Last weekend in the Guardian’s “Family” section, Sarah Leipciger – a self-proclaimed “Canuck living in London” – addressed a topic that people are more apt to discuss with children rather than with adults. Whether on the first day of kindergarten, in the car before a sleepover, or perhaps at the threshold of a college dorm, one can find parents wiping tears (either theirs or those of their offspring) and offering whispered assurance that this feeling – homesickness – will subside. But as Leipciger, who moved from Canada to London with her English husband fifteen years ago, can attest, “the underrated power of nostalgia” can make even the most adaptable person long for “home.” Adult homesickness is a real thing, and although grown-ups have more tools and mental know-how to combat it than children, the magnetic pull of all that is familiar and yes, comfortable, is a hard one to ignore. As a friend who lives with her husband and children in his home country wrote in an email to me, “There is a day care centre for Alzheimer’s patients near where we live. It’s in a lovely setting with a farm, but I remember once driving by there on a pissed off day and thinking, what if I get early Alzheimer’s and I end up there? What if I never get away? It’s not a true reflection of my foundation feeling which is more balanced and upbeat (I’ve worked hard on that) but I do have days like that. And I too harbour hopes of living in my home country again. Indeed I would be devastated if I thought that would never happen.”
Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum, takes the circumstances of Leipciger and my friend but adds a large heap of dire melancholy and outright depression to the situation. (Let me just say here that my friend does, in fact, love her country of residence, as well as her husband. And if you read Leipciger’s piece, you can infer the same.) Anna, an American, is married to Bruno, a Swiss banker. Between her deceased parents and the admitted “wanderlust” of her youth, Anna seems to be left without an anchor and, perhaps, an emotional “home.” Essbaum describes her protagonist’s fascination with a life (or at least a love) outside of America’s borders: “In her youth Anna dreamed soft, damp dreams of the men she imagined she would one day love, men who would one day love her. She gave them proper names but indistinct, foreign faces: Michel, the French sculptor with long, clay-caked fingers; Dmitri, the verger of an Orthodox church whose skin smelled of camphor, of rockrose, of sandalwood resin and myrrh; Guillermo, her lover with matador hands. They were phantom men, girlhood ideations. But she mounted an entire international army of them. It was the Swiss one she married.” For whatever reason, Anna has refused to see America as her ultimate home and instead has sought out something more exotic – the problem, perhaps, being that “exotic,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Yet Anna is not satisfied. Essbaum writes, “It’s hard to love a man outside his native tongue. And yet, it was the Swiss one Anna married.” Further, “Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days.” Ouch. Not surprisingly, mentions of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary make numerous appearances in reviews of Hausfrau. This is beyond homesickness, which seems merely a quaint inconvenience compared to Anna’s despair.
And on the surface, this depression may startle a reader due to its utter incomprehensibility. Anna has three healthy children, does not have to work, and is being “courted,” if you will, by a cheerful Canadian woman who has moved to suburban Zurich, with her husband, an ice hockey player, and their children. She desperately wants to befriend Anna, who most likely feels like a comfortable reminder of home – hey, at least they’re from the same continent! But Anna has affairs, has only started taking German classes after ten years in Switzerland, and shuns friendships. (Although Mary from Canada and her upbeat ways do start to soften Anna a bit.) Anna, clearly unhappy, embodies the catchphrase “First World Problem” so fully that internal shouts of “Get it together, woman!” interrupted my reading every time I picked up the book.
But yet, from the get-go, I had so much compassion for Anna. Essbaum’s writing keeps Anna from keeling over in ridiculous and exhausting territory. Despite one Amazon reviewer’s assessment of Anna as a “narcissistic sociopath,” something about this protagonist’s despair, however self-indulgent, feels sincere and legitimate – and even incurable. The disconnect from her homeland, maybe just a disingenuous conflict erupting from general unhappiness with her life, is real. Essbaum writes, “There was nothing [Anna] missed about America enough to want to return to it. But Switzerland had never felt like home, and never would.” Her psychiatrist (“Doktor”) interprets one of Anna’s dreams: “For you are not Swiss and there is little you identify with in this country.”
She doesn’t identify as Swiss, and she actively eschews the prospect of appearing American, so what, exactly, is Anna? An expat? An immigrant? An American-Swiss? An emotional refugee? Perhaps she’s simply an appendage to her Swiss-and-proud husband or Swiss-born children. Her lack of easy identity is problematic in a world that embraces and encourages labels.
Earlier this year, the Guardian published a snippet of a post by a blogger based in Africa entitled “Why are White People Expats When the Rest of Us are Immigrants?” (His name is Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, and he edits SiliconAfrica.com.) “Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.” This is an interesting conversation, and it’s not the first time it’s been raised in the Guardian, let alone in general conversation. In a “Mind Your Language” column back in 2011, Briton Peter Manatle, who has lived on three continents, reflected on how “when British people overseas, or press organisations such as the Guardian, use the term ‘expat’ with reference to Britons abroad, then use words such as ‘immigrant’ when describing people from other countries who are in the UK. Strangely, this sometimes extends to non-British foreigners overseas. So, a Briton resident in France might refer to himself as an expat, but call a Polish resident of France an immigrant, as if somehow there is a distinction to be made; although he may later refer to someone from the USA as an ‘American expat’, implying that there is a sort of hierarchy of foreignness.”
This hand-wringing over lexicon is an interesting dilemma to me because my definition of the word “expat” differs even more than the ones given above. To me, an “expat” is someone who has been sent to live abroad, usually by a multinational corporation, and is often given a package of benefits in order to ease the transition and entice those (often the “trailing spouse,” which is a terrible bit of terminology) who may be reluctant to embark on the adventure: housing allowance, reimbursement for travel back home, fees for children’s schooling. On the surface, it may seem a minute distinction and that I’m only parsing the term because my family doesn’t fall in to that category: sour grapes! I emphatically believe that to not be the case, though; rather, I think there’s a difference because when faced with a different culture without a back-up plan in place or a built-in, ready-made network, one scrambles pretty quickly to figure out “life” in a foreign land. A desire to sink in to a new culture also stems from the fact that expats, by my own definition, are often in a new place for a finite amount of time – usually two to five years, or whenever their contract finishes.
So what’s the difference? I think an “expat” knows that the grand experiment of living abroad is temporary, but an immigrant or migrant expects that that cord – that lifeline – has most likely been severed, at least until “the kids are out of school,” or “we retire,” or most dramatically, “when they fly my body home.” As the friend noted above feels, living in her home country will always be a possibility, even an absolute given. (It has also always been a possibility for my family. We didn’t think we would want to make the move back as soon as we are, but I’m still not sure we would call ourselves “expats.”)
But I think the only way that Anna can identify herself is “stuck,” and perhaps even “homeless.” Readers learn that an affair with a fellow American, whom she believes is her true love and possibly the bridge between her past and future, is not meant to be. A family tragedy thickens the connection that keeps Anna tethered to Switzerland. And finally, she realizes that any connections she has made in this place she resides are, at best, tenuous and conditional. The tragedy is not so much that she is in Switzerland, or in a bad marriage, or the receiver of horrible news. Instead, anguish erupts because in a heartbreaking finale, Essbaum removes any semblance whatsoever of “home” for her protagonist.
So what is Anna? “She could go anywhere she wanted. The going wasn’t the problem. The problem was belonging where she went. This has been the issue from the beginning.” By her own definition, she is probably not an expat nor an immigrant, and that is because she doesn’t feel at home anywhere – and never has – and therefore doesn’t have a home to be homesick for. Forget first world; that’s just a problem.