Last month I was back where I started – the Netherlands – not started my expatriate life, but as an expatriate spouse and mother long ago in 1980. The director of the Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC), Elske van Holk, had graciously invited me to hold the European launch of my book Expat Life Slice by Slice at their premises in Den Haag.
After a day of sporadic sunshine, the evening brought a storm that sent jags of lightening spitting through the lime trees and thunder claps drowned out the melodic strains coming from Ian Parfitt’s violin as his playing welcomed guests. The doorbell pinged, and pinged again as attendees huddled on the doorstep shaking glistening pellets from shoulders and hair as they hustled into the building.
I glugged a wine spritzer for Dutch courage before Expat TV graciously interviewed me, and after a few words from the EAC director and my publisher, Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing, I briefly read from the book. Sharyn van Ees-Cooper, editor of the City of The Hague’s official website then asked me questions, one of which was uncomfortable but which I felt I answered truthfully.
“I sensed, on reading your book, disdain for a certain kind of expat,” she said. “Is that the case?”
I assured her and those attending, ‘disdain’ was too harsh a word and that maybe ‘impatience’ better described those few times when a moaning Minnie exasperated me to tears. They show up everywhere, not just in expatland, and sometimes their moaning is justified – but only once. I went on to say ‘moaning doesn’t help and if someone is truly unhappy as an expatriate, well go home.’
The second question to discombobulate me was asked from the floor with the speaker, an American, relating his first experience of an overseas posting, ironically to The Hague, and how he for the first time had felt ashamed of his own country. It was when yet another war was being fought in the name of freedom from terror.
“Have you ever felt shame for your home country, particularly when you are abroad?” he asked.
It stumped me for a moment and I gazed above everyone’s heads and out the window, hoping a coherent answer would descend with the lashing rain.
It was a good question and I believe I answered, not very satisfactorily, along the lines of, “It really pisses me off when politicians apologise for events that occurred many, many years ago.”
Shame. It’s such a strong word and it brought to mind a quote by G.K. Chesterton, which of course I couldn’t remember at the time and have since looked up. “‘My country, right or wrong’, is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It’s a bit like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”
Now we could analyse what constitutes ‘desperate’ but let’s not. However going back to the actual question, I don’t believe I have ever felt shame for my country, or all three of the ones I can truly and technically lay claim to – England, Australia and America – because I don’t believe we personally, or collectively, can be held accountable now for decisions made, customs practiced, or horrors perpetrated by our forebears. I have felt deep sorrow, and sometimes outrage, about events and actions that have taken place in previous centuries, but what purpose does it serve to hang on to old antipathies through the decades or even centuries? How can we apologize for atrocities perpetrated in a bygone world? We can regret them, we can be sad or angry, but I don’t believe we can take on the shame of past times.
I’ve felt intense anger in my lifetime at some of the edicts promulgated by leaders, politicians or citizens of many countries, not just my own. However I think shame and dishonour can only truly, and honestly, be felt by those who demand an action be exercised or carry out a reprehensible act themselves, if indeed they are capable of those feelings. Though there are of course cultures that have thrived on the collective platform of shared honour.
Back in Houston reflecting on a month away, the question nags at me and I am still trying to forge a short and lucid response. Tied in with taking on the shame of our culture or country is the adage ‘forgive and forget’ – does that really ring true? If we don’t forgive are we able to move forward? If we do forget how are we to learn from history and never make the same mistakes again? Though sadly that is in reality impossible judging by the number of conflicts around the world at the moment, whether civil unrest, terror or slavery.
Perhaps another spritzer would help, and for shame, G.K Chesterton be damned.