Arriving is easy, but belonging is hard. Pakinam Amer is having a moment in China. Please bare with her.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat. “Or you wouldn't have come here.”
I have always been desperate to belong – to an idea, a country, a fan-base, a group of religious zealots, whatever. Somehow, and on an emotional level, I needed the protection and reassurance that came with being ‘one of us’ whoever the ‘us’ were.
Over the years, I’ve associated and dissociated with many ‘groups’.I was that girl who would go into something, with all her heart and passion, get all fiery or worked up about it, rise up the ranks with impressive speed, even lead, and (allow me to say) awe and inspire, then with the same intensity I’d stumble back down in disenchantment or boredom, or both, pack up and leave. I’d vanish as quickly as I’d appeared, always with a bang. Sometimes I’d look back in wonderment, or in regret, other times I’d hurl stones at that phase, sometimes I’m consumed by anger, or peaceful acceptance, but I’d always, always move on (even if I had to excruciatingly drag some leftover baggage along as I did).
I’ve crossed paths with Muslim Brotherhood members and Salafis, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings nerds, hardline journalists and hippies, intellectuals and skeptics, creative writers, fundamentalists, liberals, free spirits, comic book lovers and whatnot. And in those instances where our poles of existence merged into one, I genuinely thought I was one of them. I’m one of the pack, I’m part of a support system, an all for one, one for all fraternity and it felt good (as long as I periodically talked myself into believing it’s true).
Belonging is romantic.
Deep inside, I belonged no where. I was stranded. Always in the “in-between,” in that place where you’re among them but not one of them. The chronic loneliness was my northern star – it always led me back full circle to square one. It reminded me, in a very painful way, that I’m not one of that crowd or this crowd, no matter how much I pretended to be otherwise. And it killed me. It felt like being rejected, like Earth and its small communities the world over cannot accommodate me.
Now, here I am in a Kung Fu school in the Shaolin Temple, part inspired to discover what lies in the deepest recesses of my being, and part running away from old ghosts, and hoping they won’t catch up. And it feels safe to be here, and there are so many things that I can belong to with ease: Kung Fu, the foreigners’ camp, Lao Ta Gou, Shaolin warriors, Buddhism, travelers and wanderers, adventurers and more. And in China, you’re encouraged to be one of many, to be part of a bigger, stronger unit.
But I cannot get myself to completely relate to any of that with the same passion that I once dreamt I’d be able to muster. And I decided to accept that. I look around me, and everyone is different. Some students come here for the love of Kung Fu, others to get a career in teaching it, a few because they’re not wanted back home by family or friends or both (or because theyfeel unwanted), others because they were heartbroken and needed to flee, some do it as a form of therapy, some do it because “it feels right,” while some are hoping to find Buddha or Nirvana, or some old wisdom to reassure them that the world has some meaning after all, and that all of this show is not in vain.
Back in my old school Xiaolong, my Shifu once joked that I’m “crazy. Pakinam is a crazy girl.” Joan, a classmate from Spain, now a friend, immediately responded, “But who’s not crazy here? We all are.”
And suddenly it hit me: I belong, after all. Not to a name or a tag. Not to Buddha or Kung Fu, or Egypt or Islam or the Arab Nation. Or my friends, or Earth, or the animal kingdom. Sure, it’s all part of me, but it’s not me. And I don’t belong in the same way that I’d always dreamt I’d belong.
I belong here, to this moment, among this circus of dreamers, lost souls, idealists, truth-seekers, the confused, the weird and awkward, the wounded, the abandoned, the desperate, the silent, the boisterous, the enthusiasts, the want-to-be-believers, the agnostics, the mad, mad crowd.
If I’m here, like Alice, then I must be one of them.
Who are they? The aliens, each coming from a different planet, with a different baggage, issues, languages, ideas, and versions of reality, and who somehow landed on the same spot on Earth, and found each other.
What do we have in common? That we all don’t belong anywhere.
Neither here nor there.
And that we have no advice or wisdom to offer; no answers to any of the existential questions, and no clue on who made the world, or what should happen next. And no matter how different our circumstances are, we’re together in how we feel estranged, even among our own people, like our home is always somewhere else, may be in the next stop, may be on the next planet, may be around the corner.
We get a glimpse of that sacred connectedness, that unity with the world, when we’re wandering like we do, running into other kindred spirits, criss-crossing paths with strangers who for some odd reason feel like friends, and revealing some truths about our own existence along the way.
And it might not be as romantic as loyalty to an idea, a uniform, a person, cult, a book or a faith group, but it works, and when it does, it’s beautiful and the loneliness almost dissipates and for a few moments the world feels right, balanced and whole.