Flyway, My Friend

Art about third culture experiences never really speaks to me. While I have travelled all my life, it has never been in search of myself. I find that search is often what art depicting third culture experiences is about. 

I have always known my identity: I am a misfit. I was a misfit in Zambia, India, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, UK, and I am a misfit in Australia.

Perhaps, no artist from any one country could ever capture my experience. A collaborative project between 20 artists across nine countries was necessary to come close to that gossamer spirit that has guided me through my travels. That project was The Flyway Print Exchange, coordinated by the Melbourne-based printmaker and artist Kate Gorringe-Smith.

Every year, Australia’s migratory shorebirds travel to-and-fro between Australia and Alaska. Guided by little more than slanting sun rays, they fly over 23 countries along their way. The Flyway Print Exchange brought together artists from nine of those 23 countries to make artworks inspired by these amazing birds and their arduous journeys. I came across the exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum in 2015, and it has stayed with me ever since, inspiring me at sudden, odd moments with thoughts on travel and migration.

I think about borders. We are programmed to consider the world in terms of these political divides, yet you have to see the world from the eyes of the shorebirds to realise how artificial these borders really are. I often wonder if we would ever be able to live in a world where people were as free to migrate to sunnier shores and back as the birds do.

Home, is yet another thought. What is the shorebirds’ real home? Alaska beckons the birds when they are in Australia, and Australia beckons them back once they have journeyed there. Is one country dearer to the birds than another? I can’t think of a more apt comparison to my concept of home—home always feels elsewhere.

My children give meaning to my life. Why do the birds trek from one end of the globe to another each year? To breed. To ensure that life continues long after they are gone themselves. I had to become a mother to truly understand the preciousness of that life, and our instinctive need to protect and propagate it. I know I would travel across the globe too if my children’s survival were in question.

Most of all, the project made me think of the interconnected nature of my existence. The shorebirds’ survival depends on the survival of all the different ecologies across the world. As someone whose family is spread across the planet, I too constantly feel vulnerable to turmoil around the globe. Trump’s rise in America hits me hard because my lovely little nieces are American. An economic downturn in France worries me because it is my sister’s home. A storm in Mumbai sends me into a panic because my parents live there. In order for me to thrive, I need all of them to thrive. To feel safe, I must know that they are all safe. Like the shorebird, my survival depends on many different lands flourishing all at once.

I thought the project was a celebration of the travelling spirit of the birds, the fluid concept of home, the purpose offspring can bring and a reminder of how the shorebirds survival was so delicately balanced on the survival of many different lands.

What it also made me realise was that life isn’t so different for people like me.

First published on 18 November 2017