The soul-drain


An eleven year old boy, an only child born in Australia to first-generation Eastern European migrants, goes back for a visit for the first time. Technically, I could not even say goes back. Visits his parents’ homeland is more like it. A few weeks into his visit he says, ‘Mum, dad, this is it. This is where our family needs to be.’ Understandably, the parents are in shock. Still the boy’s insistence does not look like a game or a fleeting infatuation. The three of them argue, day after day, but the boy is that persuasive. The family stays.

This is not a story about nostalgia, which is why I like it. Or, at least, not about a straightforward case of homesickness. Perhaps, the boy’s sudden decision tells us that a sense of home and belonging are trans-generational. Or, even more poignantly, that coming face-to-face with the home lost can be much more than a wishy-washy ‘back to my roots’ kind of number. It can be unambiguous and overpowering – surrender, not a seduction.

In the past few years a lot of people I know have been leaving Australia. Compared to all the people headed in the opposite direction, return migrants are literally a ripple in the sea – hardly visible, hardly worth noticing. And I would not have noticed either except that many of these back-to-front migrants are so much like me first-generation Eastern Europeans, whose families had to go through all kinds of hardships to come here. Because Australia was and still is as good as it gets, or, at least, as safe and tranquil as it gets, many people worn out by the terrible uncertainty of their lives thought that this was all they wanted. A safe and quiet place. A haven. And now that it was all over and they were sitting pretty, some, at least, were packing up and going back.

Over the past decade I too have found myself seriously considering my options, feeling ready at times to come back to a place where, except for a handful of people who loved and remembered me, I had nothing. It is 2005 and I am still here in Australia but many others are not. Do I fear for them? Do I envy them? Do I think them ungrateful and dumb?

I speak to the ones who have left and to those who know the ones who have left from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia. I ask them why and how and is it worth it. Predominantly, they say ‘yes, it is worth it.’

Here is a story of another eleven year old boy, this time from Poland. Konrad was eleven when his family immigrated to Australia. A few years ago, as a grown man, he found himself moving back to Poland. His move, he says, precipitated by a job offer and the young Polish woman he was later to marry, was not so much about coming home. Rather, it was about going to Europe to be part of the cultural and political history of the place and of ‘the amazing project that is the European Union’. Konrad says he is more likely to identify himself as a European than a Pole. ‘I am convinced that even now, after several years in Poland, I could live almost anywhere in the world’.

The phenomenon of ‘return migration’ is, of course, not limited to Eastern Europeans. An estimated 40 000 Greek Australians now live permanently in Greece, for instance. Reverse migration is a reality for most ethnic groups in Australia. We hardly hear anything about it. After all, what has set Australia apart from the rest of the world, what once made it the stuff of fairy-tales for many prospective migrants, is growing harder and harder to find and to hang on to. How safe is Australia from terrorism after the Bali bombings? How blissfully sane after the Port Arthur massacre? How uncorrupted and humane after Tampa, Siev X, Children Overboard? How innocent after the reconciliation fiasco?

At the same time, migrant intakes are becoming smaller and less generous. Even Australia’s family reunion category is now fenced off with the barbed wire. It takes years of applying and waiting and suspending your life, and the end-result is anything but certain. The Department of Immigration defends Australia from ageing parents and stranded children with the patriotic zeal of a warrior with a mission.

As for people who arrive as part of the independent skilled migration stream, life is that much harder than it was in the early 1990s when my family came to Australia. Two years without any assistance from the government feeds an exploitative, demeaning cash economy, in which people with astounding skills and knowledge do menial work for $5 to $10 an hour if they are lucky, that is. Repeat after me, ‘Oh the brain drain! Oh the need for a better educated workforce! Oh the smart, prepared, competitive Australia!’

In other words, Australia is becoming more and more like the rest of the world – a messy place in which to live, and as a substitute for home, it is sometimes simply not worth it. A film-maker friend of mine, Tahir Cambis, met two Albanians and a Macedonian in one of Australia’s detention centres, when they tried, unsuccessfully, to stop another detainee from killing himself – a scene captured in Tahir’s latest documentary The Anthem. Recently all three of them have been deported. Before leaving, they told Tahir they were happy to go, to escape the terrible corruption of the Australian system.

