The Expat Economy of Selfishness: Why Happiness is Not Going ‘Home’

My friends and family back in the UK have stopped asking me when I’m coming back “home”. To stay in Hong Kong is to be selfish. It’s a silent accusation, but one that follows my every major decision. I’m staying here, but to them my home is not here.

Where is home? Is it the North East of England, where I was born, surrounded by love and possibility?  Nevermind that it was possibility imagined by others and upset by my own uncomfortableness. Home is sacred. Home is where the heart is. To abandon home is to be unutterably selfish, to decry family and faith and everything everyone ever told us about the golden times we’d had ‘growing up’. Why would you want to betray an idealisation of home fostered by years of special occasions and status updates: I can’t wait to be home. There’s no place like home, remember?

It has taken me three years in the Far East to realise that this idea of ‘home’ was never right, not for me. Like shoes that felt fine when I was stationary but pinched whenever I dared to move, home was uncomfortable because of what it represented. Home was love, sure. Don’t get me wrong. Home was family and great friends, childhood friends. But that love, strong as it is, competed with the memory of younger unhappinesses,  like sobbing at home to my mum that while everyone wanted me to do and be something great, I was so paralysed by indecision and the fear of disappointing them that I couldn’t do anything at all.

And overriding it all was the feeling that everyone at home was still seeing me through that filter: angsty, overdramatic, anxious. Indecisive and deeply unhappy but theirs: the girl of 2011/12. Visiting the UK in sSummer 2014, I wanted to tear down that home filter and say, no, look. Look at me now, with fresh eyes. Can’t you see this momentous change? Can’t you see I’m almost a completely different person? They can’t. They look at me and see a hologram, the girl I was when I first left. That is how they love me and that is how they want me to stay, but I can’t and in my economy of selfishness, I refuse to.

Of course there are things pulling me back – my ‘responsibilities’ pull at my belly, twanging like invisible elastic. There are old friends whose lives seem less than real as they revel in marriages and new babies. I have missed huge chunks of their lives and they have not been present in mine. They have always been there: I love them as much now as I did the day that I left, but they have not been privy to my personal evolution.

There is illness and inevitability. If I stay here, chances are I’ll only see my surviving grandparents another handful of times and writing that makes me feel wretchedly guilty. I should be home. My place in this world is, surely, ‘at home’.
Except it isn’t.

I Skype my parents every weekend, but seeing them in the flesh when they visited at Easter made them seem old. In Hong Kong they flickered in the background strangely, forever contrasting with the new shapes of my landscape. It was incongruous that they represented Home and then they were here, struggling into my new idea of home. Something inside me ached and tugged when they said it’d probably be their last trip this far East. But this is where I AM now, I wanted to scream. Home as home was before, that doesn’t exist anymore. It’ll never be the place I remember it to be – I found a puzzle piece out here in Hong Kong and it doesn’t fit into the jigsaw of my old home, no matter how much I twist and jam it. Is there any going back?

It was only supposed to be temporary, my friends and family say. This was never the plan. You were always supposed to be here, within reaching distance. Manchester maybe, or London but a comforting car or train ride away, never unreachable. Never out of our lives on the other side of the world, putting your own contentment ahead of our need to have you around.

This is my economy of selfishness.  This is the price I have decided I am willing to pay for my own happiness – but I don’t believe in happiness, not really. In these three years I have managed an ache that began years before I left home. There are several reasons I could give as to why Hong Kong has pulled me back from the brink of self-implosion. Perhaps my job. Or the people. The heat. The feeling of being able to escape. Or maybe it’s because the ties that once bound me to doing this then that and finishing up at point xyz – they’re unfastened and that’s a better feeling than I could ever imagine.

So where is home? What is home? At university I studied contemporary literature and wrote essays on displacement, borrowing the words of expatriates and aliens who wondered why, when home was so far away, they still felt such an attachment to it. I have tried to put into words why I feel this betrayal of home as heartland is justified, for me. I am not coming home, not yet, because home doesn’t mean the same to me as it did three years ago – and maybe that’s a bad thing, an unpopular and controversial thing for me to say, but it’s the truth.

About fiercemissc

Twenty-something Geordie girl living and working in Hong Kong. Young, free and single and making the most of it.
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2 Responses to The Expat Economy of Selfishness: Why Happiness is Not Going ‘Home’

  1. M.C says:

    Excellent post Steph!
    I really agree with you here. It’s really hard for other people to understand that your attachment to a certain place has to amount more than just the personal relationships you have with them. I think it’s entirely okay to be selfish in this way and not be held back by the guilt of ‘home’.
    Having moved across borders at various stages of my life, I’ve become more and more open to the idea that I may never find ‘home’.

    I think it’s great that you’ve found a place you can be more comfortable with yourself in. The only person you have to live with is yourself, after all.
    Perhaps you will grow to be happier, more free, more comfortable as you continue to immerse yourself in the life there, or perhaps you will find a new place to be in. Whatever you do, choose your own happiness, I think only then are we able to wholeheartedly contribute to other’s happiness.

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