Misfit Seeking a Home

Home is a place we have never been, but we will know when we arrive. Perhaps this a saying for someone like me, who has always felt a misfit, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

Why a misfit? It may be due to an idea that does not fit, or a hope that has little hope of being realised, or a sense of life that others find odd, or indeed a politics that many dismiss as wayward. Above all, I have never quite felt at home.

I have wondered whether this sense is due to being a child of immigrants. I was born in the adopted country of my parents. On the one hand, this country was far better than the place of their birth, for otherwise they would not have immigrated. On the other hand, the new country failed time and again to match the standards of the old. The result is that I grew up familiar with two places, but at home in neither. I know intimately the country of my parents’ birth, but could not live there. And I know intimately the country to which they immigrated, but feel restless there too.

I have tried to find a home. Some decades ago I found myself in Montreal, the second largest French-speaking city in the world. I threw myself into life there, relishing the sharp demarcation of the seasons with 70 degree (Celsius) variations between summer and winter, the political and cultural tensions between a francophone and anglophone, the militancy of the local Indigenous peoples, the rediscovery of cycling everywhere, and the busy life of an increasing family (two of my children were born there). Above all, I felt I had found myself and gained clarity about what I loved to do and that I wanted to so it for the rest of my life – to write and think and set my own agenda. I was ready to adopt the place and live there forever.

But there was a catch: the possibility of imagining I could do so was predicated on the knowledge that my time there was limited. We had gone to Montreal for a fixed period, so I always knew it would come to an end. So I lived as though I was leaving, sinking into the place and relishing each moment and each experience, knowing that I might not have the opportunity of doing so again. In this case, home could only be imagined on the premise of departure.

More recently, I have come to spend some time each year in China. At times I speak of China as my second home, for it can feel that way. Why? For some it may be the language, with its unique system of writing characters rather than a phonetic script. Language, it is felt, is the door to a people and its ‘culture’ (whatever that word means). For some the appeal lies in a long history, going back millennia. Indeed, many Chinese are proud of that history, feeling that it is the oldest continuous history in the world (it is not). For some it is the philosophical heritage, embodied in the traditional ‘four classics and five books’ which come from the time before the first unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BCE). Here Confucius looms large, so much so that his legacy is always reinterpreted in each generation, especially when rapid change is under way.

Nevertheless, none of these provide the core reason why China has the potential to be a home. For me, it is the utterly intriguing history of Marxism and its practice in socialism. Understanding Chairman Mao and then the second crucial phase of ‘opening up’ since Deng Xiaoping is of extreme importance. Above all, I seek to understand and experience socialism in power, especially how the many challenges are met. So I read, study, travel to revolutionary places (‘red tourism’), ask many questions and try to listen.

Yet I know that my sense of China being a potential second home is predicated on a particular lack: it can only be a home because I am a foreigner who will never live there permanently.

It seems that this misfit will never find a home, that I am bound forever to seek one. How should one understand this reality, beyond a process of marginalisation from the majority? Let me return to Ernst Bloch’s insight: home is a place we have never been, yet we will know it is home when we arrive. Bloch speaks of utopia, by which he means the desire called socialism as a constitutive feature of human existence. Yet he draws this insight from a biblical if not theological awareness of our necessary homelessness in this world. In this respect, our perpetual wandering, searching for a home, is an implicit recognition that the home we seek is not to be found where we might expect.

Among the Polar Bears, or, How My Children Almost Became a Meal

Who did that?’ The driver barked at the few passengers. A polar bear had just reached up the side of the vehicle – a tundra buggy – sniffing and searching for food.

‘Who did that?’ He glared at us. ‘Someone tossed a sandwich out of the window. That’s why the bear is here, looking for more’.

Not a word was said, although we were delighted that a polar bear had come so close.

‘If anyone had so much as a hand out of the window’, he explained, ‘or even a dangling scarf, that bear would have hauled you out’. We were somewhat less delighted, but no one owned up to the sandwich. I had my suspicions: later, it would turn out that my younger son was the culprit. Although he was now six, he was still in the midst of the terrible twos – and would be there for the next couple of decades …

We were out on the tundra on the shore of Hudson Bay, Canada. It was late October, when the polar bears come out of hibernation and await the freezing up of the bay so they can hunt seal. Meanwhile, they are ravenously hungry, seeking out whatever food is available – kelp, the town garbage tip, any stray human being who might be out on their own.

How did we get here, in the frozen north of Canada? ‘We’ were three small children (aged 8, 6 and 1) and two parents, and we had wanted to see the bears. Easier said than done. To do so, we had to overcome the great temptation of buying a house, two cars, squabbling about money and ceasing all travel – an assumed condition once one has children.  Actually, that vision of ‘familial bliss’ was no temptation at all, so we spent our last cent on a long rail journey.

