I sometimes catch myself using finger quotes when I say the word “home.” You too?
I’m writing this on an airplane and am currently 3 hours and 8 minutes away from “home”. Simultaneously and ironically I am also 9 hours and 4 minutes away from “home.” I’m in that weird spot that expats love and hate . . . between “homes.”
My family and I have spent the last five weeks hugging old friends and fighting over road trip radio stations. We’ve slept in a total of 26 beds and driven through 11 states (not even counting Canada). We have re-stomped our old stomping grounds and picked up six new airport refrigerator magnets. It has been both wonderful and exhausting.
You know the feeling.
Going “home” is one of those pieces of expat life that stretches the limits of every available emotion. So many happy reunions followed immediately by an equal number of painful goodbyes. Unexpected culture shock (especially in election years), non-stop bopping from the last place to the next place, feeling like a tourist where you once felt most comfortable.
It’s weird. But good. But hard. But incredible.
Regardless, it’s a great opportunity to process. Every time I go “home,” I pick up something new. Some little cultural tidbit that I hadn’t recognized before or maybe a deeper reflection on an old reality.
Here’s what I’m thinking on my way home from home this time around.
First, “Home” is a culture too.
Sounds ridiculous to say it out loud and fair enough if you’re thinking, “well duh.” However I’m realizing more and more that it’s not necessarily a natural thing to recognize your own culture as a culture. Cultures are out there . . . away . . . somewhere else. Cultures are what we study. Cultures are fascinating. They are exotic. Exciting. Confusing. Different.
Every time I step out and back in again I am reminded that my most familiar home base is all of that, even though I never saw it that way growing up. From the hairstyles to the body language to the propensity to bread and deep fry virtually anything, it’s a ethnographic wonderland just waiting to be explored.
Two . . . International “home” going is layered.
Where I come from people move away. We go to college. We get married. We find a job. All of these carry the potential for long-term relocation. So my childhood friends are spread out around the area. Around the state. Around the country.
Very few however, wander outside of the country (at least not for living). It’s just not normal.
It’s always nice to come “home,” but I’m discovering that “home” is a contrast word. The farther you roam, the bigger “home” gets. “Home” has expanded for us beyond a town or a community and I start to feel like I’m home when I hit the first airport of my “home” country. L.A., New York, Dallas, Atlanta all feel like home, at least compared to Beijing.
Ironically I feel more “at home” in the Beijing airport than I do in any other airport in the world.
It’s strange right?
Thirdly . . . It’s OK for “home” to be a confusing concept
“Home” is a value that has been deeply embedded into my core. So redefining it feels wrong.
It throws off my equilibrium to start wrapping my head around the layers and the nuances of “home” in a cross cultural life. It was especially confusing the first time I went “home,” but the confusion marches on ten years later.
How do my kids understand “home” when they spend the bulk of their lives as foreigners? Am I going “home” or leaving “home” right now? Is “home” a place or people or an allegiance or a feeling? Should I feel guilty for wanting to get back “home” even when I am “home”? How is it that I can be at “home” and missing “home” no matter where I am?
It’s alright. “Home” is complex, for people don’t have the luxury of simple answers. People have been wrestling with this concept long before we showed up. That’s why we say things like “home is where you hang your hat” or “home is where your heart is.”
However, that rationale assumes that your heart can only be in one place at a time . . . and that you only have one hat.
It might not be that simple. I’m ok with complex.
Fourth . . . Going “home” is a gap-filling time
I mourn “home” for my kids.
The experience, not the concept. My experience, not theirs.
I know I know, they are having their own adventure and it is rich. They are doing things that I only dreamed of when I was their age. They are seasoned world travelers with a front row seat to the broader world and it is all preparing them to grasp the complexities of “home” in a way that I never will.
I love their definition of “home” BUT they don’t know how to play baseball. They don’t know the joys of a small town ice cream shop or catching lightning bugs. Fireworks to them mean Chinese New Year not Independence Day.
Going “home” for a few weeks doesn’t give them my childhood, but they don’t need that. It does help fill in a few gaps though. It’s a connection between their childhood and mine. It’s a glimpse into things that I remember fondly and the missing link to the place that their passport says is their “home.”
I want that for them.
Fifth . . . Just passing through doesn’t mean I can’t love the trip
It’s inevitable in Christian circles. Conversations about “home” end with a comment about “passing through.”
“This world is not my home.”
“My citizenship is in heaven.”
No argument from me but I do kind of cringe a little at the unspoken insinuation that love for our earthly home is grounds for a “shame on you.” My only frame of reference for something that I can’t even begin to grasp is the closest possible thing that I can. Even if this is just a reflection of the real thing, it’s a pretty awesome one.
Finally . . . Living abroad means I am double blessed.
It has been a great summer. Thankful to have gone home — Thankful to be going home.
Jerry lives in China and blogs at The Culture Blend.