I recently wrote about my struggles with small talk, particularly in answering questions about where I am from. As someone who is a bit of a nomad, it’s difficult for me to lay claim to a “hometown.” Including some stints in temporary accommodation, I have lived in seven residences, in six cities and three countries over the last 10 years. When I think of “home,” it is rarely associated with a physical place but more about an embodied sense of returning. This isn’t just a feeling of familiarity but a fulfillment of a bodily yearning that incorporates all my sensory experiences.
I experience “home” as a full body release of tension, where my breathing slows and deepens. I find my “home” through foods that I crave, the sound of my dog’s tail thumping on the ground as I walk through the door, or the welcoming whinny of my horse as I approach the barn, and in the warmth of an embrace. And I find my “home” in deep meaningful conversations with friends and colleagues who recognize the importance of being part of a tribe, and in knowing that they have my back. I find “home” in the connection of sharing language, both bodily and linguistically. Home is where I feel grounded, centered, and peaceful.
This was certainly my experience of returning to China and Hong Kong this summer. As part of the Saybrook group of faculty, alumni, and students that attended the International Conference on Existential Psychology (ICEP) in Guangzhou, China, I found myself transforming my embodied self to adapt to my environment. Despite an 11-year absence from my birthplace, I felt surprisingly at ease with the cultural transition from the quiet Midwestern suburb where I live to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and China. The heat, the smells, the noise, and the jostling for space as I navigated my way through the train station and crowded streets all felt familiar to me on some level. For the first time, I really began to notice how I was able to embody that shift within myself as I adjusted to my immediate environment that operates at a much faster pace. I noticed how eager I was to savor the local food that seemed both comfortingly familiar and different to me, and I delighted at being able to speak Cantonese, and felt soothed by the musical lilt of the sound of Mandarin being spoken around me.
At this ICEP conference, we relied heavily on the talented group of translators from Guangdong University. Heather, my translator for my presentation, was from Guangdong province and spoke Cantonese. Connecting with her through her native tongue provided us both with a wonderful opportunity to embody our cultural roots. Heather explained that not only was I her first presentation translation assignment, but that I was also her first Cantonese-speaking client. She was nervous about the assignment and felt relieved when we connected through speaking Cantonese. I explained that my Cantonese was rusty and that I lacked the vocabulary to discuss my presentation, but that it was the first language I had learned as a child. The sharing of our vulnerabilities around our common languages brought about a process of mutual support for each other. During my presentation, we made eye contact on several occasions, and each time we did, I felt a heartwarming wave of support and encouragement between us, and an unspoken validation that we were both on the right track. After the presentation, Heather described her experience of this process as our “mutual handholding” as we silently cheered each other on.
On the final night of the conference, we took part in a celebration banquet that highlighted the coming together of many cultures from East and West. Amongst the presenters, organizers and translators, there were multiple Western languages spoken: English, French, Danish, and Spanish; and even more regional Chinese dialects: Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hokien, and Hakka to name a few. We sang, danced, and feasted together while connecting through an impromptu karaoke session that crossed all cultural boundaries.
We began with the Westerners offering an English song, which the Chinese followed with a native tune. What followed became an embodied process of the true spirit of the ICEP traditions of cross-cultural exchange, dialogue and meeting. A Danish song was discovered to have a Chinese version so that verses alternated between the two languages; a rendition of Disney’s Frozen theme tune “Let It Go” was sung in French by a Chinese student; a Cantonese pop song was sung by non-Cantonese speaking students; and Mark Yang and I sang the only Mandarin song we know. This karaoke melting pot spoke volumes about the sense of community and belonging that had been created during the conference. It was a joy to witness and be a part of.
Personally, this trip felt like a turning point for me in my search for integration of my transcultural sense of self. Walking around Hong Kong in the two days after the conference, I noticed that I felt more comfortable in my own skin, more grounded and peaceful, more at home within myself. I have found it difficult to write this reflection piece as much of my experiences on the trip were of a non-verbal quality, so I have struggled to put words to my experiences. I do know that I am changed by having been a part of the trip. I feel blessed and joyful for my experiences and excited about being a small part of the development of Existential Psychology in China. I know that this was a precious and unexpected gift, and I want to express my gratitude to all those who have touched my heart and held my hand on this journey of feeling my way home.
I am left with how powerful this process of mutual handholding can be and how my relationship with Heather helped us both to feel more at home. In the hustle and bustle of life, it’s easy to become fragmented. Sometimes it helps to have someone hold our hand to help ground us and come back to ourselves. I believe that this is partly the work we do as existential therapists. Perhaps by embodying this attitude of mutual handholding it would be easier for us all to feel our way home, wherever we may be.
— Veronica Lac