Saturday, April 02, 2005

Coming Home, at Long Last

Say you’ve just come home to Montreal from a teaching stint abroad: your life is suddenly once again one of bubble tea in Chinatown, Romanian architects at cafés, and Tamil separatism in Sri Lankan community theatres. And poker-faced men at Indian restaurants who bring you extra food for free because they see you finishing everyone else’s curry. And apartments full of young writers. And musicians. And artists. And holy crap, you’re back, you’re back in Canada, back at home. Sitting in front of you on the bus from the airport are two well-dressed young Haitian men - one of them is looking out the window, and breathes the word in awe: “Montreal.” The other slowly shakes his head and says: “Gwo moun.” Gros monde, big world.

Canada’s a pleasure-and-a-half, because it takes in so much of the best that the world has to offer, and leaves so much of worst outside its doors. When you’re finally back in your old familiar surroundings, it’s so easy to treat your quality of life like a big-game dose of aspirin, lose contact with your new friends abroad, and slowly forget about your God-given duty to deal with the pain out there. After a long trip of mine to Brazil in 2003, I was haunted in many ways - partly by a passage from Anil’s Ghost, a novel by one of Canada’s greatest writers, and from a Sri Lankan immigrant family himself: “American movies, English books-remember how they end? …The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s reality enough for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.”

Obviously I was biting my nails at the thought of coming home in exactly that way. Bahá’ís are past masters at easy fellowship, which is redeemable for rapturous encounters at five million points of service around the globe - but then, what prevents us from boarding our own planes like spiritual tourists, as if our souvenir high might matter as much or more than the commitment it entails?

When I got home from Brazil, I took my dose of aspirin and settled into a very pleasant state of shock. Instead of trying to reconcile my commitment to Brazil with my sudden, contradictory presence in Canada, I called up old friends in the mountains where I’d grown up, and floated down slow rivers in the sunlight. At night when I tried to pick up a book on Afghanistan, I could only get a few pages in before I felt like a traitor to the whole wide vertiginous universe, and had to call up my friends again. A traveller may also burn his bridges out of pain, at his own sense of separation from where he's been. The point of our entire life is communion - with other people, with some sense of the divine - and if ever we’re caught drinking, and that communion is snatched away, the wine can begin to turn bitter on our tongues.

That’s why every foreign friend you keep in touch with is a victory. That’s why every time you involve yourself in the lives of the people where you used to travel-teach, even from so far away, you’re beating the system and really making one country out of this divided, far-flung world of ours. Here's one thing I learnt about Montreal summers, when I came back: they feel exactly like Brazil in the slaphappy week just before Carnival. The winter snow has finally melted, and the whole world comes out to celebrate. Let this be our story: no more abandonment, not anywhere on earth. Let everyone join the party, and let the party never stop.


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