One World Culture

"You stare out the window in hurt defeat.  I suppress a sign and continue to stir my coffee aimlessly, casting my mind back into the depths of high school geography, trying to remember whether flotsam or jetsam is the appropriate name for the froth on top of the coffee.  The levels of my mind continually amaze me.  While I'm pondering the fotsam-jetsam dilemma, I'm simultaneously recognising the pondering as an attempt to distract myself from the question at hand, which threatens to overwhelm me. It's an old coping strategy.  At another level I'm observing you and wondering what you'd think of my ponderings.  I am indeed a curious mix.

We have circumnavigated the proverbial bush often and ferociously in the afternoon.  It's not that I don't want to push through, but I don't know how.  I can't make you understand.  Instead of communicating myself to you, I get stuck defining and redefining the terms of reference.  I thought we spoke the same language.  But it seems that even though our words are the same, their meanings must be different.

Sometimes I think the cement of my being was taken from one cultural mould before it cured and was forced into other moulds, one after the other, retaining bits of the form of each but producing a finished sculpture that fitted none.  At other times I think of myself  as the fish we caught snorkeling off Wewak.  My basic shape camouflages itself in the colours of whatever surroundings I find myself in.  I am adept at playing the appropriate roles.  But do I have a colour of my own apart from those I appropriate?  If I cease to play any role, would I be transparent?  To mix metaphors, if I peeled away the layers of the roles I adopt, would I find nothing at the centre?  Am I, after all, an onion - nothing but the sum of my layers?

The slipping sun casts its rays across the table, creating a wall of light and dancing particles between us.  An intangible but definite barrier.  I am halfway through thinking cynically that if communication can't be achieved between individuals, then it must be truly impossible across cultures, before I remember I am communicating across cultures - that is the problem.

You came to me with questions.  We had promised each other honesty and openness, but you felt mine could be queried.  I gave but I didn't share.  There was a depth of intimacy we weren't achieving.  You said I was shutting doors in your face. Staring out across the light barrier, I realise I have no answers for you, only a plea for understanding, which you think is an excuse, a justification for my lack of commitment (read: a commitment less than yours).

I tired to explain I was as committed to you as you are to me but that I find it nearly impossible to demonstrate that fact.  You said I was splitting hairs.  how can I make you understand I'm afraid?  You got mad.  You wanted to know why I didn't trust you.  I said I do trust you.  I'm not afraid of you necessarily; I'm just afraid.  You said that people are always afraid of something.  I agreed there's always a reason for fear but it's not necessarily a fear of something.  So you wanted to know what the reason was.  Words failed me.  I tired.  I tried to explain.

How can I make you understand that?  Once my world stopped spinning, people, places, thing, behaviours, and even a language were ripped from my life and I was thrust naked, except for the skimpy garment of family and the rags of memory, into a cold, new, and unfamiliar world.  The more I invest in the world you and I are creating, the more there will be to grieve for when our world stops spinning.

If, I think quickly, if.

I am training myself slowly to the belief that worlds don't have to end.  It is a measure of my intimacy with and trust in you that I can change the "when" to "if", even as an afterthought.

It is a mark of how much I trust you that I don't play the roles completely with you.  I forget to.  I lapse into pidgin, point withy my chin, pick things up with my toes in your presence.  You are amused.  I've tried to explain to you that this is who I am.  But I'm beginning to realise you have no way of understanding.  It is totally outside your experience.

There was the day we went to the cricket match and I borrowed your binoculars.  You asked me what was going on in the centre.  I had to say I didn't know.  I'd been watching a West Indian outfielder chewing gum.  You laughed, yet a trifle impatiently.  But I scarcely noticed.  The sight of brown faces, with the occasional contrastive glimpse of shell-white teeth and dusky pink tongue, chewing casually but continuously, had brought the pungent smell of betel nut vividly to mind.  I fully expected their saliva to be saffron when they spit.  I was lost in my childhood.  It is now that I remember.

Or the day we were shopping at the Queen Victoria Building and I dragged you into the Papua New Guinea shop.  I was madly examining bilems and carvings, staring at story boards, transfixed by the chilling evil that fear fetishes always cast over me, and inhaling deeply the odour of the market and the village.  I sensed your restless movement beside me and looked up into a bored but inquiring glance.  We left.  you exhaled suddenly and commented on the smell.  For me it was a familiar and pleasant odour.

