As someone who’s been living far away from home for most of my adult life, I have spent a lot of time thinking about where “home” is and what it is that makes home “home”. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to us at different stages of life and under different life circumstances. The last couple of weeks, the whole concept has been nagging at me even more as I have followed the news on the devastation caused by natural disasters – hurricanes Harvey and Irma, an earthquake in Mexico, wildfires – all causing massive destruction, loss of lives and displacement.
This kind of catastrophic displacement makes you think twice about your own feelings of “displacement” as an expat far away from home. There is no comparing the two in any way. If anything, it becomes a reminder that sometimes home is literally where your heart is, because that’s all you have at that given moment. It’s also a reminder that “home” means something different to all of us.
I saw an interview on TV a few days ago with a woman who opened up her home to some ten people during the recent storms in Texas. What struck me wasn’t the fact that she offered complete strangers a place to stay, but rather what she said about how it has affected her to share her home with people she doesn’t know. She said that the decision to take them in was not a hard one, it seemed the only human thing to do. They had no safe place to stay and she did. In the interview, she is not suggesting it’s been easy. However, as taxing as it has been, it has been just as enriching. She attributed part of that to the fact that they have had shared experiences under extreme circumstances, but also that she got to know people she would not normally meet, they broadened her world in a way she didn’t expect.
An extreme weather event brought these people together and obviously that is not an ideal shared experience. But as grim as the experience has been, the woman in the interview said she could not imagine what it would have been like to go through the storm without them. As expats, shared experiences is an intangible that we can’t rely on when arriving in a new country. We have different cultural backgrounds, different foods, languages and points of reference and there is no immediate fix to bridge all these. It takes a little time.
I have never experienced forced displacement and for that I am grateful. I do have experience with the self-imposed kind, and while I have never feared for my life, I have felt worried about how I am going to make a go of the new situation, will I ever make friends, learn the societal codes? Feel at home?
Moving abroad can be a challenge, but as expats we have the good fortune of time to plan and research, and we can prepare mentally for what is to come. But, while there are many resources, you also have to be willing to put yourself “out there”. You have to be interested in getting to know your neighbors and learn about traditions. What I’ve learned with time is that it is the small and intangible that eventually makes you feel at home – like getting a joke with cultural references that you would not have gotten before, or knowing how to order a bagel like the locals, or a shared experience with others in your community.
How we think about home changes over time and with circumstance; it can be a bit fluid, it can be many places at once and mean different things depending on where you are and with whom. As one of my favorite Swedish authors, Henning Mankell, said: “You can have more than one home. You can carry your roots with you, and decide where they grow.”