Expat life, Personal, Sunday Musings

What is Home?

What is home? On the surface, this seems like a simple enough question with a simple enough answer. Aphorisms like “Home is where the heart is” indicate to us this much: home is warmth, home is love, home is belonging. Home is the place you go back to after a long day. Home is always there.

Once issues about nationality, citizenship, race, and migration are added to the mix, however, home becomes a contentious concept. If you’ve ever been a “foreigner” or a “minority” it doesn’t take much imagination to interpret comments like “Go home” as a “We don’t want you here“. The meaning of “home” in this context can be fraught with hostility and resentment. The assumption underlying such comments are that because you look and sound like you’re from somewhere else, somewhere else is where you must go back. It’s where you belong. You aren’t invited into the club of people who are meant to be here.

It’s impossible to avoid comments like these sometimes, even from the most well-meaning people. When I was desperately looking for a job to continue my stay in the UK (before I took this Denmark gig), many were puzzled. “Why don’t you just find a job back home? In Korea?”

The answer is complicated.

For a lot of people, “home” is just the place of their permanent residence. Of course, permanent residence is often the place in which they also happen to have full citizenship. In other cases, “home” confers a personal identity: many friends I’ve talked to will reference “home” as the place that makes them identify as “Spanish” or “Vietnamese” (despite, for instance, having citizenship elsewhere). Whatever the case, there is “home”, and for many people these links between place, identity, and legality are never in conflict. Home is not questioned.

I’m not sure how I would tie down the concept of “home” in my case, as it’s not quite as easy for me to match “home” with any of the aforementioned. In the UK, I didn’t technically have “strong ties”: no ancestors or family members living there, no spouse, no big investments, etc. Yet I lived there continuously and law-abidingly for almost 10 years, speak the language at native level proficiency (sorry, I refuse to accept that I am merely “good for a foreigner”), been educated extensively at the tertiary level there, became a Doctor (PhD) there, worked my first jobs there, and have most of my friends based there. All this, and I didn’t yet qualify for permanent residency in the UK. I most certainly didn’t qualify for citizenship. So what is “home”? The place I was born (South Korea), but don’t really remember growing up in? The place I did grow up in as a child (Austria) and would have qualified for citizenship if my parents had applied for it on my behalf? Yes, that’s right – in an alternate universe, I may well be a European citizen by now. Or does home have to do with the places I’ve resided the longest (in that case, “Europe” is the clear winner – I’ve been in Europe close to 20 years)? Is home the place in which I am currently making my livelihood (Denmark)? Is it where the people I truly love and care about are (in that case, the entire world may as well be home – many of my close friends are just as nomadic and ‘International’ as me if not more so)? If home is about what I “feel” I am, or what I identify as, I can’t say I feel particularly British, or Austrian, or Korean. And needless to say, having only just arrived in Denmark, it’s not even a question that I don’t “identify” with the Danish way of being – and I wouldn’t even know what that is (yet).

So none of it seems satisfactory, if only because my situation does not meet the substantive concept of “home” (which I’ve assumed is residence, citizenship, and identity – at least in this context of migration). Of course, if “home” was a more thin concept, like places I’ve lived or something, then all of the places I mentioned above could become plausible candidates for “home”. But this is clearly not what people mean when they talk about “home” in the substantive sense or ask me what I consider my home to be – the point of home is that it’s somehow constant, special, and unique. It’s not merely about the house you live in or the people you know.

Sure, I could have just “gone back home” to find a job. It’s clear that people think I should go back to the place I look like I’m from, as if opportunities for me will be more abundant just by virtue of that connection. It’s just that I’m not sure I did want to “go back home”, or to frame my next steps in life by reference to “home”, which as you’ve just seen is a pretty complicated concept for me. I was more interested, I suppose, in moving to the next workable adventure that made most sense to me. I would have been willing to go anywhere that would give me what I want out of life. I have, after all, been trained in my field abroad, I’ve had an upbringing in a culture away from my place of birth and citizenship, and I’ve only ever attended international schools. Perhaps not so shockingly, I identify more with cosmopolitan attitudes than country-specific ones.

Much of what it took for me to be me, then, is crucially bound up with an absence of a strong concept of “home”. As such, “home” is a demand I struggle to meet. I like where I’ve ended up. I cherish the experiences I’ve had in all the places I’ve lived. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all that I’ve experienced. And isn’t that enough? Do I really have to designate a home?

One might still protest that there is a practical consideration I am underplaying here: the reason to “go home” is not so much an existential question as it is a legal one. But here, too, I resist the idea that there is a default place I’m supposed to be simply because I was conferred a legal citizenship at birth. It might seem like the obvious thing to do, but I don’t think it’s that obvious. People move “abroad” for all sorts of reasons, all the time. No matter how valid my reasons for wanting to stay in Europe, I suspect my status as an outsider (and a racialized one at that) would always have worked against me in terms of people’s attitudes towards my wanting to settle here. This is despite me being more advantaged than many other nationals due to being South Korean, thanks to the relationship South Korea has with countries like the UK for example. So I believe there is a strong intuition (prejudice?) that is masked by a language of legality – the intuition some people have that it makes most sense for “foreigners” to “go back to where they came from”, if no obvious reason for their being “away from home” emerges.

I am of course very much aware that I’m lucky to move abroad for “nice” reasons, like studying abroad and working abroad (many people have told me I’m ‘spoiled’ because of this) – not reasons that have to do with civil instability and persecution and so on. The advantages I had in that respect are very similar to advantages that UK citizens have to move to other parts of the world. But you know what, no matter what reasons people have to migrate, resettle, vie for dual citizenship, etc., the very obvious thing that is being overlooked is that “home” can become ambiguous to an individual just by virtue of going through the experience of moving around. My official immigration status is besides the point. Something as common sense as “home”, then, can be a huge question mark for people like me who are still trying to figure out how to connect the dots between the where, the why, and the who I am.

