I arrived back into the UK yesterday after two and a half weeks back home in Cape Town, South Africa. Where I was born, partially raised, and where most of my relatives are. It’s been a weird two weeks, there have been awkward moments, but also amazing moments, and it feels like I was just begining to settle into it all when I had to leave again.
It had been about seven years since I’d last been back. It’s a very long time and a lot has changed in that time. Two and a half weeks hardly feels enough to make up for it. (Though it is better than nothing, of course.)
In many ways, I have made peace with my dual nationality. Too South African to be British, but too British to be South African. I am South African/Scottish but I sound neither, and I can joke about that now. When we first immigrated to the UK I had no idea what was going on, I thought it was just a big fun holiday and everything would go back to how it was. Realising that it was not any such thing, that I would have to stay in a place where no one liked me and nothing felt familiar was pretty awful. I wanted to go home. For years I was determined that I would go back. I had no appreciation for adult concerns – finance, healthcare, social security. I was lonely and sad and I didn’t fit in and I just wanted to go home. Home became something magical to me, took on a brighter tinge. I wanted to escape back to what I had, which of course was wonderful and perfect. As I grew older I had to face reality. And now, coming back to South Africa and seeing the lives of my family there, I can appreciate reality even more. It was a good thing my parents did for me, to take me to the UK. Free healthcare and schooling and benefits are nothing to scoff at. No power cuts or water restrictions too. I have an independence that maybe I wouldn’t have, and I have a very good job, a very good home. I know these things. I was grieving for a long time, angry and sad and resentful, for the loss of what I could have been and the life I could have led, whatever that would be. I wondered how I’d look, if my personality would be more extroverted. I’d try to picture it, even though it’s impossible. But I’ve finally come through to the other side of my grief. The last stage is acceptance, right?
I have accepted the immigration and its benefits. and in many ways it’s freeing. It was brilliant going home with that acceptance. I could struggle to understand people in my home country and laugh it off. I could speak without feeling ashamed of my accent. I could embrace my otherness, and be a tourist in my home country, and not let it get to me. I surprised myself with just how well I did at not caring about it all. That was good. That helped a lot.
And I tried to enjoy being with my family, and reconnect with them, without all the miles and years between us getting in the way. Tried to have the same easy going acceptance of what is, is. That was a lot harder.
There is a distance, and it hurts. And it’s not just that, it’s hard to be with someone on borrowed time, hard to slip back into their lives and then out again. Especially as my grandparents grow older I am left sitting there wondering – is this the last time? There is a pressure to have everything just so, because of the limited time, and it ends up feeling a little forced and sometimes, yes, it was awkward. Wearing a mask and putting on your best behaviour. It shouldn’t be that way, really. We don’t really know each other, but yet they are family, and I love them, and I know they love me, despite all the thousands of miles between us, and I can’t bare the thought of losing them. I lost two of my grandparents in the last seven years, without being able to say goodbye, and I’m not sure I could do that again.
Even as practically I can appreciate my privileges and all that I have, nothing can take away the pain of having to say goodbye to your grandmother at the airport, not knowing if it’s the last time you will ever see her. It just hurts. It’s a stone embedded in my heart, a wound that won’t heal or allow itself to be erased. It’s home, and that’s just the way it is, and although I have boxed up my grief and loss and tucked it away, it’s still there.
I want to go back, I don’t want to go back, I should go back, I shouldn’t go back, I can go back, I can’t go back.
It feels like I’ve just been woken up from the most beautiful dream.
My head: it’s ok. Time to get on with reality.
My heart: I want to slip back into that dream.
(Home is still something slightly magical, something otherly to me. I said to my coworker before I left that it, the holiday, won’t feel real until I see Table Mountain appear out the plane window as we circle to land. But I lied. It never felt real. There was so much that was so wonderful, and South Africa is just too beautiful for words. I love my home and I hope I can go back again, just have this at least once more…)
(Why does it have to be so expensive and time consuming to go home? It’s so frustrating.)