimate giveaway, this unforgettable idiosyncrasy: his language.

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Is my surprise at the unexpected sense of unfamiliarity while discovering this exotic community and language the sign that after not tarrying in France and looking for foreign distraction, I had failed in never dwelling anywhere? That I had simply taken India, its culture and its language(s) as a land of adoption, once and for all, instead of realizing the necessary transitoriness of any so-called home?

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Spring 2013. End Point Road. The cricket-turned-frisbee-field is the ground of a confrontation of unheimlich-ness, of two Dasein-s who are not-at-home. It would be tempting, initially, to ponder on whether this Indian-looking-Malaysian would agree, with Heidegger, as to the fact that angst is both a universal, by-default condition of life for human beings, and at the same time, the possibility of being reminded of one’s individuality, and of the possibilities to lead an authentic life. I would also be curious as to whether my or his attitude reveal a case of (in)authenticity, according to Heidegger. In his discussion of the neugier, we discovered that curiosity is composed, according to the thinker, of three elements: not tarrying, distraction and never dwelling anywhere. Is my surprise at the unexpected sense of unfamiliarity while discovering this exotic community and language the sign that after not tarrying in France and looking for foreign distraction, I had failed in never dwelling anywhere? That I had simply taken India, its culture and its language(s) as a land of adoption, once and for all, instead of realizing the necessary transitoriness of any so-called home? Or is it this Indian-looking-Malaysian who betrayed the same illusory belief, coming back to India to taunt his ex-co-nationals as to his departure, as to his eager intent to part away from Indian culture and languages? But conducting an ideological trial on the name of Heidegger would probably be corrupting his insightful intuitions.

Heidegger’s unheimlich can be better put to the test through this situation. Truly, we could argue that “the uncanniness of [Dasein’s] floating remains hidden from it under their protecting shelter” (Heidegger 1962, 214) for both myself and the Indian-looking-Malaysian: for myself in the form of seeing oneself as belonging, somehow, to India, and for him, by defining himself as Malaysian in spite of his physical traits. But this succinct encounter, that day of spring 2013, could also appear as the final demonstration of Heidegger’s belief: the indubitable groundlessness of the human condition. Angst, as carefully noted by Heidegger, was certainly a component of both of our migrations. My angst was direct, obsessive, glaring and existential. His was certainly more complex, profound, that of his parents, perhaps, who thought that migrating would provide them with opportunities absent in India. Choosing to leave one’s country to join another one is a major life decision, and it cannot be initiated without profound feelings of discomfort regarding home. Through this feeling, as Heidegger remarks, one is reminded of her individuality, of her power of decision-making. Leaving one’s country, denying the age-old belief in settlement, it is choosing, it is accepting, surrendering to the groundlessness of human life. Heritage of this salvaging angst, or rather, condition of its perpetual fruitfulness, is the sense of curiosity, neugier. Heidegger’s words are clear: curiosity is not simply a naïve attitude towards the world. It is an effort, it is – again – a product of one’s freedom of choice. All of the three components Heidegger mentions for curiosity are attitudes that require an effort, a permanently reminded energy. Arguably the first is the greatest: not tarrying, deciding to leave all behind, often without knowing what could come next. Distraction, the second component, also seems falsely like a passive attitude: one should not “seek the leisure of tarrying observantly, but rather seek restlessness and the excitement of continual novelty and changing encounters” (216). With Heidegger, distraction is not anymore a consumption of what the world may give us; it is the stressed effort to refrain from the temptation of pessimism, of assuming that no novelty could be found. And finally, ultimate condition of the authentic life, is the work of never dwelling anywhere. Even after an initial exile, and perhaps for some, two or three others, Heidegger recommends never to succumb to the seduction of feeling-at-home. Therefore, on this early evening of spring 2013, on the frisbee field, I, and my equally home-less colleague, we were not simply trying to convince the rest of the world that we were, respectively, Indian, and Malaysian. Behind our half-hearted dreams of cultural veils, we were as close as one can get to the unheimlich. We were finally, strangely at home, comfortable in the impossible resting of the permanent movement, of the eternally foreign.


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Image courtesy: Aditya Sarin