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!
Christine Funke says
Great post! And tricky question. Here goes my answer list: my first home is Annapolis, Maryland where my mom lives, and although that “home” would change if she moved somewhere else, that’s where I spent most of my older childhood through high school. And I always “come home” to Annapolis.
A side note is that I was born in California and thought I still feel a bit of a California girl at heart, I don’t consider it home, it’s just that place that’s always on my birth certificate and official documents.
My current home is Heidelberg, Germany. It’s where we come back to after we have traveled or have gone on vacation. It’s where I live with my husband and this is home (for now.) If we decide to move then that new place becomes home.
China was also my home for 5 years, but I guess that’s just another one for the list.
That is a nice list you are building Christine! 🙂
A friend rephrased you question of home to a question of “belonging”. Who do you belong with and where do you feel you belong? It gives a little more freedom to belong in many places – and take care that one doesn’t end up belonging nowhere.
This is a perfect compliment to the question of home. Truly when we struggle with identifying where home is we are also looking to name a place (physical or in the spirit of community) where we belong. Thanks for adding that to the discussion!
Kathy Pettijohn says
This is such a great honest expression of truth Sundae. I’m not an ExPat but spent years traveling for extended periods of time. I lived in Maryland, worked and had apartments from Georgia to Rhode Island while having a home and family in Denver and Williston. This went on for years and I loved the work,the nester in me was so confused. I still don’t know where home is..when they say you can never go home again,there’s some truth to that but family, friends are home. So..like you,my heart aches often for where I’m NOT. This can make a person miss out on the opportunity to ever put down roots again,speaking for myself,not you. At my age ,people think you should be settled,well life doesn’t always work that way..life gets in the way for good or bad. It can be unsettling at times especially when others lives seem so secure ,so together? Well..for me, I struggle at times but also know this is where I’m at.and I’m blessed albeit confused. I admire you so much and your wisdom and honesty and your ability to express what so many feel but dont verballize…thank you again for being a sfrong wondedful groundbreaking woman.
Hi Kathy! Thank you for brining in the domestic discussion of struggling with the question of “home”. I love that you named what people think you “should be” (like settled). That is when we start torturing ourselves when we match our own lives to what people expect or trick ourselves into thinking we “want” what others say is “normal”. Thank you for your voice on this important topic – and very kind words.
Great timing for this topic considering we just experienced our 20th high school reunion. When people ask me where I’m from I always respond with, “I was born and raised in North Dakota, but have lived in Texas for _____ years.” So unconscienciously my list has always consisted of two places I call home.
While those are my physical locations I also believe I can experience a sense of home in the presence of the ones I love. For example, three years ago my family had a cousin reunion in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We all traveled from various locations across the United States. And for that three day weekend we all felt at home; telling stories from our childhood, catching up on our current life status, and participant in life long memories, leaving with the desire to do it again in the next two to three years. We laughed by the campfire as if we were sitting around the dinning room table, our kids ran the meadows as if they were their back yards, we hugged goodbye with the same intensity we do standing each other’s doorway. For a brief moment we are all at home.
Home is physical, relative to the experience, or can be carried with you in your mind and heart.
Thank you for writing this piece Sundae, brilliant as always. And those new bar stools, I will always remember the conversation we had over a beer while our kids almost broke the glass table. 😉
Thanks for sharing Nichole! You are right – “home” doesn´t always have to stay in one place. It can be (re)created in the moment with the ones we love. I also love that you are helping me cope with the loss of the old bar stools by pointing out the new memories that have already been created in the new ones! 😉
Mariza ABroad says
Great post! I often feel the same way. Growing up in the US, I often refer to that as “home” but feel like an outside when I got back to visit. Living in Brazil for almost 4 years, I’m an “accepted insider”, but would not call it my home either. It’s frustrating when people ask, “So where are you from?”. And like many, it invokes a sadness that until reading this post, I couldn’t really pinpoint. You’re so right, it’s from focusing on where I’m not and what I’m missing. Thanks for this — it really give me a great perspective. So now, where’s home for me? Earth. Earth is home where I’ve enjoyed time and appreciate many different locations.
