MARIAN IS AMERICAN, from Chicago. I've known her 15 years, ever since she arrived in Hong Kong. About five years ago she left Hong Kong and moved to Paris. Occasionally, she rings.
"I don't know what I look like anymore," she said during one conversation. I knew the feeling. It's caused by having no mirrors – when you no longer see yourself reflected through the eyes of someone "just like you".
Marian has no friends in Paris to talk her into existence. She's lost the solid reality of her outline. Although she's a personal fitness trainer, she's disappearing. She spends every waking hour at various gyms around Paris, drinking health shakes and vitamin supplements for breakfast, eating grilled turkey breast for Christmas lunch, flexing in front of mirrors. She's obsessed about the shape of her body, but no longer sees it. After seeing me again on her 50th birthday, she pestered me for photographs I took. "What's holding you up?" she complained on the phone. "I just want to see who I am."
I live in Britain now. This week, Caroline, a friend who recently launched her first book – a book of letters written by her great-grandmother, one of the first white settlers in New Zealand – came around for a drink. She likes visiting my place because it's "like home". If I cook stir-fry, she laughs and says: "There's something about us lot from the Asia-Pacific side of the world, isn't there? We've got that certain something they just don't have here." I don't even make particularly good stir-fry, but I know what she means.
"You know," said Caroline. "I think we need to go back from time to time, just to get an anchor on things. I feel more real when I'm at home. People know who you are. Do you know what I mean?"
I said I knew.
But for some of us who have run away – turned our backs on the mirrors – living abroad is the best way to see who we are. I go home from time to time, for my fix. I need to know I'm not the only one who thinks
like I do.
Once, on a visit home, I was sitting with friends in the sun at a table outside a coffee shop in Brisbane's New Farm. At another table was a group of young women and I overheard their conversation. It was like listening to myself. They used words and phrases I thought my sister and I had invented, strung sentences together in ways I don't hear anywhere else. These voices came out of old television programs and advertisements. A cat came by, mewed and looked away. "Look, Sonny. She wants us to follow her!" said one of the women. They laughed and sang the chorus of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. The reference would have been lost on someone who hadn't grown up in Australia in the 1960s.