This article was written by William Citrin
This article appeared in the MARCH 2012 issue of The Expat magazine
Sadly this issue will be my last as editor of The Expat, as I am moving on to another job with a new company. I would like to thank Andy for giving me the opportunity to work on an amazing portfolio of publications, the team at The Expat Group for their hard work and dedication, and the readers for their support. I will still be living and working in KL, so if you see me feel free to pat me on the head and say hello – William Citrin
I’ve been lost my whole life.
My very first memory is of being lost: I was four and on a crowded public beach in Florida. I was walking with my mom by the water, searching for shells washing up in the waves. I meandered away from her and drowned in the dizzying sea of glistening, scantily clad humanity scattered on the sand. I was lost.
Conventional wisdom says that when you are lost you should stay where you are until you are found, and maybe I should have stopped and dropped to my knees in the sand and wailed until my mother rescued me. Maybe my life would have been completely different.
But I kept going. Although the tears were streaming down my face and my knees were shaking, there was something electrifying about being lost, like a baby bird that is dropped into the air for the first time and discovers that it can fly instead of fall. I kept wandering and wandering, wondering how far I could go. Eventually, luckily, some benevolent blue speedo-ed soul took my tiny hand and led me to a lifeguard who scooped me up and carried me up atop his wooden perch, asked me my name and then blared it into his megaphone. And then I saw my mom running and screaming, coming to claim me.
From that moment I fell in love with being lost, with the intoxicating fear and freedom of it. This wanderlust became a leitmotif, a recurring theme in the symphony of my life and I seized any opportunity – school field trips, grocery store outings, family vacations to Disneyland, etc. – to make myself disappear into the unknown. I remember I used to ask my brother to blindfold me, bring me deep into the woods behind our house and leave me there. Without a compass, I used the angle of the sunlight and the sound of the river to make my way home.
I discovered that when we are lost we find out about the world, and ourselves.
And as I got older, I roamed further and further from home. My girlfriend at university grew up in the rainforests of Belize, and one summer vacation I went there with her to meet her folks. My mom screamed – just as she did all those years go on the beach in Florida – when she got the phone call from me from some nameless village of clay and rust, saying how I urgently needed an air ticket home because my girlfriend’s dreadlocked father – after drinking coconut wine and smoking something – threatened to turn himself into a tiger and devour me. He chased me with a machete out of the jungle compound and onto a dusty and deserted road and I had to find my way in the darkness to salvation (i.e. a telephone). And then there was the phone call – less of a surprise I suppose – informing my parents that I would be following another female and moving to Malaysia.
I guess I was fated to be an expat; this nomadic existence suits me because we expats – metaphysically (and often physically) speaking – are lost. If we take one step beyond our perfect expat bubbles of work, home, club and mall, we find ourselves adrift in a foreign reality. Sometimes my somewhat settled way of life here in Malaysia (a steady job, mortgage and three little monsters at home) begins to unsettle me. At these times, I take a long walk. Equipped with only toilet paper and an umbrella, I wander lonely as one of Wordsworth’s clouds around Kuala Lumpur.
My wife probably thinks I’m having an affair but, truth be told, I am in love with the city, with the schizophrenia of its streets: a simple turn can take you from familiar uber-sleek-skyscrapingmodernity to a kampong with crazy chickens roving around, songbirds crooning in their cages and kids doing impossible bicycle flips in the air and kicking a rattan ball and then another turn can bring you to a thick jungle or a street of crumbling shophouses with the smell of noodles and incense and old Chinese men playing mahjong in undershirts or a lane lined with garlands and garish statues of Hindu gods and people smashing coconuts at the ground and men on motorbikes whizzing by calling out for bread or old newspapers.
Kuala Lumpur with its fascinating juxtapositions is so many worlds within worlds – and I belong to none of them.
I just keep rambling blind through the city (resisting the impulse to whip out my iPhone and use its GPS to find out exactly where I am). As my body moves, so does my brain and I think about big things: life, love, loss…
I know I am lost when people start to stare at me. And I do what any member of the male species does when he is completely lost: I pretend I know where I’m going.
One time a shady Malay man sitting smoking by the side of the road tried to stop me.
“You pergi mana?” he asked me in a ravaged voice.
“I’m going nowhere,” I thought to myself,
“I’m home.” And I kept on walking.
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