Saturday, 29 August 2009

The First Trip Home - I'm lying because I love you...

After a year of living on the most astonishingly beautiful, tiny, gem-like island in the middle of the South China Sea, I've returned to the UK for a few brief weeks to race around like a hamster in a ball seeing as many friends and family as possible. Most of that time has been spent parrying the repetitive and tedious question: So, how are you finding it?

The first lesson? People want you to be happy, but not too happy. Is this an English thing? I am always oh-so-conscious of the overriding need for self-deprecation when talking about our life in Malaysia. Of course I would anyway. I'm English. But it is becoming ever more obvious that while people will politely and (depending on their degree of interest and/or friendship) enthusiastically ask about 'the new life', what they all want to hear is a small but restrained eulogy of delight on how lovely it is, followed by one or more disclaimers which must include but are not limited to:

a) how much I miss England;
b) how much less fulfilling life is without a fulltime job;

and/or (usually depending on sex)

c.1) how terrible the tropical climate is for my skin/hair/weight/physical appearance in general, or;
c.2) how boring island-life is and how much I miss living in a city.

Of course, I'm happy to oblige. Self-deprecation is in my blood, and I'm terrified of coming across as a smug cow. I'm painfully aware of how lucky I am, and I'll bend over backwards to make sure people don't think I'm boasting or rubbing their noses in anything or in any tiny way suggesting that my life is better than theirs.

But. Sometimes. As I'm tying myself in linguistic knots trying to lie my way back into their good books...I can't help but think, in a small and shameful squeak at the back of my mind....oh, sucks to be you. Yes, I live in paradise. I have a fantastic suntan, and I don't have to work. I have the best boyfriend in the world, and he loves me more than should be possible. I spend my days running along the beach, swimming in clear blue waters, eating spectacular food, and playing with my gorgeous dogs. My life is amazing. So what? Are you so jealous and embittered that my good fortune makes you like me less? Does my happy, sun-filled life make you boil over in choking, twisted envy? Does it really make you feel better to hear my insincere and obvious platitudes sucking and scraping in the desperate hope that you'll still like me if I pretend hard enough that my life isn't nearly as nice as you really, deep-down, know it must be?

Unfortunately, the answer to this is probably yes. And you know what? If it was me, my answer would be yes too. It's inbuilt in our competitive nature that we want to be the best, and we want to best our friends. I understand this. My friend recently released his first book, and it went straight to the top of the best-seller list and has stayed there ever since. I sent him a voluble and delighted congratulatory message on facebook. In which I omitted to mention that I want to rip his head off and spit down his throat.

The only thing I can say, in case you care, is this. It could all end tomorrow.

The only lesson I've learned, the only real lesson, in the last year, is that life is so much more transient and ephemeral that I had ever thought. Boring: yes. Smug: possibly. Slightly American in attitude: worryingly likely. But true? Indubitably. This life, unfortunately, has nothing to do with me. It is no result of my effort or hard work or endeavour. It is good fortune, it has happened to me completely by chance, and it could all disappear again tomorrow. And if it did, I would need my friends to be there for me, and I would need them not to gloat (or at least, not too obviously). And how could I expect that, if I had gloated in my turn?

So when I pretend it's not that great, or I don't like it that much, or any of the other insincerities I spout in daily conversation, it's not because I'm lying. It's not because I'm English and self-deprecation is expected, and neither is it backhanded self-congratulation. It is genuine and it is real. It is concern for others and it is concern for myself. It's protection against future hurt, and it's protection against hurting others. When I say I miss England, I do. When I say that it's boring, it can be. I'm not lying, guys, I'm just being selective with the truth.

And the rest? Well, it's a great life. But you knew that already.

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