A life without borders

by David Week on 14 August 2010

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Snapshot of my life

I was born in Chile. At the age of three, I moved two New York for six years (with my parents, of course!). Then six months in Jakarta, just before the 1965 coup which saw between half a million and million people killed. Three and half years in New Zealand. Then back to Jakarta for five. I was part of the second ever graduating class of the Jakarta International School. Then five years at Berkeley.

In the sixth year, as part of my Master’s thesis, I want to Papua New Guinea, to start the Community Based Building Program with my colleague Ken Costigan. One thing led to another, and I lived seven years there in the Sepik Province: five years in the bush (among the most memorable in my life), and two years in the coastal capital Wewak, the big city lights with a population of 20,000.

After seven years, I missed bookshops, universities, cafés, and the other accoutrements of yuppie life. So I moved to Australia. Since that time, my CV lists my countries of work experience as follows:

Pacific: Australia, East Timor, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu; Asia: Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Vietnam; Africa: Lesotho.

As I write, I’m sitting in a small hotel. It’s a conversion of old traditional timber Turkish house. I have a view of the Bosphorus, Internet, air conditioning (it’s 35° C. during the day here), and from the breakfast room on the top floor, a view of the Hagia Sophia. I’m here on the first leg of a vacation. My daughters join me from Europe tomorrow, and my partner Farida in five days.

I guess my childhood set me up for this kind of life. But I find that most of my colleagues and co-workers in this line of work are the same: even more so than I am. Whereas I have a home base in Melbourne, some of them have made homes in Manila, Bangkok, Bali and Jakarta. Real homes, from which they have no intention of “returning” to Australia.

Home is where the heart is. Home is where you make it.

Internationalism

I think that working in development makes you an internationalist. According to my dictionary, an internationalist is a person who:

advocates cooperation and understanding between nations.

But I mean more than that. I also mean that over time you lose (if you ever had) any sense of nationalism. Every country ends up having its own strengths, its own weaknesses, its own character. Earth becomes home.

When I say this, I wonder whether I’m being completely serious. I do live in Melbourne, for instance, and have no intentions of leaving. But this, for me, is a pragmatic question:

  • Inner city Melbourne has everything that I need for a full life: good food, cultural programs and facilities, two universities within walking distance, tip top health, more cafés than I can poke a stick at.
  • The official language is English.
  • Good broadband.
  • I’m an Australian citizen, and don’t have to worry about visas.
  • It’s a city of immigrants, and many times if you look the street you see more Asian faces then European. As an immigrant, I feel comfortable among immigrants. As a perpetual foreigner, I like being surrounded by others who are foreigners. I don’t know that I could live in Australian city in which everyone else was a “native”.
  • It’s the Australian hub for the international development industry, though Canberra and Adelaide can also make such claims.

But I don’t feel any emotional allegiance to Melbourne. It’s not “home” in the traditional sense. In fact, I’ve only lived here for two years.

If the development industry erodes nationalism and promotes internationalism in its workforce: I think that’s a good thing. In a globalising world, we need more global citizens, and less attachment to one particular patch of turf, or a particular tribe or custom. This is one of the unexamined effects of the aid industry that deserves more attention.

Follow-up post: Is there a “third culture” mindset? (And do we need it?)

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