When you meet someone new and you’re an expat, the question often comes up, “So, where´s home?”
Ugh. I struggle with this question.
I can´t give you a simple answer.
Stop making me choose.
Stop making me miss one place when I´m in the other.
The innocent person who asks this may not even know how this question triggers an internal dilemma. But if you´re an expat, or someone whose heart and story is increasingly being divided into pieces, “home” simply resides in more than one place.
So, for now, if you ask me “Where is home?” the honest answer would come in three parts.
Home Nr. 1: “The womb”
Without a doubt “home” is my birthplace of Williston, North Dakota. People like me who were born and raised there likely have nostalgia about the high school mascot (Go Coyotes!). When we talk about “Spring Lake Park” we all know where that is. We all went to the drive-in movie theater when we were kids. We have memories of the annual Band Day parade.
Despite these shared experiences, when I visit “home” I often feel like an outsider. The town has exploded due to the oil boom in the Bakken. The logo for the high school mascot has changed (not ok!) and the roller skating rink has shut down. “Home” – in terms of that small town and community – has actually gone away.
I find myself strangely upset by changes my mother has made to the house where I grew up, like when she finally got rid of the broken bar stools we sat on for over 30 years around the kitchen counter. When I discovered they were gone, it felt like part of our family was missing.
I realize, however, that Home Nr. 1 isn´t about the chairs, the city infrastructure or even the school mascot. This home is about where my life got started. It´s about family, the loving memories and growth.
Home Nr. 2: My “second” home
Many people living internationally are doing so because they met someone from another country, or have relocated more permanently for work. This is how Berne, Switzerland became my second home. I actually spent more of my adult life in Switzerland than I have in the United States. This becomes obvious when I visit the USA and miss out on what everyone else considers common knowledge (like the time I “discovered” TiVo existed after it had been on the US market for over four years).
Herein lies the next dilemma of home, because this second “home” not only creates an emphasized outsider status when I go back to the USA, I also feel a ping-pong factor of being both at home and an Ausländer (foreigner) while in Switzerland. So in my second home, I nest in as an outsider who became an “accepted” insider. This is in direct contrast to my transformation in Home Nr. 1, where I have gone from insider to “accepted” outsider.
Home Nr. 3: My “current” home
As an expat, Home Nr. 3 expresses the temporary nature of the home status. At the moment, my current home in Ouagadougou places a heavy emphasis on our physical home, the rich cultural context, as well as the tight community of expats.
When I am introduced to Burkinabe as “Ouagalaise,” I almost always fight back a giggle. I am clearly an outsider nor have I been here long enough to be considered a real “insider.” In fact, just the fact that I am white would ensure that many Burkinabe would continue to refer to be as “la blanche” (the white) or “Nassara” (a local term to mean a white foreigner).
I am clearly an outsider, and the level of “insiderness” is limited to knowing some of the basics around local culture, how to negotiate on the market, and that the seasons are limited to “rainy” and “dry” (and “super hot” is a third, if you ask me).
Which Home Do You Mean?
So when my kids ask, “When are we going home?” I know it means Home Nr 3. When we are sitting in Ouagadougou and my eldest son asks, “When are we going back home?” I get that he means Home Nr. 2. When he says, “Mama, when are we going to your home?” he is talking about Home Nr. 1.
So when I´m asked “Where´s home?” it is a reminder that I can´t live in all three places at the same time. When I am tired and feeling a bit homesick, then I see this fact as a loss. I focus on where I am NOT. Who I am not spending time with. The things I´m not doing. I feel grief.
And then I remember that often our discomfort is a mirror of our resistance to accept what is.
We push against how “here” it is not like “there.”
And sometimes, “there” feels so much better than “here.”
But what if – after a sufficient period of self-pity, gorging on comfort foods and a good cry – we instead gently shifted our focused on what we have gained?
What if we stopped ranking where it´s “better” or “worse” and we started just seeing each place for what it has to offer and accepting the challenges that come with the territory?
What if we let in how it is often a luxury to miss experiences and people in multiple places on the planet. When we long for, we have lived. We have loved.
Home is no longer one place for me, nor will it likely be for my children.
I wish we asked instead, “How long is your list for home?” That would make me feel better. That would help me focus on what I have gained. That helps me acknowledge that there are three, for now. It helps me accept that my heart could be in even more places – and that would be ok.
So the next time you see me, ask me about my list.
Now it´s your turn, tell me in the comments below what makes it on your list of “home”?
Can´t wait to hear from you!
P.S. Don’t miss the next video created to help you deal with the ups and downs of going home (where you´ll also get a glimpse of my Home Nr. 1 and 2).
P.P.S. You can also click here to subscribe or share the link with your friends to invite them to this video series before it is over!