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?

From Osaka to Boston, With Love

When I left my first love, Boston, for my second love, my Japanese husband in Osaka, I gained a new life, but I never lost my primal connection to the city I will always call home.

For all my friends, family, Four Stories peeps, and fellow Bostonians who spent what I’m sure was a restless night last night, the only thing I can think to offer, from all the way across a continent and an ocean on a beautiful spring day in Osaka, is a memory of my first trip back to Boston after moving to Japan. It reminded me of why, no matter where I go and what new things I see and learn, I’ve always loved Boston first, and always will.

Can’t wait to come home to Boston again soon….

It was 11:30pm when we finally landed at Logan, almost 24 hours after leaving Japan. I stepped into a terminal that seemed improbably tiny and modest compared to Osaka’s. The hallway and food court were dark, and as I passed the broad windows where the city’s lights twinkled as they always had over my thirty-odd years of traveling through Boston’s airport, everything looked both the same and strangely new. The Pru, the Hancock tower blinking in the distance: each familiar site now held a fresh dimension, an edge of foreignness sharpening its contours.

A few nights later, still flattened by jetlag, I drove home from an early dinner with some girlfriends, lumbering slowly in my aging VW. Crossing the Mass Ave bridge at dusk, I glimpsed the State Capital’s dome glowing on its hill, the Charles river stretched out below, a shifting spread of blue.

 Past Copley, I crept down my neighborhood’s narrow streets, peering through my windshield, searching for the ever-elusive South End parking space. Turning a corner off Dartmouth Street, I saw a car double-parked under a headlight, blocking the road. Still in Japanese public-decorum mode, I beeped softly, but the vehicle didn’t budge.  I beeped again. Nothing.

Maybe they’ve gone inside an apartment? It was getting too dark to see the driver. Annoyed, weary, I hauled myself out of my VW, preparing a polite request. But before I reached the car, its engine suddenly ignited, and it began to move.  Then I heard the furious honking at my back.

A man in a beat-up, dark blue sedan had pulled up behind me, bumper dented, worn-out air-freshener dangling lackadaisically from the rearview mirror, spinning slowly. He must beeping at that double-parked car, too, I thought, honking in support of my patient protest, I noted, feeling virtuous in our shared vehicular predicament.

But then the driver behind me leaned out the window, jutted his head towards me in one angry thrust. “Jesus Christ!” He screamed. “Get back in the goddamn caaa, you moron! Waddya doin’? You’re blocking the whole fuckin’ street!” I begin feebly to protest, to explain that I was only attempting to clear the road. In response, he slammed his palm back onto the horn, emitting another series of long, irate, and humiliatingly loud admonishments.

In a rush, my exhaustion overwhelmed me.  I didn’t have the energy to absorb the full-throttled aggression of a Boston driver, or the thick skin to deflect it—especially not after having floated in a bubble of extreme, collective self-restraint for a month in Japan. I felt my cheeks flame in the darkening air, then burst helplessly into tears.

Suddenly, I longed for the more respectful, civilized manners of Toru’s home.  What’s wrong with the people in this country? I thought as I hurried back to my car, slammed the door shut, turned the ignition as fast as I could.  What purpose on Earth does it serve to be so rude? Why are people here so…so ill-behaved? Self-righteous indignation pricked through my shock and embarrassment.

But as I drove away, the tears receded.  An image of myself, startled and mortified under the pale wash of streetlights, flashed through my mind, and with it surged a laugh, then a wave of release. This is my crazy neighborhood. I was finally back in a place providing me, and everyone around me, permission to unloose the thoughts that lurked inside, to announce ourselves and our minute-by-minute reactions to the world.  To thrust, in a glorious rush of self-expression, our internal states into public, without a hint of shame.

I realized then that Japan’s enforced harmony, although soothing at times, was also suffocating, a dense fog of decorum settling over everyone and sealing shut, with hermetic insistence, any signs of discord. Sitting in my aging car’s front seat, rumbling down my neighborhood’s liberally pot-holed side-streets, I breathed out a long sigh, unloosening my lungs in relief and even, in a strange way, gratitude for the driver who had been cursing me moments before.

I’m home, in Boston, in America, I thought, almost giddy. I and everyone around me can finally express our feelings as we have them. 

Perhaps we could sometimes be rude or noisy. But I suddenly saw my and my fellow citizens’ carefree expressiveness as our own curious form of mutual respect, and even love: an agreement to relinquish the façade of permanent politeness and bare our souls together. Perhaps it’s skewed species of love, I allowed, but when it works, we forge a generous, communal, trust: You be you, and I’ll be me, and somehow, despite the annoyance and noise and clumsiness, we’ll have faith that we’ll all get by, ourselves, together.

Excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West (forthcoming, Putnam)