I was reexamining the world I lost, giving the globe in my mind a flick.  In the part of me that belongs to that world, I was pretending the few revolutions caused by the flick were the continuous spinning of a living world, however unsatisfactory, artificial , and transient the indulgence.  That globe haunts my present world.  The truth is the old world informs the present.  I am a composite, a citizen of the two.  You couldn't participate in my other world.  How can I expect you to accept the fear its loss creates and accommodate it?  You have often questioned the veracity of my effort in maintaining contact with friends down south.  Simply, I refuse to let another world stop.  Spin more slowly, yes; halt, no.

If I could make you understand, I know what you'd say.  As you grasped at the fragments of the conversation that made sense to you, I could see you heading down that track.  Willpower, you'd say.  you simply have to push your fears to one side, take a risk, and open up to me.  I won't fail you.

And if I told you I can't, you'd interpret my insufficient willpower as a lack of real desire to do so.  That's not it.  I yearn for oneness with you with every fire of my being.  I don't like the still sparse landscape I inhabit.  The people I've let into my heart have been like the tropical downpour that ends the dry season and fills up the tank again.  I know it would be worthwhile.  But fear creates an inertia that I, for all my oft-discussed strength of character, willpower, even stubbornness, cannot simply set aside.  It's not you I fear, it's losing you.  I'm trying to minimise the loss.

The last Christmas someone gave us two giant teddy bears - three months before we left.  I remember sorting though my possessions, trying to decide what to take and what to leave.  It was the teddy bears I cried for.  I remember Mum trying to comfort me, pointing out all the things I could take and saying that I really hadn't had the teddies for long, they weren't my favourite toys.  But that was precisely why I was so upset.  I didn't' have a chance for them to become well-loved favourties.  I was crying not for the past I was leaving, nor even the present, but for the future, the might-have-future.  My world was slowly grinding to a halt.  It was going to be arrested at a fixed point.  While I would always have it, while I could examine it, while I could mount it on a stand and have it as a globe in my memory to give an occasional spin, I could never give it life, never keep it spinning, never develop it beyond the point at which it stopped.

Your hands come down onto the table.  Long, lean, attractive hands, I muse absentmindedly.

The coping strategy again.  You look searchingly into my face.  I hope the desperate need, the pleading are clear in my eyes, but I fear the mask of independence I have long since learnt to wear has been permanently grated onto my face.  I want you to know without me having to tell you.  I want you to cross the barriers within, without me having to open them.  I want intimacy without vulnerability, I realise in a blinding flash of insight.  The ludicrousness of it is nearly overwhelming.

"I have to go," you say wearily.  You knuckles whiten as you push yourself to a standing position.  There is a luminosity to this moment.  I have been here before.

"Call me?"  I hear myself asking.

It is an effort to display even that much need, to make myself that vulnerable.  You smile is whimsical, and a shadow chills your calm blue eyes.  Inside me the little girl is weeping for her teddy bears again.  Don't do it, I think.  If you bring this world to a close, how will I ever find the courage to being another?

You stop to kiss me good-bye and your lips are cool against my mouth.  For the first time I begin to doubt my logic.  Suddenly my fear of investing too heavily in an uncertain future is swamped by the knowledge of losing a present that is just starting to pay dividends on my past investments.  The realisation slams into my consciousness.  Now is a future that has arrived.  Tears fill my eyes and overflow down my cheeks.  You feel the wetness and pull back in surprise.

"I need you."  The words come out in a sob, surprising me more than I think they surprise you.  I weep, my eyes drowning in the warm, equatorial waters of grief, guilt, and relief.  I am vaguely aware of the group at the next table staring, but adrift in a liberating moment of nakedness I couldn't care less.  In my mind I see children playing naked and carefree on the banks of the Sepike and I recognise their wisdom - naked and unashamed.

The child in me is weeping too - for the market, for favourite toys, for the lagoon, for school friends and courtesy relatives, for the everyday sights, sounds, and smell.  She is weeping for her present.

I am aware also of your indecision.  I four world has stopped spinning, I will have myself to blame as much as my history.  I hate my own culpable blindness.  Amazingly, I feel your hands under my elbows drawing me up into your arms.  A line flows up from my memory - Let us possess one world, each hath one and is one.  And I recognise its truth.  Now is reality."

~ Sophia Morton, an Australian third culture kid who grew up in Papua New Guinea and now lives in Sydney

İ Zoe Demery 2012