In the French language, there is a word that does not have an English translation: dépaysement.
Yes, it sounds vaguely like displacement, because it vaguely is displacement. The best description of its definition is: (n) the feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country – of being a foreigner, or an immigrant, of being somewhat displaced from your origin.
I do not speak French, nor do I have any French blood in me. But as I read the description, that last segment stood out to me the most— “of being somewhat displaced from your origin.” It instantly reminded me of the strange phenomenon of feeling displaced in a place you
call called home.
In college, I took a course about the history of Hong Kong cinema. A large part of the class was dedicated to how the feeling of displacement among citizens in Hong Kong was reflected in their local films. In 1842, China and England signed the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the Opium War and ceded Hong Kong to Britain. Britain maintained rule over Hong Kong, using it as a strategic territory, for 156 years before returning it to China in 1997. Though it was celebrated as a reunification, it soon became clear that there was a large cultural divide between the citizens of Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong’s population longed to return to the their motherland, but found that home was no longer the same home they were expecting. A peculiar sense of displacement set in among HK citizens, being unable to identify with both the British and Chinese. They were home, but it wasn’t home.
On a more personal level, as recent graduates return to their hometowns, they too may find that home is no longer what it used to be. Their childhood bedrooms no longer have the same feeling of coziness as they once did, and their hometown is no longer the town of their home. The baseball field where he hit his first homerun now feels foreign and deserted. The ice cream parlor where she got her first kiss is now an office space. The school parking lot where they got caught spraying paint has been renovated to a barely recognizable lot. The movie theater where he and she first held hands is now filled with the faces of much younger strangers. The same warm, familiar places are now populated with fuzzy, bitter-sweet memories that remind us of the people we once were, a specific chapter in our lives that we can never return to. It’s unsettling.
Too old to partake in the shenanigans of the college kids, and too young to feel accepted by the adults, we have fallen into a funny state of existence: a purgatory.
Any life/identity crisis is rough. I suppose that’s why it’s called a crisis. As we cope with the feeling of displacement and the loss of our own identity, we frantically try to craft a new one. It’s like scrambling to find your footing as the ground beneath you quickly crumbles. Unfortunately, nothing but time will help to ease you into this new chapter of your life.
But time, well, takes…time. In the meantime, I’ve found my own personal escape. Somewhere unlikely where I feel, well, the most me. In the German language, there is a word that also fails to have an English translation. The word “Waldeinsamkeit” is best described as: (n) a feeling of solitude, such as being alone in the woods and a connectedness to nature.
I live in Los Angeles. So a forest is neither familiar nor readily available to me. Besides, I probably wouldn’t feel at ease in a forest anyway. For me, my place of solitude is on the California freeway. All lifeless and still in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe one or two hazy taillights, way off in the distance masked by fog. It’s the tiny window of opportunity for me to hear the earth breathe, and to hear myself breathe. Like a secret date to a place where time stands still.
Driving down the empty 101, rolling past the illuminated skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, you can’t help but feel a tinge of guilty pleasure. This isn’t how LA freeways are supposed to be…they’re supposed to be filled with stalled cars, bumper-to-bumper in the blazing heat while your iPhone battery dies. Yet at these wee hours, when the roads are barren, it almost feels as if we had snuck backstage after closing hours to party with the cast. It almost feels forbidden; irresistible.
Sitting behind the wheel of my car at this hour is the most comfortable I can be. It’s constant. It’s the same. But most importantly, it feels like mine. I recently found myself back at a house party and, of course, it was all a bit overwhelming. Too many people crammed into a stranger’s house that was way too low on oxygen and way too laden with faces I didn’t recognize. It felt fake. It was suffocating in more than one way. It wasn’t long before I felt the need to disappear.
Taking refuge in my car, I immediately sped onto the freeway onramp and raced down the interstate. It was dark. A quarter past three, and I was the only pair of headlights in sight. The only sound on the empty highway was the whirring of my engine. It tore through the kind of silence that only gathers at the oddest hours, under the blanket of night. With the windows rolled down and the music blasting at full volume, I felt free. I feel free. I feel vulnerable, and incapable of being judged.
It’s like the feeling you get when the very last coworker at the office finally leaves and you can finally fart at ease. Yeah, there might be consequences, some severe, some not so much…. but those are consequences of my actions, and mine alone. I can roll down the windows and feel the frigid air cut against the dry skin of my face.
I can slow down to a gradual roll, light a cigarette, and watch the tiny, glistening specks of ash get whisked away into the dark behind me. I feel alone in the best possible way that one can feel alone. I scream as loud as I can. Not a single soul hears me. It’s as if I don’t exist at all.
And there’s something completely liberating about that. Alone on the highway is my alone in the woods. My own personal Walden. So, what’s yours?