How often do we get the opportunity to revisit the past? To see which of our memories are real and which have become twisted over time? Allow me some personal reflections on our recent trip to Kyrgyzstan. The place we left with very mixed emotions eight years ago. A country we lived in for the best part of ten years – emotionally if not always physically. I will attempt to sprinkle some questions through the text to help you reflect as well. I realise that these reflections probably are more resonant to those in the NGO community more than a corporate setting, but hope there will be some nuggets for you too.
For many years I have hoped that we would get the opportunity to return to Kyrgyzstan. To show the children where they spent their early years (they were six and four when we left). It felt important for them to know more about and to see with fresh eyes the country they grew up in. To have real memories and not just photographic ones that have undoubtedly changed over the years. And not just for them, but for us too. To see the country without the daily challenges of living there. The place that we both loved and hated, but which was a guilt-ridden relief to leave in the end.
How much did your last year colour your memories?
Our last months in Kyrgyzstan were stressful. No surprise there – most people do find those months stressful. Added to normal finishing-up stresses, a revolution started in the town we were in and spread across the country. Prisoners ran free; police went into hiding; weapons flown in from the capital went missing; random shootings in the streets were common; and we had a personal threat from someone wanting to buy our house.
We lost trust in Kyrgyz people and their ability to be truthful, reliable or to focus on anything other than their own desires. We were tired of living in a goldfish bowl where all our neighbours observed us in detail. And we were exhausted by the unpredictability and hopelessness of life there.
Looking back, I have a sense of sadness that the country and people we had initially loved so much had come to be defined in my memory by those last months. And yet in being able to revisit the past, I have now been able to remember some of the good too: Our neighbours were really happy to see us. The relationship with my house-help, which had been rocky at the end, was resolved. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher was so pleased to see her.
The mountains were as beautiful as ever. And the Kyrgyz friends we saw were just as lovely as we remembered and made such an effort for us.
What memories are you missing because of the last few months in your host country?
How did you leave?
Maybe this question seems too similar to the last one, but I want to take it from a different angle. When we went to Kyrgyzstan, it was with the idea of being there for the long haul. As it was, a year before we left, we decided the time had come and we had given as much as we could give. There were other reasons too, but that was certainly some of it.
There was a part of me that felt like we had failed. We hadn’t lasted; hadn’t had as much of an impact as we wanted; and hadn’t loved the people as much as we could have done. It took several years of being back to finally undo this thinking, with the help of loving friends who allowed us to re-tell our story and in some ways redeem our time in Kyrgyzstan in our own minds.
Going back helped me to see it again with fresh eyes:
Remembering how difficult life was and experiencing again how often plans fell through on a daily / hourly basis. Seeing how dirty and dusty and under-developed it was where we lived. Experiencing again quite how much time simple daily life took up. Watching our taxi driver falling asleep at the wheel several times and having to keep him awake. Hearing again of the corruption which allows doctors and others to buy their degrees and then ‘treat’ patients. Being confronted with the Kyrgyz concept of respect (terrorist hospitality) versus our idea of respect (‘no’ needs listening to).
All these reminders helped me to marvel that we lasted as long as we did!
What judgements have you made about your time abroad and what you achieved or didn’t? Are they real and deserved or in need of a new perspective?
Where is home?
When we first came back, the UK definitely didn’t seem like home and we didn’t feel like we belonged. After 18 months or so it started to feel more normal to be here, though we still felt different. Eight years on we still feel different.
Being in Kyrgyzstan again felt normal. My fourteen-year old remarked how normal it felt to be there, like we were never away. There were familiar smells, sounds and tastes. And yet it was not home any more. We felt connected to it through our history there. And always will. But it was not home. The UK is home. For now. We will continue to feel different – my children haven’t ever quite felt that they fit with their friends, and spend more time with children of mixed race or children who have some experience of being abroad. But we have found a way to make our home here. As my daughter observed – then aged two and a half – in our rented accommodation in the UK just before her brother was born: “today, this is home.”
We may end up somewhere else at some point in our lives. But we have succeeded in making this home. And that’s worth celebrating!
Where is home for you right now? If you are in re-entry, how could you help your passport country to feel more like ‘home’?
13th June 2018
If you enjoyed this article, you may like my last blog post, rose-tinted glasses…