Yes, We Get Out, But No, We Never Really Get Away

By Adrienne Benson Scherger
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 29, 2007

Ours is the culpability not of the assassin, but of the bystander who takes a snapshot of the murder. Or, when the revolution catches fire, hops on the next plane out.

-- Pico Iyer, "Confessions of a Perpetual Foreigner"

It's a strange life. This itinerant path we've chosen leads us, unrelentingly, away from people and things we've established a connection to. We say farewell with tears in our voices, and tell people we'll miss them. And it's true. Yet inevitably we shudder away from those moorings as we have from all the others. We are used to the freedom of being on the move, of being outside things -- in, but not of, the country we're calling home.

We are "perpetual foreigners" and we live this way because, on some level, we love it.

But are we guilty of being cavalier? Of cultural rubbernecking?

I remember that as an 11-year-old I wondered only briefly what would happen to my Liberian friends as my mother, brother and I were swept out in an ordered departure after a coup in Liberia. Drunken soldiers roamed the streets and couldn't be trusted. One had sold an Uzi to an American kid I knew for five bucks and a Coke; several others had stormed our house, holding a gun to our barking dog's ears and demanding our terrified cook give them food. Some of my Liberian schoolmates, sons and daughters of government ministers, had lost their fathers. Most of those men had been tied to posts and shot just down the beach from our house. The sound of bullets hitting their human mark has stayed with me for 25 years.

I didn't feel guilty when we left; I was frightened and glad to go. My biggest worry was that my father and our dog had to stay behind. I recall lying awake trembling, thinking my father was in danger. But I didn't -- and for this I wish I felt guilty -- think too much about those people who couldn't leave, the people for whom the revolution marked the demise of their homeland. At age 11, I had become Pico Iyer's "culpable bystander."

We modern nomads are secure in the idea that we're cushioned firmly in a bubble above the reality of each post in which we live. We don't -- not ever -- adopt the real circumstances of the host country nationals among whom we live. We have a one-way ticket out firmly in our hands at all times. What happens in our temporary homes only marginally affects us. We gather stories of our lives in X city to tell our friends and families; we take a certain pleasure in hardships as experiences to share. We, in effect, snap photos of the metaphorical murder and go on our way.

So, what do we owe for our freedom from commitment? To whom do we pay the dues accrued over a lifetime of leaving? What does it say about me that while Monrovia burned I felt no shame as I sipped orange juice on a silver Pan Am jet glinting in the sky above my newly fatherless friends?

A quarter-century later, those shots still echo in my ears; I can see the muddy footprints the soldiers left on our clean kitchen floor, and the tenseness in my mother's eyes as she packed a suitcase, "just in case." Are those my dues? And is that the point? That no matter how lightly we tread in each of our transient homes, no matter how unconnected we think we are, we are in fact firmly tied to each place we settle in.

Pico Iyer may be partly right. We are lucky to be able to leave when things get tough. Even when they don't, we leave, we leave, and we leave again. But the ropes that moor us, however temporarily, never disintegrate. They lie coiled inside us, and they tug at our memories when we least expect it.

We may be transient, but we are not bystanders. When the revolution catches fire we may indeed hop the next plane out, but we discover later that we burn a little, too.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company