Six days it took us, from Montreal (our home at the time in 1989) to Churchill and back. The Canadian Pacific (now Via Rail) from Montreal to Winnipeg may have been a sleek affair, with modern cabins (we needed two) and a panoramic viewing car, but not so the old locomotive from Winnipeg to Churchill. This ancient machine takes two days to cover the 1700 kilometre route north to Churchill. In fact, this is the only overland way to travel to Churchill, for no road has been laid. When we first left Winnipeg, I watched the lights of the city fade as I tucked the boys in bed. The train was travelling at a good clip, so I thought it had some life in it yet. But within a day it slowed and began to rock significantly. Was there something wrong? Would we soon be stranded in the frozen north? Looking out, I noticed that the telegraph posts had begun to change. No longer were they single poles driven into the ground, for now they were tripods, resting upon permafrost in which is it is dicey to dig a deep hole. Looking down, I also noticed that the rails lay lower the ground. They too had been laid on permafrost, which is below the surface and a relic from the most recent ice age. Disturb the permafrost by digging and you encourage it to melt, disturbing the landscape for kilometres around. Track ballast can sink or even be washed away during the artificially produced thaw. Laying tracks on permafrost is a time consuming and intricate task (just ask the builders of the Trans-Siberian Railway). No matter how carefully you do it, the tracks are always uneven. No wonder the train was rocking so much.

What do you do with three small children for days on end in a small train? Did they drive us crazy? Not at all. We would go for walks in the train, occupy a whole table in the dining car, play games, read stories, go for walks at stations where we stopped for a while, watch for wild animals (outside as well), and the boys would fill in their diaries (for school). On the Churchill train, the two sleeping cabins opened out to become a room during the day, so we had a little more space to move – or at least we didn’t have to sit quite so much on top of one another.

Churchill at last – where the outside world felt very roomy indeed. Here, the early winter of October was as cold as Montreal in deep winter (about minus 25 degrees). Here, the buildings of the town centre were all part of one complex, to maximise heating efficiency – a couple of shops and eateries, a hospital, police station, library, municipal offices, and what not. Here, we met locals who had grown up in town, with parents working at the port facilities, or posted to Churchill by the government, only to stay on. Here, I was mistaken for the new priest at the Anglican Church that faced an icy bay. Why else would I ask to see the various places in town, meet the hospital administrator, attend worship, and seem just a little too inquisitive? And here, we took that tundra buggy ride to see the polar bears.

Bears we saw, including a mother with two cubs in tow and a couple of males wrestling. We also saw a ptarmigan and arctic fox. But we did not need to take one of these massively wheeled machines to trundle and smash its way over the tundra (this act is described as ‘environmentally friendly’). We need not have done so, for the bears were much closer to town. In fact, they were in town. I mean not the night of Halloween, when our children joined the others in town, driven from door to door in a minibus to prevent a bear attack. I mean the bear we met at the front door of our hotel room.

The day after our arrival, I had taken the boys for a walk and a play by the river, where we tossed ice out as far as we could. Up on the rise was a strange cylindrical structure, which I realised only later was a polar bear trap. Afterwards, my oldest son had spent some time playing amongst the riverside boulders, for they were covered in a layer of ice. Harmless fun, really … until I stepped out of the hotel door, about to lead the rest of us into town, which was couple of kilometres away.

I did not get far, for a polar bear came lumbering around the corner. Immediately I stepped back inside and locked the flimsy door – the whole hotel felt as though it was made of plywood and would fall down in a mild breeze. The bear stopped to consider matters more closely. It rose up on the railing outside the panoramic window of our room and surveyed the delectable morsels inside. We were transfixed and could not help returning his gaze. He could easily have knocked down the door or smashed the window. As he pondered such matters, I concocted crazy plans, such as herding everyone into the bathroom and smashing our way through to the next room. I realised in a flash why the bear trap was nearby, and later I was to learn that the bears particularly love the boulders by the river, where they sleep. We had been there, by the trap and amongst the boulders, oblivious to the bears thereabouts – until now.

After the proverbial eternity captured in a minute or two, the bear thought the better of his various plans and lumbered off to amuse himself elsewhere.

Somewhat anxiously, I soon phoned the polar bear alert line. The woman on the line was understanding and helpful, although I detected a slightly suppressed amusement. And the taxi driver of the only taxi in town laughed when he met us.

‘I hear you met a bear’, he said.

‘How do you know?’ I said.

‘My wife’s sister took your call earlier’, he said, smiling. ‘Now the whole town knows’.

I guess when you experience polar bears as part of everyday life, meeting one is of little consequence.