What Does Home Mean When You Live Abroad?

ImageI’ve been thinking about the concept of home a lot lately. Partly from watching home so much on TV a few weeks ago as the Boston Marathon bombing unfolded, partly from missing home like I always do, no matter how happy I am at any given moment in my expat life in Japan, partly from seeing this wonderful poster advertising the arrival of the Boston MFA’s Japanese art collection in Osaka (I most love the “I’m home” part, written in Japanese on the left and English on the right), partly from having just finished Emily Raboteau’s very lovely, very smart new memoir Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, and partly from reading a New York Times review of the next book I want to read, André Aciman’s Harvard Square, containing the line that hooked me: “I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past.”

And of course, partly from working on my own forthcoming book and teasing out what it means to be at home in the world when you live as an expat.

How Do We Put Words onto the Feeling of Being at Home? How Do We Define It?

Raboteau’s concept of home in particular envelops the political, the spiritual, and the historical, and deals with a sense of displacement that I, as a middle-class, educated, free, white American woman will never suffer from, even while I live as a minority in a country a hemisphere away from the place that feels most like mine. (And my privilege at having a place that feels most like mine doesn’t escape me.)

But I’m intrigued by how to define home as an expat. And by Raboteau’s alignment of “home” with Zion, or the “Promised Land.” I know how easy it is, when we live overseas, to lose our gimlet eye about home: to romanticize it, to see it as a kind of lost Eden, a place where we wouldn’t suffer the same disappointments or lonelinesses or defeats that we suffer in our expat lives. (Sometimes it’s like we think the grass would always be greener if we were only back on our “real” sides.)

And if we do tend to romanticize home, especially as expats, then how do we really define it truly?

Here’s what I wrote about the struggle to define the strangely abstract concept of home, when I returned to Boston for the first time after moving to Japan:

Just walking down the sidewalk in Boston or Cambridge felt different than it had in Osaka.  My movements were the same.  My gait, my breath, my heartbeat.  But I felt different.

Was I spontaneously, unconsciously, responding to the familiarity of the New England air around me, the specific calibration of its weight or humidity, that I’d always been accustomed to without ever knowing it?  Did hearing the flat sounds of American English all around me, combined with the consistent hum and flow of some never-before noticed Northeastern traffic pattern, send untraceable signals from my ear-drums to my brain, that I was where I belonged, where I was most used to being?  Was the force of gravity slightly different here in New England, rooting my feet just so to the native concrete—and could my heart sense that, even though my brain couldn’t fully define it?  Or was it some combination of all these things, or of my mind not constantly accounting for all the new, unexpected, yet minute details of everyday life on another side of the planet?

My sense of being at home felt distinctly different, more powerful, from my age-old certainty that Boston was where I wanted to settle because of the safety its familiarity afforded. My attachment to the place and its pulse felt deeper now, like a phantom limb sprouting inside me.  My home in Boston had become a part of me in a way I had never felt: not only was the city where I wanted to live, it was where I belonged, because I so clearly hadn’t belonged in Japan.

Ultimately, I realized, Japan had made home coalesce into a new, almost magical force, a vortex of comfort and belonging whose pull now called to me with remarkable might: a siren song reverberating off some land’s foreign cliffs, vertiginous rock-face that only sharpened each echo.

So how about it? What exactly is it to feel at home? I’m struggling with this question as I write my book, with how to put words onto how exactly to define the feeling of being at home. And wondering about the question, does living in a foreign land–even by choice–somehow make our own seem more sacred, or magical?

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15 thoughts on “What Does Home Mean When You Live Abroad?

  1. Forwarding a reply from the Dutch travel writer Maria Staal (http://www.mariastaal.com/), who posted this on the Facebook Travel Memoir Writers page (http://www.facebook.com/groups/travelmemoirwriters/):

    “Actually, ‘home’ for me is wherever my bed is. This seemed logical for me, but I have since learnt that the English speaking world (btw, I am Dutch) gives a different meaning to the word ‘home’. For them it seems to mean ‘where you are from/born’. I call that ‘back home’.

    “I lived in the th UK for four years and once I had a conversation with friend. Standing on a cycling path I was fiddling with my bike, as it was making a noise. My friend walked by and asked ‘are you having problems with your bike?’ ‘Yes,’ I said ‘but it is easily fixed with a spanner.’ ‘You can borrow one from me if you don’t have one,’ she said. ‘That’s okay,’ I said, ‘I have one at home.’ She looked puzzled and said ‘that’s why you can borrow mine.’ It then dawned on me that she meant ‘back home, in the Netherlands’, while I meant in the house where I lived.”

    –Thanks, Maria! Love this idea of how different languages reflect different concepts of home. As I wrote back to Maria, this has “made me thought about Japanese, and I realized there is no word in Japanese for home either. Only house. (I think it’s because Japan was closed for hundreds of years before the 1860’s–no one allowed in, no one allowed out–so the concept of home being anywhere other than Japan didn’t exist.”

