20 July 2018

The hiraeth (and exhortations) of the expat

Part 3 of my Here-hood Saints series

Life as an expat can be very difficult, and it shapes you in ways that you would not have imagined beforehand. My wife and I have both lived as expats. There is a kind of ‘weightlessness’ with it, which is spoken of by Mother Maria of Paris, whose memory we celebrate today alongside her fellow new martyrs Saints Il’ya (Fondaminsky), Dimitri (Klepinin) and Yuri (Skobtsov). The expat is cut loose from the bonds that tether him: the exhortations of his elders, the expectations of his peers. The new society which surrounds him has not lain hold of him yet. Mother Maria perceived this perfectly when she said that losing one’s homeland is something akin to losing one’s body – though in her case, the trauma was doubled by the fact that her expat displacement was political and involuntary.

When you’re an expat, after that initial glow of the ‘honeymoon stage’ of living in a wondrous new place wears off, you begin to draw close to ‘your own’. You seek out people who are like you, who speak the same language, who share the same outlook. In both cities I lived in, Baotou and Luoyang, my closest friends were young Englishmen with an interest in video games: we bonded over Europa Universalis 3 and Super Smash Bros. If you’re not careful, the weightlessness becomes that of a fragile but impermeable soap-bubble, and you can develop all manner of bad habits and vices. But if you keep your experience permeable, there is also an opportunity for a ‘double witness’ in the expat life. (I’m afraid I’ve only become semi-good at one of the directions of that witness – and vices, I developed too many.)

Another saint with an icon at Saint Herman’s which, like Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco’s, I had often venerated without knowing precisely why I do it, is that of Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow. Like with Saint John, I’ve been mesmerised by his face. Examine the icon of Saint Tikhon. His white brows and intense eyes, although they have a fierce, almost burning kindness, nonetheless express themselves with a certain kind of sadness, a look of what the elder Britons would call hiraeth. It’s a look I’ve seen often in the faces of expats. Before I read his letters, before I knew his story, I venerated him simply because it seemed he knew what it was to be weightless.

Of course, knowing his story as I do now, it seems somewhat that that hiraeth would have been for the loss of the Russia he knew to the ideological war zone that took its place after 1917, and not perhaps so much that from his time in the Americas. He became, not merely an expat, but an exile within his own nation. But it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to think on what it would have been to him, to serve as the archpastor among a people so alien to him as we Americans are. The Orthodox of the Americas were, even in his day, a motley crew, a mishmash of poor immigrants from around the globe. (It seems I can’t help myself, making these hard rock and heavy metal references with regard to the history of our church. Of course Tommy Lee is a Greek; but that’s an excuse, not an explanation.)

Bishop Tikhon – suddenly servant not only to Russian-Americans but also to Rusins, South Slavs, Syrians, Inuits and Aleuts – could very well have retreated to his bubble, and kept to his bishop’s office in Alaska or New York. But he didn’t. The weightlessness of being an expat led him instead to a new intensity of witness, and he spent much of his American sojourn in travel. In his correspondence, we can see how he responded to the sufferings of the Aleuts to famine and sickness: he issued ringing clarion calls to their aid and denounced the attitudes of racial superiority that kept them in poverty. Seeing Rusin, Serbian, Montenegrin and Bulgarian mine workers beleaguered and striking to fill their bellies, he gave from his own money to support them, and told his flock to do the same. He financially and spiritually supported Father Alexis (Tovt) in his mission to his fellow Rusins. Seeing Syrians in need, he blessed the Church of Saint Nicholas in Brooklyn for them.

Bishop Tikhon bore his witness by keeping his attention on where he was. Even as an expat, even untethered from his Russian home country, even constantly in travel, even beset – we may easily imagine – by that intense sadness and longing for home, Bishop Tikhon was here, with the Orthodox who had come to the New World from many other shores. Even thus ‘weightless’, he could still give of his own substance for his flock who needed him, and he did so. There was a kind of doyikayt, a ‘here-hood’ even in his life abroad.

My wife’s politics are a good deal more conservative, in the conventional American sense, than mine are. There are a set of typical attitudes that prevail among immigrants in the United States, and she seems to have imbibed many of these, such as: success is the result of effort and intelligence; and those who gain by success have a right to keep it. She has a deep antipathy to affirmative action, which she sees – with some justification, it appears – as a form of discrimination against Asians. She also has next to no patience for the internal ‘identity politics’ of Asian-Americans. Her conviction is that Asian-American groups – including not just Chinese-Americans but also Japanese-, Korean-, Hmong-, Lao- and Vietnamese-Americans – need to work together and put aside their differences rather than keeping to their own separate ethnic enclaves.

But even in the ‘weightlessness’ of life as an expat, she hasn’t lost a deep sense of compassion and solidarity. I’ve seen it repeatedly, and it’s one of the things I fell in love with about her. She made personal connexions with her fellow foreign students in Pittsburgh and was more than willing to help them with either school-related or life problems when they arose. Most recently, upon hearing the news about family separations at the border, she told me bluntly: caring for these people is America’s responsibility. It should be part of our character. There’s more than a little bit of Saint Tikhon’s expat sensibility in my wife’s thinking and manner of expression, and I continue to be endeared to it.

Now, of course, I venerate Saint Tikhon at church not merely for that face – compassionate, fierce, joyful and sad all at once, the face of an expat. There was a great deal of dynamism in that holiness, as I learned from his writings – some of which were even addressed to us Minnesotans, the spiritual children of Holy Father Alexis, and all of which we can still learn from. Saintly Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow, continue to pray to God for me, a sinner.

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