Those who immigrate to Australia through official, regulated channels, avoiding detention centres and the threat of deportation, often struggle in a way that goes well beyond the culture shock and the obligatory adjustment blues. I know of many who tried desperately to find a place for themselves in Australia. Journalists, businessmen, scientists, doctors, academics. And while those around them somehow made it work, re-invented themselves, found a niche of sorts, got settled, they, the quiet under-achievers, could do nothing right. Their business ventures failed. Their qualifications were not recognised. Their countless job applications would end up in some massive black hole, so they could send a hundred in and not even get one lousy job interview in return. There is such a thing as ‘hitting the wall’. There is no logic to it. You may have the drive, the skills, the ideas, but still end up with nothing. Failure after failure. As if your name is on some secret Australian blacklist.

Some of these people felt nothing for Australia and, as their misfortunes persisted, saw this country more and more as a necessary evil. Others seemed to have genuinely cared for their new home. Either way, it did not seem to matter. After a while, many settled for depressing jobs that did not require even a fraction of what they knew and what they were capable of. Others, a recognisable minority, went back. And a surprising number did well on their return. Somehow, coming back from Australia, they felt and were seen as ‘special’ in a way that they had never even come close to feeling in Australia.

In 1934, following twelve years of exile in Prague and Paris, one of the most celebrated Russian poets of the twentieth century Marina Tsvetaeva wrote,

Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva

Homesickness! that long
exposed weariness!
It’s all the same to me now
where I am altogether lonely

Homesickness is a cover-up of the real thing – our basic, inescapable homelessness. Language itself, the native tongue, was nothing to hanker after ‘How can it matter in what tongue I / am misunderstood by whoever I meet.’ It was all the same. All houses were as anonymous as hospitals and barracks. All people were the same. No matter where they came from, they were foreigners speaking in tongues.

Just like Tsvetaeva, the longer I live away from my first home, the more of an anti-nostalgist I become. I have less and less tolerance for all these conversations about authenticity, loss, mother land, mother tongue, bastions of culture and centuries of tradition. Because I think that the idea of home is not like that, it is not the whining, fantasising restlessness oh the past, oh the motherland, oh the way we were. It is different, like what the young boy saw when he came to his parents’ country – ‘Mum, dad, this is where it feels right. This is where we need to be.’ Home is hard work, and so is being away from home. Some people can do both, but some, it seems, crash and burn separated from the birth-place.

Tsvetaeva’s homesickness poem finishes with an image of a rowanberry bush rising by the road. The bush is the only thing that gets Tsvetaeva or gets to Tsvetaeva, one particular species of plant, not like the rest of them, not like an undifferentiated mass of churches, buildings, crowds, trees, and barracks. You get this feeling in your stomach reading these last lines – sadness, piercing and crystal-clear. A direct hit in the gut. And you feel like crying too, because in 1934 she had no idea just how right she was.

Five years later, in 1939, Marina Tsvetaeva came back to Russia to join her husband Sergei Efron and daughter Alya. Two years later her husband was shot and her daughter imprisoned, accused of anti-Soviet activities. Tsvetaeva and her son, the youngest in the family, were left with no means of support and no hope. If exile was Tsvetaeva’s life imprisonment, coming home was a death sentence. Home betrayed Marina and her family. It was then in August 1941 that she hanged herself.

You cannot enter the same river twice, and perhaps you can never quite go home. If you insist, all kind of treachery may await you. Yes, we all know that and most of us know better than to try reclaiming what seems lost forever. There is just one thing. Tsvetaeva’s homesickness poem sounds okay in English, in which it could be easily studied at universities as symptomatic of alienation, exile, modernity, twentieth-century, the works … But in Russian, its native tongue, the poem is really beautiful and complete, a stunner. I do not think it is a question of translation; it is just that the poem’s home is the Russian language.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.