Why Foreignness is Familiar

On where I find myself most at ease…

Some of us, I have noticed, are extremely sensitive to changes as a negative thing. These people, they want to be comfortable, to have a sense that the familiar is mostly all there is, and that the world beyond their town or neighborhood is a vast, strange, and largely “unnecessary” place filled with people they probably would not like to meet, anyway. To them, the world is best kept simple.

I was not one of those people, from the very beginning. As a small child, I remember always wanting to wander off farther and stretch a little bit further into books, stories, films, wherever – just to see if something numinous, magical, or better lay beyond a panel in a wall, or down a hole, or up a tree. New words and vocabulary had this sense of color and texture, like a candy made of blue or a drink of forest green. I do not think I was synesthetic in any true sense, but that is the best way I can think of to describe it. I remember how pleasant it felt to play with glass marbles in my mouth, or to make it up to the top of stairs I had never before climbed.

One thing I have never told many people about was this intense feeling of goosebumps and excitement just from touching hands with a new person or experiencing a new place. It has become a rare occurrence, and I believe the proper term isĀ frisson, but not having a name for that sense of wonder almost made it all the more powerful.

And where this is going, to get closer to the point of this post, is that I have always, and probably will always, feel more at home in strange places, than in places where I stay for a long time and get to know every detail. Where I grew up, in Virginia, was a particularly magical sort of place for this – the mountains were old, the University was full of ancient buildings and the remnants of hundreds of thousands of students’ time there, the city was full of multi-layered pasts, and the landscape was and remains startling and renewed. After heavy rains, there would be bright red clay slashes through previously green fields, and in snowstorms, cardinals would crowd the trees sometimes. I will never forget the first time I paused in the woods and saw a chickadee skittering and flopping around a creek bank for the first time.

As I got older, I found foreign languages and cultures irresistible. From hearing foreign voices to music incorporating exotic instruments, there was always a sense that if I explored long enough, I would discover something “exceptional” or supernatural, even though I cannot recall a time that I ever expected to encounter anything beyond the real. But that sense, that desire, that yearning is at its purest who I think I am. I have felt more at home in the midst of a faceless Tokyo street or running a sheep path in the Dolomites in Italy, sitting on a train to Brooklyn at sunset or catching Quebecois pop on a chilly summer night driving from Burlington than I have felt at home in the midst of my original, refined, standardized American roots.

I think a big difference, though, is that I can at least appreciate those roots and not feel some need to deny them, vilify them, or denounce them simply because they are not as comfortable and arousing as the faraway and strange. Many people I have met and many works that I have read seem to be an effort to eschew pasts for the sake of that break and departure. To me, being a bridge between different people and different “worlds” is the highest sort of excitement and joy.

One final story and then I will wrap this entry up. One of my fondest memories from college, working in the East Asian Language and Literatures department with Professor Cecile Sun, was when I got to draw a map of Eurasia and describe vast swirls of world history in terms of the movement of language families and Sprachbunds, and how those tied in to material cultures and even features of societies like poetry or dancing. She taught me about her work on medieval Chinese poetry and Old English kennings, and there was this sense of discovery and creating new understanding between things that could not, on the surface, seem farther apart by time and space.

I do not know where any of this will take me, or if there is even any great future for me overall. But I do know that all of these moments and all of these memories of discovery, they are me at my best and happiest, from earliest childhood learning the textures of the walls and carpet, to being thirty one and hearing the eerie, lugubrious calls to prayer droned across Doha at the setting of the sun.

Author: Fravashi

Just a man, writing like any other guy.

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