Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Living Abroad (and Reflecting on Home)

I just read Chelsea Fagan's What Happens When You Live Abroad. Feeling inspired to write, I opened up a new post and quickly started to entitle it "Leaving Home." But then I stopped. What do I mean when I say "leaving home"? It surely isn't as simple as that for me. "Leaving One Physical Place for Another and Discovering Something New About Home" might be closer.

The other day my dad sent me a few emails with charts of our genealogical history going WAY back. Back to the "Old World." When I looked at the branches going back over several hundred years, it's clear that our roots are mostly in the general region of my home of origin. Basically my ancestors established themselves in one state and made their way to the neighboring state and stayed there. This is the state where I grew up, as did my parents and grandparents and others before them. Our family history is definitively there. But when I go back far enough, there is that one very distant ancestor who was born in England then died in the "New World." He is the one that changed the path of our family tree by leaving everything that was familiar to make a life in a new place.

And here I am, an immigrant in another country, with the realization that I have made a similar jump that impacts our family history. I feel a little like I betrayed my roots and The Sense of Place of my family.
When I wondered out loud about this to my dad on the phone, he graciously reminded me of that one ancestor who had made the same choice hundreds of years ago to go to a new world.

Once you make the jump to live in another place away from wherever you are from, you are divided.  In her article, Chelsea Fagan addresses the feeling of being torn between places. She talks about seeing life go on just fine without you in your former home.

It's hard to be reminded that I am out of the loop in my former community. I don't know things that are common knowledge to those that still live there, whether it's the news about who got married or who is having a baby or the more general awareness about the city's prominent new artists, restaurants or the chit-chat about the sports teams. The day-to-day rhythms of where I have lived linger in my heart: my old apartments and old neighborhoods, jobs, commutes, favorite drives, most-missed restaurants, the smell of the land in spring, and the particular quality of the sunlight after long strings of gray days. It's all there and sometimes it surfaces in a surprising ache.

But most of all, it is the changes in relationships and the sense of distance that comes when the everyday shared experiences can no longer happen with friends and family. The worst are those days where I miss the truly important moments in life: weddings, funerals, heart breaks, disappointments, surgeries, accidents and hospital scares. These are the times that need to be buffeted together with your loved ones in person. Emails, texts, video chats and phone calls are not enough, but sometimes that's all I have.

Leaving home for the first time to establish yourself in a new country (or even a new culture within your country) is a journey that is incredible. It opens up the world in unimaginable ways. It changes you by putting you in a rich place of discovery, creativity and openness. It's a beautiful path, but it is also bittersweet. Once you open this Pandora's box of leaving your home of origin and truly invest your heart in a second community somewhere else, your sense of place in the world can never be the same.

Over the last three years, I have been thinking a lot this; I've researched it and explored it artistically. I've discovered new questions I didn't have before, and I've realized there is a lot of liminality around the process of establishing yourself in a new place. Even for those that haven't left their home country, there can still be a lot of in-between space when thinking about belonging. I have come to feel like I have different homes: home of origin, home based on an inexplicable connection to a place, home of individual choice, and home chosen for love.

Sometimes I have such an overwhelming sense of wanting to "go home" that I want to curl up under my duvet and cry. Of course, the next thought is always that I don't even know where it is that I am longing to be. So what do I do with that? The most I can figure out is that my emotional sense of home is being with my husband. It is no longer primarily defined by a locale. Yet a physical sense of home has deep meaning, and so does the sense of feeling at home on a particular terroir. A sense of place is important, both in a physical sense and in a more emotional sense.

In the past, home used to be where you were born, where you "were from." But these days when people tend to move so much, that's no longer enough. The town where I currently live doesn't reflect my long-term history and feels too new, though in some ways it is becoming my home. But not completely. Choosing my "favorite" place I've lived isn't much better as an answer to "Where are you from?" either. I can't choose one place over the other key places that have contributed to who I am. It's so much more than that, but nobody wants a 5-minute explanation when they ask where you're from.

Yet I don't want to reduce where I am from to a simple sound bite. I prefer a more expansive concept of home. Not every place I've lived has felt like home, but a few places have. And they have shaped me into who I am now and changed me. And the "bittersweetness" is worth it.


  1. Oh that hit me hard. I was born in Finland and spent just long enough there for it to become an enormous part of my identity (11 years) but have since lived in Vancouver- and I can literally *feel* every sentence here. About being divided, feeling that longing for you don't even know what, and not knowing where you're really from.

    It's a complicated mess of emotions that are always in the background of life and you wrote about it beautifully.

  2. Hi greyandshiny,

    I imagine that immigrating during preteen years was tough. Have you read Third Culture Kids? It's about expats that live in another country and move between the expat community and the local community, but I learned a lot about myself when I read it (even though I lived in other cultures first as an adult). Anyhow, there's a lot that applies to cross-cultural situations that aren't necessarily "third culture."

    And I like reading when you write about your cultural (and linguistic) identity. :)

  3. Don't worry, the Cubs still suck, so you're not really missing out on that aspect of life in Chicago by not being here.

  4. Haha! The Cubs were exactly what I was thinking of, you know. :) I have totally lost track since I moved because it's not on TV/radio here or nobody talks about them or anything. So it's hard to keep up being so far out of the loop and being not-naturally-sports-inclined. And I, of course, miss going to the games every now and then....I like soaking up the atmosphere (and trying to keep up with what is actually going on in the game too). :)

    If anything particularly exciting happens...like if they ever are heading towards the World Series...will you please make sure you email me to tell me? I would hate to miss it.

  5. Sure thing, just don't wait up nights expecting that email any time soon...

    1. That made me laugh audibly.

      Well...there's always next year, right? :)

  6. "It's so much more than that, but nobody wants a 5-minute explanation when they ask where you're from."

    Well, if they care, they'll listen.

    On facebook, there's a place where it says "hometown" I've never been able to put in a city there.

    I just accept it. I think that makes me special.
    And you're right, home is where your husband is.

    Before I was with David and Edwin, home was where my computer was ;)

    Being a TCK, I'll never have a hometown. But I've made a home for sure.

    It's hard adapting to new cultures and seeing your old world move on without you.

    Take care, and hang in there.

  7. The curling up, crying, and wanting to go home? That can happen anywhere, I've found, even if you are, technically, home. I think it just happens on bad days and "home" actually means your safe spot, whether it's your childhood home, on the couch next to your mom, or the first apartment you shared with your husband. It's just the comfort of the familiar and safe.

    Sometimes, you just need a good cry with a blanket.

  8. Good point, Kate. I've had times when I've been at "home" and been upset about something and wanted to "go home" and wondered what in the world that meant...