Missing autopilot

At our wedding I walked down the aisle with Michael’s pre-recorded voice singing the then-popular song by Thirty Merc entitled ‘homesick’. The chorus is:

I would give all my time

just to spend my nights with you

I will lay down my fears

just to spend my years with you

‘cause when I’m standing at your door

I don’t feel homesick anymore

In the ceremony handout we explained that:

This song means a lot to us both– with our hearts firmly divided between two continents, we no longer have a set ‘home’ except the one we have found in each other and our God.

Cheese, I know. But give us a break, we were star-crossed lovers and a little obsessed with each other at the time.

When I wrote those words in our handout, they conjured up romantic notions of unfaltering love, of fearless faith, and the aroma of adventure in Africa.

As I read those words right now my heart hurts a little. As if it is sick.


I love Uganda. At times I really love life here. At times I find it exhausting. Most of the time I feel fulfilled living here. Sometimes I don’t. I feel privileged to get to do what I do. Sometimes I feel like my calling is more a burden than a blessing. That’s life, really. Contradictions.

But at this moment, I miss having a physical place where I good-and-truly belong, where I’m not so obviously ‘from out’ as Ugandans say. We are going back to Australia for a visit at the end of this year, and despite my nervousness about returning home, I’m ready for a trip to Oz.

I have never felt homesick before. Honestly, never. It’s a foreign feeling for me, probably because I’ve never left my own country and culture for more than 6 months. In Kamwenge, I am quickly approaching 2 years.  While it’s a good place to live, it may almost be the polar opposite of Adelaide (except that everyone knows each other and/or is distantly related here too!). What I see, hear, feel, touch, taste and experience every day is worlds apart from the first 25 years of my life.

From day to day, I don’t see the vast differences so much.  I notice it more though, when visitors come from Australia. A friend visited us a few months ago and I took him into Kamwenge town. We walked down the street, greeted a few people, bought some meat from the butcher, and came home. I didn’t think anything of it, but when we arrived back to our house his comment was something along the lines of ‘wow, this place is really different…’. It made me realize that I don’t notice the landscape much anymore – the fact that everyone is a different colour to me, that women are carrying baskets and firewood on their head, that people speak in another language, that my local ‘butcher’ is an old man in a little ramshackle shed hacking up a cow caucus on a dirty wooden bench with a machete.

Being ‘used’ to a place, however, doesn’t mean I have forgotten the last 25 years of my life. It is amazing how much our culture and what is familiar and ‘normal’ is engrained in us.

Community values and norms, expected patterns of behaviour, social symbols and their associated meanings– never have I quite understood or appreciated these concepts as I do now. Each day, I  interpret all my interactions through another cultural lens to understand the meanings behind the simplest of exchanges. And my natural way of understanding the world is almost always the ‘different’ or ‘wrong’ way in Ugandan culture.  No matter how many times I experience some situations, each time I have to force myself to ignore the flashing red lights in my brain signalling actions as ‘bad’ – actions that are acceptable in a Ugandan context. Most of that interpretation I do silently, swiftly now …but it is still a tiring process.

Mostly, I miss the soothing familiarity of my own culture – and the deeply embedded understanding that comes when interacting with Australians. After almost total immersion in a different culture for 2 years, interacting with Australians gives me a peculiar sense of déjà vu – the ‘knowing’ that comes when you find yourself living out a scenario of a long-forgotten dream.

Or the feeling you get when you’re driving a familiar route home and you wonder how you arrived safely because you can’t remember much about the journey. You had switched to autopilot.

I miss being able to switch onto autopilot.

13 responses to “Missing autopilot

  1. Dear Kim, as one Expat to another, may I say welcome to the world of the geographically schizophrenic! An extremely hard place to be; never really being 100% part of any place. Sometimes feeling more at home in one place than the other. Knowing where you are right now is where you are meant to be when perhaps you long to be in that “other”. Being with your own culture can drum this home and make it even tougher sometimes to remain. This may not at all be your experience and perhaps I have misinterpreted your Buzima. If I have then do ignore my comments entirely. Know that you are loved for your honesty, caring and loving and that you are being hugged all the while. Holding you gently with love. Robxxxxx

    PS. You probably know: Homesickness often comes: first week, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 18 months then 2 year and then it seems to settle a little however the longings never quite go away……….

    • Robyn – I completed understand what you are saying and wholeheartedly agree! Geographically schizophrenic is a great way to put it!! Thanks for your encouragement, kind words, and understanding. Maybe some day we may even meet in person!? 🙂

  2. And sometimes going “home” doesn’t feel like home so much & then it’s really confusing because where do you really belong? Hold on tight to the home you found in God & Michael. I don’t know what home means for me…

  3. I can completely concur Kim. Even though the extremes between Canada and Australia are far less than what you have, in the nearly 9 years I’ve been in Australia I am still a foreigner in many people’s eyes. I don’t imagine I’ll ever be here long enough not to get someone asking me where I’m from or how long I’m “visiting”. There’s something ok about that in that it’s a good ice-breaker but it still means in their eyes, I’m not “one of them”. I’m clearly seen as an outsider and because I don’t care much for cricket or AFL, don’t have the accent and language plus a few other Australia-isms, so I will never be fully on auto-pilot as you say as I’m always self-aware about this not being my native land. While not as fatiguing anymore, I still feel like a fish-out-of-water reasonably often despite how generally welcoming native Aussies have been to me.