Hey Mariza – I am so glad you can come away with something that replaces sadness with awareness and acceptance of “what is”. Acceptance + a dash of gratitude feels a whole lot better than resistance. Thanks for sharing your insight – and great new answer to this question. 🙂
Gugulethu Mhlanga says
I thought I was the only person who struggles with this question. People usually ask me “where do you come from?” It is never a simple answer for me, because at different times of my life, I have had different places I call home. I was born in Durban South Africa and when I was eleven years old, my parents went into exile in England, where I lived and was educated to post graduate level. At university, I met and married a Zimbabwean and when my children were still young, we went to live in Zimbabwe. When things started to get nasty there, we moved to Johannesburg South Africa, where I was able to reconnect with my extended family and friends from my early childhood. I didn’t fit in. South Africa seemed a strange place and culture. People seemed so polarised in spite of the new political order. I spoke English like an English person and did not understand any of the nuances of South African culture, especially at work. After trying to fit in for six years, I finally called it a day and went back to England. In any case, my husband had passed away, my mother had also passed away in England and my children were settled in England. My life has become even more complicated since, because I am now married to a Belgian and we have a house in France, where we never spend more than two months at a time as we travel from country to country because of my husband’s work. So, for me, home is wherever we are at that particular moment. It is never easy to answer the question of where home is. My answer invariably always starts with; “that is a very difficult question”! then I begin to explain that I was born in one place, but grew up somewhere else and brought up my children somewhere else still. For now, Ouagadougou is home, until the next mission, which could be anywhere on the planet. Where do I come from? I come from planet Earth. I think it great that I can call any place on earth “Home”. Thank you Sundae, for bringing up this dilemma.
Hi Gugulethu – What a journey you have been on! Thank you for sharing. What I am hearing in your post, is that “home” is really about belonging – and sometimes we belong according to some aspects and others not, which makes it that complicated! I love to hear your current focus on belonging where you are *now* and opening up your definition to being home where ever you are. (p.s. Ouagadougou is a great place to call home, isn´t it!)
Gugulethu Mhlanga says
Ouaga is a great place indeed. I love it here. I think my husband and I get on so well because we both like travelling and learning about different people and different cultures. I always write something about places I have been, some kind of “chronicle” of my travels. I have often ended my pieces with this quote; “the world is a book, those who do not travel read only a page”. (St. Augustine). Strangely enough, I feel more at home here than I did in Johannesburg. I also felt very much at home in Zimbabwe, where there was hardly any racial polarisation. I think South Africa was too much of a contrast with my childhood and early adulthood life in England. When my daughter was at high school in Johannesburg, having come from Zimbabwe, she was so traumatised. She even asked me one day; “Mum, what happened here?” (historically). She did not understand why people were calling her “coconut”, a term used by Black South Africans to describe a person who is Black on the outside and White on the inside, in terms of their behaviour and the way they speak. That is when I decided to ship her off to England before she was tainted to become like them. For my children, England is home, because it is where they understand and are understood. I think that is also what makes me feel at home, regardless of language. I hardly speak any French, but I still have a sense of belonging here in Ouaga. Is that strange?
Gugulethu – I think wanting to “fit in” somewhere is not strange but totally natural. And I totally get how Ouaga can feel like home when your background is a quilt or patchwork of experiences. This allows your unique path to fit in or naturally belong with others interesting “patterns”.
Tamsin Bell says
As I read your post I am nursing my baby daughter and I marvel at her ability to be so content. As she relaxes in my arms her eyelids flutter closed and I know that she feels that she is ‘home.’ She is in a place where all her physical and emotional needs are met and it doesn’t matter where in the world we might be. I know that as she grows up she will form attachments to people and places that will influence her concept of ‘home’ but right now she is the perfect example of mindfulness. Completely in the moment and without any care for those things she does not have, for what more does she need? And I thought that she was supposed to learn from me……..
Oh my Tasmin – I have tears in my eyes and chills up my arms. What a lovely post. You are so right. That is what it is all about.
John Hanson says
45 years abroad and have lived in 12 cities and 16 buildings. I consider home the town I graduated from high school and lived in and around for ten years. I feel like I should own a camel.
Own a camel because you are a nomad? Maybe then you would slow down the number of your moves, I guess! 🙂
Carole Devillers says
Home to me is where I hang my hat. I’m a traveler, have lived in several countries and also have a list (Ouagadougou for 4 years also!). To cut the details short when I’m asked where home is, and I never know what to say as home is not just one place, I now say “I have a French passport, an American residence and a Haitian heart” and that sums it up.
Hi Carole – I love that we have a Ouagadougou connection. Doesn´t it somehow feel settling when you have an answer (for you) that “sums it up”. I think that when we get a touch of rootlessness or restlessness, having a name for a feeling or a sense of belonging really helps.