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  2. As a fellow (and now former) expat this post makes sense to me. When I left the US for China four years ago the plan was never to return. But then it’s said that God plays jokes on us by changing our life plans, yes? The worst part about the first three years of travel wasn’t being away from the US; it came just as I started a one-year contract in Peru. Immediately I became homesick. Homesickness makes a terrible travel companion. I write about that too here: http://www.architecturetravelwriter.com/2012/06/when-homesickness-dampens-wanderlust/. Over all that time living abroad I realized home is far less a physical thing. It’s a matter of where you feel most comfortable and blissful. For instance, I spent my childhood moving about the US yet I call Chicago, where I first moved as an adult, home. India feels just as much home to me, yet I’m not of Indian origin. Living abroad, home is a place that doesn’t make you yearn for the US. Then again, what do I know? I write about the two most metaphorical elements of home: architecture and travel. Cool post, Tracy. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Nichole. I love your line about architecture and travel being “the 2 most metaphorical elements of home.” And I’m always *fascinated* by people who feel more at home–or as much at home–in other countries than/as in their own. There are so many people in Japan like that! But I’m not one of them… (Although my sweetie feels like home in one major way; but it’s just that *his* home, Osaka, doesn’t feel like mine. This is something I’m struggling with in the book right now.)

      Anyway, thanks again for your comment and for sharing a link to your own blog!

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  3. Home to me is about connection – whether visual, historical, sesorial…where your being connects to events, places, people, smells, memories…it seems that once these connections unfold a new home is found albeit never replacing the older or original home 🙂 I do enjoy your writing so little Shufu

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    1. Love the idea of home being a place where what’s connected is your “being,” b/c that really captures the kind of all-encompassing aspect of the feeling for me. And it makes me realize how lucky I am that I lived all my life in Boston before moving abroad at almost 40, b/c I guess this gave Boston enough time to coalesce for me into some unshakable sense of home, which maybe people who move as kids don’t have?

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  4. I know Irish people who have lived in the US for 25 years and still struggle with the idea of home. It’s a tough one, to be sure. I also think of Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”, though clearly Baldwin isn’t talking about the expat experience. It ‘s a tough one.Tracy, thanks for helping us to think about it.

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  5. I think it depends on what type of person you are. I’ve always said being an expat is easier for me than for some, because I always felt like an outsider in my own country (USA). Also my family moved so often when I was growing up that it is hard for me to actually define any one place as “home.” The places I do miss are really no longer the places they were when I lived in them, either, changed now with more people, more houses, less privacy and solitude. What I do have, and I experience it almost every day, is something called–and I love this word to death– Sehnsucht- defined as “The inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what; a yearning for a far, familiar, non-earthly land one can identify as one’s home.” I do not have the same sense of belonging you describe about Boston when I return to, say, Oregon to visit my mother.
    When it is time to leave here, I know I will miss the place we live now (Costa Rica), but it is not the physical place I will miss, because here, too, things are changing rapidly and it is no longer the place we came to. Instead I think of it is as a philosophical “missing” of place or perhaps belonging. Sehnsucht.

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    1. Oooh, love this concept too: “Sehnsucht- defined as ‘The inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what; a yearning for a far, familiar, non-earthly land one can identify as one’s home.'” What language is it from, German? You might really like Raboteau’s book, because in the end, she suggests that home in some ways is always really mostly about searching and longing.

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      1. Yes, it is a German word. They always have such complicated words, loaded with meaning. I will definitely read the Raboteau book, because (I think) a sub-theme of my WIP is about this too, longing and loss of place.

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  6. That sounds like a great sub-theme. And a great way to explain, if/when you are read to try to market your book through a proposal, what the universal aspect of it is within your own specific story. Keep us posted on your progress!

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  7. Great post! And a question hard to answer.
    For me, I think it’s much more people than a place that defines home. The friends or family you have in one place that make you feel at home.
    I’ve been living in Vienna for 5 years, but in the last 2 of them many of my friends moved somewhere else, letting the city that I just got used to living in seem a bit less like home.
    Also, since my parents divorced when I was 15 it was hard to define a single place as “home”. Our family was living in two different places after the divorce and we all grew older and were moving out from “home” too, so it seemed hard to define the place that was my home for more than a decade as “home” anymore.

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    1. Hey, thanks, chinaelevatorstories. I’ve had a lot of people say they feel the same: that home is comprised more of people than geography. But for some reason, although my husband is the love of my life and definitely my emotional “home,” in another way, home feels firmly cartological to me, firmly geographical: the place I grew up, the city streets I know so well, the indefinable sense of being “at home” in Boston that I just don’t have anywhere else. Nothing feels as good as being next to my husband, as holding his hand. But nothing feels so “at home” than Boston. I don’t know how else to describe it, and I’m beginning to think I’m in the minority with this one! In any case, thanks so much for leaving your comment and sharing your experience.

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      1. It’s great that you feel like there’s a place you can always go back to (well, at least theoretically) and that you can always call home, no matter where in the world you are. I also think that it needs more people than just one person to make you feel at home somewhere. I feel that only if I know a place well enough, have enough friends and/or family there and feel integrated enough might this place have a chance to become your new home. This is obviously quite hard to achieve when you’re in a country where people will treat you as though you just don’t belong (I know this from my own experience in China, once you meet enough people who just treat you as a person instead of an outsider it might make you feel more at home).
        But of course, this is only talking for myself, everyone’s different and since you’ve lived in Boston for such a long time maybe you’ll never find another place you’ll be able to call your real home.

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