    In your case, I think coming home will be a mixed bag; on one hand I think you’re absolutely right that it is much-needed to be accepted on a certain level without any thought put into it: you could step off the plane having been in Uganda for 2 years, walk straight into a grocery store, chat with the clerk and people will treat you like any other Aussie who’s never left the country. The comfort of that innate acceptance will be great! Of course, then you’ll see the Western/Australian culture for what it is too, having that perspective, and probably see a lot of things you don’t like! Your clarified vision will cut straight through to the heart of a lot of this cultures problems and you’ll find yourself comparing what’s good about Uganda vs here. But that’s probably not a bad thing, as, the hope is you’ll be ready and excited to return to Uganda and continue your important work and life there having had your refreshing top-up of Adelaide, friends and Aussieland. I reckon you’ll be looking forward to heading back more than you think!

    Hope to see you guys on your return.

    • Hi Mike – I totally understand where you are coming from and can imagine it can get very frustrating – especially after 9 years and a marriage to an aussie! Even when people are friendly, there is something cutting about people treating you as a visitor or guest in what you now see as your home too…

      Definitely coming back to Oz will be a very mixed bag. Seeing family and friends and being immersed in my own culture will be wonderful, but my perspective on life has changed dramatically in the last few years.

      We are looking forward to catching up with you guys when we get back – it will be great to spend time with some like-minded people 🙂

  4. Hi Kim,

    I can relate to what you speak of to a point. When I lived on Elcho Island in Arnhem Land I struggled with those same issues you speak of. Even though I was still technically in Australia, I was immersed in a ‘non-western’ culture, third world conditions and feeling constantly torn between two worlds.

    Yes, they were ‘my own people’ but the whole experience was sooo different. Also, I am aware that my stay wasn’t as long as two years – but it was definitely long enough for me to feel pretty much all of those feelings described in your post.

    Take on board what the other people above have written with their longer experience, and hold fast to our Holy God, for it is in Him you will find your home, no matter where you are.

    Much love xoxoxooxoxxo

  5. Dear Kim, Thanks for your words – it’s something we who stay in one country all our lives don’t really think about nor do we understand the way it would feel. And Robyn – we have talked briefly about similar things – I feel for you both although I have no personal knowledge of the problem. Maybe I am naive but it puzzles me — I think of you both as true Aussies – maybe I shouldn’t??? Kim – I love reading all the news from Kamwenge and following the progress you and Michael are making there. I am a proud surrogate NanaBet!! And Rob, I hope you don’t mind the way I query the differences in housing, way of life etc that we sometimes discuss.
    Kim and Michael, have a wonderful and refreshing time back in Oz, with the added excitement of The Wedding.

    Much love to Kim, Michael and Robyn. XXX

  6. Thoughtful stuff, Kim. The up- and the down-side of your situation is that you now have two “homes” – so you will simultaneously be “home” and “away” no matter which one you are physically present in. Mostly a good thing I think, but not without its moments. At a distance now of 9 years after we left the UK (OK, not as ‘different’ as Uganda but your Canadian friend knows what I mean) I am still taken by surprise when I experience the powerful hold that it still has on my heart and my thoughts. Not as frequent as it once was but still piercingly intense at times.
    There has to be a bit of a theological side to this, too. To what extent can we really live incarnationally? How does your geographic experience relate to the spiritual reality of our having a new citizenship in the kingdom of God? Can one aspect teach us something about the other? I have many questions and few answers – you’re probably going to be ahead of me in this regard.

  7. journeywithanna

    Hi Kim,

    Thankyou for sharing your heart with the people who read your blog. Hmmm the homesick thing. I love that you’re acknowledging it and not just ignoring it. When I was in Melbourne and then Qld for those 6 yrs in total, I rarely acknowledged it cos I never thought people would understand and wouldn’t know what to do about it. The reality is that no one can do anything about it but you. I used to ignore it by telling myself and others that ‘my home is in Christ’- Now is that cheesey or what???! 🙂 That sounds like a typical ‘perfect little Christian girl who doesn’t know how to get out of the trap she’s in’ kinda response…

    I think over the years it eventually got to me and I couldn’t deny it anymore!! Which is when I moved

  8. kim! i am so coming to visit you soon! been here much less time than you but can relate to the ‘always an outsider’ thing and the exhaustion that comes with it – thanks for your honesty

  9. Kim this is another amazing piece of writing. Amazing because of how objective and articulate you are able to be about something that must almost defy words. It reminds me of what Leunig did a wonderful cartoon about, in which the subject wanted to go home. The second person reminded him that he WAS home- those were his underpants on the floor, his paintings on the wall. But he was not comforted and just wanted to go home. I think that the feeling of being displaced on this planet is probably normal, summed up by my father’s favorite song, which says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through”. The words (Googleable) may seem too corny but I think contain a truth that we can relate to and that you’ve very much picked up in your wonderful little piece here. God bless, David

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