Saturday 1 September 2012

Timely thoughts on coming home

The Toronto Star coverage of the story
that broke while I was up in the air.
It was a turning point in my life that began when the Air India flight touched down at London Heathrow. As we began to disembark, I felt none of the usual numbness of overnight trans-Atlantic travel. Having been upgraded (by carefully engineered chance) to Maharaja class, I was well fed, rested and revived. So as I shuffled towards the exit ramp I was alert to the conversations of fellow passengers, whispers that became more urgent as the circles of contact widened. Several faces registered shock. Out of concern and curiosity, I asked what was the matter: ‘Princess Diana has been killed.’
Over the coming hours, days and weeks, that news would consume much of the wider world, but it became just the coincidental backdrop for my life, a pointer that fixes it to a definite date in history. For that was the day I ended more than a decade as an immigrant in Canada and, after a brief stopover in London, became a ‘returned emigrant’ in Ireland.
The story of emigration is still being told.
Much has been written about emigration – most of it misinformed, maudlin or fanciful by those who can’t recognise the difference between a young, single backpacker with a smart phone and a short-term working visa and those who leave (usually by choice) with families, job skills/experience, and the guts to seek opportunities by cutting themselves adrift. Yet while the story of emigration is distorted, it is told. Little has been written about the process of coming home to a place that no longer feels like home for those who have invested a sustained effort in making a new life in their adopted country. In my case, that final return flight began a wrenching experience even if it seemed at first like the start of another holiday.
There was indulgence for my ‘Canadian’ ways, such as  little vocabulary adjustments or pronunciations, my na├»ve questions about life in Ireland, my constant comparisons between here and there, my confusion and doubts about the step I was taking for myself and my two children who travelled ahead while I tidied up our affairs in Canada. 
So those initial days passed in a haze. I continued to shuffle along as if the fog would lift suddenly and I would be ‘home at last’. Yet it didn’t happen that way in September 1997, no more than it had in January 1987 when I had passed though Immigration Canada in Toronto as a ‘Landed Immigrant’.
A culture shock in a Dublin taxi.
I remember several cultural shocks in those first days of return: A Dublin taxi driver whose racist diatribe prompted me to get out well short of my destination; the smug arrogance of early harbingers of the Celtic Tiger; the fixation on English soccer and popular culture by those who suggested I had compromised my identity; the bizarre bureaucracy of reinserting myself into Ireland. So as the weeks passed, I could feel my frustration grow and the sufferance of others decline in equal measure. There were fewer smiles when I ‘turned Canadian’, made a comparison, or asked a question about what others regarded as the ‘bloody obvious’ and I was challenged, ‘You know rightly why that is; sure aren’t you from here?”
I suppose those bafflements and annoyances indicate my psychological readjustment to a cultural environment that was familiar yet strange enough to befuddle. My body had been transported back across the Atlantic, but my mind was still in transit and it would take a long time for them to reunite.
Other problems were largely work-related. Having had a successful career in journalism before I left, I presumed I could re-insinuate myself into the fold. In Canada I had built another successful career in journalism, adding valuable experiences and technological skills that were only beginning to take hold in Ireland. Yet I might as well have been outside the door twiddling my thumbs for all the good that did me in the jobs market. I even felt at times that my absence was regarded as a failure and my age (mid-40s) a handicap. So I was not even called for interview when my additional skills were specified, possibly because I had not acquired them in Ireland.
Fifteen years later, I look back on those early days of uncertainty as among the most difficult of my life. I eventually scrambled back. My vocabulary readjusted and I learned not to utter comparisons that receded over time. I built a successful career for the third time in my life, but I’ve never truly settled. Along the way, I’ve written four books, and raised two sons as a single parent until they graduated from university and set off on their own lives overseas.
Canada – my adopted country.
So happy ending? Not really, because I fear the reception would be no different for returned emigrants today. When I returned to Ireland on 1 September 1997, I found a country absorbed to the point of selfish obsession about how it had changed in my absence. There was little acknowledgement that I had changed too, and exponentially in comparison. Unlike the traditional Irish emigrant’s experience of a social support network to complement institutional assistance for newcomers, I found impatience for me to deal with change alone. Unlike Canada and most modern countries built on immigration where help is available to exploit newcomers' skills, there is no agency in Ireland to help returned emigrants adjust.
There seems to be a prevailing Irish notion that emigrants are those who failed and fled and returning home just compounds the failure. I hear similar reactions from every returned emigrant I meet. And it is the ‘small stuff’ that niggles most, issues like an ease of passage for children into the education system, or getting a driver's licence (I had to pass my test for the third time because there was no ‘reciprocal exchange’).
Emigration is not easy, yet so many of us find the practical and emotional support as well as the energy to adjust to ‘living away from home’. Often we are bolstered by the excitement of a ‘honeymoon’ transition and the promise of ‘happy ever after’. Returning home is different for those who manage to find a window in complicated lives. No matter what the circumstances, returning can be like emerging from a failed marriage (and I know what that is like), with an obsessive compulsion to rekindle an old romance, then finding yourself shrugged off or simply not recognised. It is hard to find the energy in such circumstances
So today, fifteen years after I began my new life in old surroundings on the day of the death of Britain’s fairytale princess, I raise a glass to returned emigrants and wish each and every one health, happiness and a hero’s homecoming.