Welcome to the Tribe of Nomads

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Bronwyn Lea -Nomad6

“Welcome to the tribe of nomads,” he said. “Once you join us, you never really go back.”

This was the counsel given to my fresh-faced husband by an older expat in his first week of living overseas. They had been talking about all that was new: finding accommodation, opening bank accounts, driving on the other side of the road (please note I said “other,” not “right.”) But all this circumstantial newness was nothing compared to the cultural newness: with the move across the Atlantic, he went from being “us” to being “them.” From “belonging” to “foreign.” He would have to get used to seeing the world with outsiders’ eyes.

The bad news, our older friend told us, was that in some significant way we would never be able to go back. For when we did return home, we would return changed: no longer able to see our country of origin unquestioningly and dispassionately. Having lived elsewhere—with its exposure to a completely different way of doing things—we would find that we went home questioning the status quo in a way we would never have before. We would come back and view our own culture with “outsider’s eyes.”

For example—perhaps you’d grown up keeping ketchup in the cupboard. Now you lived in a place where people kept it in the refrigerator. The question is: once you returned home, where would the ketchup go? Because even if you chose to be a cupboard-ketchup kind of gal, you would have to think about it and choose. And who of us, growing up, ever second-guessed where we kept the ketchup?

Of course, I’m talking about more than ketchup. We would come home and be unable to avoid seeing home through outsider’s eyes: family, music, politics, manners, education, money: all of it re-exposed through the lens of travel.

Welcome to the tribe of nomads. The gift of having your eyes opened to a different culture is a double-edged sword, for you cannot avoid looking at your own culture with those same newly opened eyes. There is no going back. We cannot unsee things.

An unquestioned sense of cultural belonging rests, in some real way, on a shared set of assumptions with those around you. Moving away—whether to college, or internationally, or into marriage—opens the door to a new life experience, but also closes the door on the unquestioned innocence of the former state. Our sense of belonging is shaken: away from the home and culture we always knew.

Who are we? We are becoming something new, and there is no going back.

I left home to go to university, and well remember the feeling of disorientation when I came back after my first semester away. My closest friends from high school who had stayed home to go to college were six months older and six months more educated, just as I was. And yet something had changed. They were closer to each other, while I’d moved away: both enriched and impoverished by the move.

“Where do you live?” a stranger asked me that summer, and I didn’t know what to say. My college town, where I now spent the bulk of the year, or where my family lived? This was the beginning of nomadic living, a foretaste of the bigger moves to come.

Each of the new frontiers has brought with it a shaking of identity. Twenty years ago I was a single, white, South African. I was single, but now I’m not. I am still white, but that means something different to me now than what it did then. I was South African, but now I’m not sure quite what that entails—it will always be the place I came from, but I can no longer meaningfully answer questions when people ask for my perspective “as a South African.” It’s been a long time since I breathed the air and thought the thoughts of a South African resident in South Africa. I have a foot in two worlds. Or, perhaps, in neither.

But here, perhaps, is the greater gift in joining the tribe of nomads. For when we live displaced and open-eyed, the words of scripture come alive in a way we hadn’t seen before: we see our heritage as the children of Abraham, who was called to live in a country he had no idea about.

“By faith Abraham made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country,” Hebrews 11 tells us, “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Abraham and those who followed after him “admitted they were foreigners and strangers on earth,” and chose not to return to the country (or naiveté) they had left behind. “Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one.” –Hebrews 11:16, NIV

I take deep comfort in these words and find myself increasingly grateful for life’s discomforts that sent me in search of them. For being a nomad sounds like a terrible thing: ever wandering, ever displaced, ever seeking a place to put down roots … until I remember Abraham and the invitation to put down deep roots in my heavenly identity. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God, no matter what my passport says. I am the bride of Christ, regardless of my marital status. I dwell in Christ, regardless of my address.

I belong to the tribe of nomads, and there is no going back. I have tasted and seen God’s goodness in my wandering, and I cannot unsee it.

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