There is a striking passage from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “…move on, and on again, because were she to die here they would cover her up with a stone, and in the mind of a woman for whom no place is home the thought of an end to all flight is unbearable.” 

Having lived away from my motherland for more than twenty years—the land that I first opened my eyes to; the land that gave me my name, my color, my family, my mother tongue, my faith—I have traversed the passage of time that floats from childlike innocence to grand decisions and careless choices, blind achievements and irreparable errors; from trails of fervent loves to scar-etched losses, amidst a potpourri of mixed cultures, tastes, smells, and twisted accents that have all remolded my inner senses into a distinct persona that now knows no borders across hemispheres. Suddenly, I possess no singular sense of nationality, belief, custom, language, or social preference.

Kyoto, Japan (© Alma R. H. Reyes)

I first left my home Manila at age 14 for Japan where there I unexpectedly found myself savoring one month of mysterious sounds and odors. Between that supple age and the next giant leap I took in finally leaving home again, for the longer stretch, I had witnessed spectral shades of clouds, fluctuating yellows of the sun, and prismatic greens of trees across the Pacific, Mediterranean, and European borders.

Six months in the U.S. showed me a capitalist society’s propelled drive for wealth and status; two years in Senegal, West Africa taught me that poverty perseveres beyond lack of food or shelter, and beckons recognition, inclusion, and the right to live; three years in France enriched my esteem for Europe’s resplendent care for history and tradition, and the breadth of cultural immersion; and the rest of my more than twenty years in Japan have declared, with a wayward pace, my position of independency and assimilation while being subjected inevitably to the ironies and contradictions of a repressive culture.

Senegal, Africa (© Alma R. H. Reyes)

Acquiring the languages that stem from all these geographical domains has allowed me to breathe through transparent walls that were once shielded, and opened doors for me to understand, appreciate, and accept that the all-embracing universe I live in isn’t confined solely to just one plain square box. Who would say there should exist a so-called “national identity?” Displacement is a term I often hear among traveling musicians who globetrot from one corner of the world to the other, or among expatriates who always find a new “home” only to be replaced by the next. Something happens when you are “displaced.” It is either of two things: you lose or you find. Admittedly, I have been confronted by both and still continue to be so.

In Japan, for instance, the experience has been a feat of uncountable hurdles—not only in respect of the language or culture—but also in pinning down the choice of allowing the dictates of the culture and society to redefine who and why you are. Life in another country (different from your place of birth) always demands the choice to survive. Many who have not allowed their selves to be transformed or multiplied by new words, food, and habits easily plunge to resignation and hop aboard the next plane out. Some tragically take their own lives out of confusion and desperation. I have always believed that learning to live “gracefully” in one abode requires the choice of adaptation and open-mindedness to like, at least one specific element in that particular new culture—whether it be the sights, weather, your work, the money, the men or women, or other factors. People who are admirably skilled in a second or third language are so, not merely due to pure talent, but rather because they learn to like the language they choose to speak.

Yet, there is also a danger in adaptation, and this is the loss of self. In Japan, I have personally experienced this phenomenon, wherein the more you penetrate a new culture, the more you forget who you really are. (Either that, or you realize a “true you” you hadn’t previously envisioned.)

Ginza, Tokyo, Japan (© Alma R. H. Reyes)

Japan may be a perfect case for this dark consequence of displacement, for the restrictions of norms, underlying implications of language, hyperbolic nuances of respect, and civility have a stinging way of almost “brainwashing” your mental disposition, when in reality, they transcend beyond what meets the eye.

I am constantly awed by tourists coming to Japan with that high sense of frivolity, who appear starry-eyed about the prevalent politeness, cleanliness, order, discipline, and “purity” of nature. After over a decade of gazing at all these colorful pigments on a canvas, somewhere beneath the lightness of the soil, you inhale some muddy fumes of superficiality that begin to surface. Then, you find your soul washed along with it as well. Along the way, you soon realize fragments of yourself you had to sacrifice to reach where you are. Then, this notion of displacement sometimes begins to feel almost delusive.

For those who continue to search their place on earth, a moment arrives when the pivot of losing themselves shifts to a rebound—a return to the “old” self or self-rediscovery. However, it also entails giving up an entity of what you had engulfed yourself in in order to regain your foothold. You can dwell within multiple cultures, but you can never settle equally in all. Choices. They are, indeed, engaging, mind-boggling, sometimes crushing, but can also be victorious and exhilarating, depending on how you carry your sail.

Paris, France (© Alma R.H. Reyes)

Looking back to my first fifteen years in my birth land, I could never imagine what I would have been made up of if I never “flew away.” I am the character in Milan Kundera’s novel who would think that an end to all flight is unbearable.”  Similarly, I met a musician from Italy who told me that there is no such thing as Paradise. If there were, it meant people would be stuck in that one place and never move. Thus, he always has the compelling urge to move because for him, any new place he discovers IS a possible Paradise. Indeed, the more vigorously I flap my wings to further horizons, the deeper my sensations become of what lies ahead, and the more freely my soul flows through infinite possibilities—even against conflicting regulations, fixations, and judgmental repercussions that otherwise strangulate liberty of thought and expression.

I believe the term “displacement” should be freed of its negative prefix “dis” for it ironically exudes advancement and opportunity. Perhaps, it deserves a lighter positive “macro-placement” to connote a larger perspective, or “equi-placement” to indicate a balance between the sense of placement and being out of it, or “trans-placement” to suggest merely a placement in time and space.

California, USA (© Alma R.H. Reyes)

Whichever tone best suits your chord, a step away from “home” (which, essentially is a mental existence) incitingly takes you on a courageous flight to discover or rediscover more openly and heterogeneously masked pieces of your soul that are merely waiting to be unmasked and freed to explore WITH the bounteous world that eventually carves out the inner you.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain