We all know that Eskimos have many ways of describing snow – I am assuming because snow is such a huge looming part of their lives. But as an expat I have started to wish there were more words in the English language for “home”.Okay, there are of course different words you could use – abode; house; dwelling; accommodation. But none of these words is sufficient to describe the place where you live… or where you are from… or where you are born but not from… or where you usually live but you don’t at the moment… or… you get my meaning?
This was the tangle I got into the other day when I was trying to explain our summer plans to someone back in my home country. We would be coming home at the end of June; then we would be visiting my parent’s home (but not mine); our own hometown and eventually we would be coming back home again in early August… how can there be so many homes?
As an expat you are probably well aware of this dilemma. Many have already written about this subject on expat blogs, websites and forums – I’ve even written one myself. So it isn’t something new. But just trying to explain my summer (well, winter for us in the Southern hemisphere, just to add to the confusion) plans brought “home” to me just what a complicated concept this was.
To many, home is simple. It is the place they were born, brought up and possibly still live. It is where they went to school, graduated, got a job, met their husband or wife, got married, had kids, watched their children grow, had grandchildren and eventually died. Born and buried in the same place. But of course this model is becoming increasingly rare – even people who don’t move abroad are still probably more likely to move away from their home towns at some point in their lives than not.
So can home be wherever it is you currently live? Certainly this is what many expats feel – when you have moved around so often, home is where you currently “lay your hat”. It is about the people around you as much as the place – wherever my kids are, that is my home. It’s the place you feel secure, it is your bedroom or your photo collection or your favourite books.
When I was in my early twenties I had a period of constantly moving – from university, to live in several different homes in Gibraltar and later Spain, then back to the UK where I moved a further four times. In total I think I moved house about 12 times in the space of 5-6 years. But the way I ensured each of those often pretty stark accommodation options (which at one point included a boat) felt like home was that I carried around some of my favourite items – including 10 of my most beloved books. I would unpack, put out my books and my photos and a few other knick-knacks and I instantly felt better.
We do the same when we move now – more for the children than for us adults. When we arrived here in Pretoria we had my youngest daughter’s fairy lights with her in our suitcases. We hung them over her bed that first night before she went to sleep and immediately she felt better. It would be a LONG time before this house was home for her but it did certainly help with the transition.
Being born somewhere of course also doesn’t make somewhere home. When people ask that awkward question “where are you from” I have to first ask them to define “from”. If they then ask where I was born I have to explain that I am most definitely not from the place where I was born: it was an accident of history that my parents happened to be posted to Havana when my mother fell pregnant with me; I might have been born in Cuba but I had no memories of it and certainly have never thought of it as home. I made a return visit more than 30 years later but there was no rush of feeling of having “come home”. It was an interesting country and the people made me very welcome – but I have never once in my life claimed to be “from” Cuba.
For me, how I describe where I am “from” depends on who I am talking to. Generally, I just say I am from the UK – it is my passport home, it is where my parents were born and (mostly) brought up; it is where my family have owned a house since I was a toddler. It was where we returned after every overseas posting, where we went on holiday to see grandparents on our mid-tour leave. I went to school there and university there and have always understood the culture better than any other culture in the world – the good bits as well as the bad.
But if someone knows the UK (and especially if talking to another Brit), I get further probing. This has become easier in the last few years because we now own a house in a town in the west of the country. Our children were both born there and went to school there. We still own the house – it is let out while we are overseas – and will almost certainly return there. It is most definitely home for the children and I don’t think they could imagine living anywhere else in the UK.
But before that I would struggle. As a child, my family owned a house in one part of the country. I then went to school and later university in another. The original family house was sold and my parents bought another. I have never lived there longer than a few months. I have since lived and worked in several other parts of the country. I do not feel any great attachment to any of these places. So if asked where I was from my most common answer would be “I’m not really from anywhere”. Which would often raise a few eyebrows – although not from fellow expats and especially not from fellow Third Culture Kids.
So where are you from and where is home – two of the most difficult questions for many expats to answer. This is where I come back to my original proposal – which is that we need more words to describe “home”. Perhaps something like “home of birth”, “home of house ownership” “home of where I feel most at home” “home of where I am right now” “home of where my family is” and so on. It could certainly help clear up a lot of confusion when we are describing out summer holiday plans to friends. Although of course, for many of those friends who haven’t been expats and haven’t lived away from “home”, they wouldn’t have a clue what we were talking about!
Where do you consider home? How do you describe where you are from? And are there more ways to describe home in other languages?