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28 thoughts on “What is Home?

  1. I believe that home is where you want to be. Places that once felt like home can lose their edge after a while either due to memories or events that take place. Sometimes you can be in a strange place but once you’ve unpacked a few familiar things it can feel more like home.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post, very much relatable for people who are always in movement (like me 😀). As I was reading your article, I thought about the singularity of home. For immigrants, being in-between and at home both here and there, seems like a commonality. Personally, I find it comforting to think that I have more than one home, and that I can “create” home in places I end up in.

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  3. This was such a beautiful post, and to me it felt so full of emotion that I couldn’t help but think about the deeper meanings that are in play behind the word “home”. It’s so sad to see people judging so immediately on the basis of someone’s appearance, completely disregarding the sense of attachment and oneness that a person may probably feel in connection to a place that they “don’t look like they belong to”
    I loved reading this post, thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Jiji. I completely get what you mean. Although, my journey as an expat has started more recently (in South Korea), I’ve always searched for a place I belong and one that gives me a sense of belonging. I loved your thoughts and the way you articulate yourself! All the best for your new adventure in Denmark! Take care and stay safe! xo
    Cheryl

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Having the attention span of a squirrel 🐿, I don’t normally read longer posts in there entirety. Yours was an an excellent exception! Like you said, perhaps home is more of a feeling about a place than an actual GPS location. I’ve certainly lived in a few places weren’t home—at least not in my heart 💜.

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  6. You have made many valid points and I agree with them. In large part, at the nearly age of 68, I have never really decided on what ‘home’ is. I now live with my oldest daughter due to the ever increasing rise in rent. I had a house I bought with a then partner and lived in it for ten years but it really never felt like ‘home’ but only a stopping off point leading to somewhere else. Other than the house I grew up in, in Southern CA, I have never had anywhere that felt like ‘home’. I have moved many times through the years for many different reasons….none the same as yours…and always have remained on the West Coast of the US. So, therefore, I do not feel comfortable to go from country to country and to consider myself, as some do, an expatriate. I don’t feel at ease in traveling by plane and prefer driving everywhere so land is good. I do not feel at ease in my daughter’s house and am not sure that will ever happen and am hopeful that changes come by way so that I can once again move on…but one never knows. I do know that I had open heart surgery in 2015 and have an artificial heart valve and depend on blood thinners and the closeness of a cardiologist. I also know that I do not feel comfortable to fall asleep, in my daughter’s house, anywhere but in my bedroom. Therefore I am always telling people it is ‘not’ my home because it simply is not. My expectations for my own future may not be realistic given my heart condition but I still hope, nonetheless, that things will change. Like yourself, I am not really sure what it is that ‘home’ means. It is not an easy thing to define and much more complicated than most people would like to admit that it is. Do take care. Thank you for this post.

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  7. Wow! This post is so interesting for me to read because I’ve only lived in one place my entire life–midwest America. But I always love hearing other stories from people who live in different countries. The only way that I can really relate is that, as a Christian, we are citizens of heaven (as the Bible says). We live with an eternal perspective since we long to be with Jesus. I hope you have a blessed and safe rest of your week!

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  8. I totally relate to your post! I too don’t usually read long intensive posts but I also have led a nomadic life for many more decades, lived and worked on 4 continents and struggled with these questions. I usually used the stock reply “where the heart is”, kept it safe and neutral.
    Just now I am making a decision to buy into a place in my state of origin, forced back her due to my mother’s aging fraility. Now she has died I will have the finances to ‘settle’. And to have a “secure” home BASE is bringing me a huge sense of relief! Doubt it will ‘feel’ like home, maybe I will be surprised. But to have a base to travel out from is a luxury I thought would never happen.
    So it’s not home but a secure base … good luck in your new adventure. I feel pretty certain that Denmark will make you feel more welcome than UK! UK colonised too many countries but are still bigoted toward anyone not white no matter how many generations you’ve lived there. Danes are far more open minded 🙂

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  9. I appreciate the organization of thought in your post. It is clear to me that you are a writer, perhaps you do that habitually in your work. It is easy to follow your explanation. Perhaps “home” is where your heart is. Home is where you feel safe, relaxed, and yourself completely. Home is where you can walk around in your pajamas all day and not feel compelled to get dressed. ha ha – Take care, David

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  10. I moved a lot when I was young (even if it was in the same country) and I feel today that I have no real roots ( in fact I choose them). I know too what it is to feel a foreigner (even if I speak the same language ! ), but your experience is really richer, more intense and instructive. Thank you for sharing.

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  11. Lovely post, Jiji! A house is a legal entity that can be marked on a map and found using GPS. But a home is where the heart is! I hope you will find all the happiness in the new country that you call home now 🙂

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  12. Excellent definition of HOME. Home is where heart is. But sometimes that does not work. Suppose you are surrounded by thieves, robbers, etc and you left that home. Still your heart is there. Can you call this as a home? 😁

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  13. Its a crazy world, and the UK is particularly crazy. I can’t say I’m without nationality, never having moved from the UK, but while reading (aside from feeling sympathetic) I was thinking about this guy from the Philippines I was reading the other day on his blog – he talked about how he felt stuck there, and that its very hard for him to get visa’s compared to those from more powerful nations. Then towards the end, it struck me, I come from Bedfordshire, which I consider “home” but its 20 years since I moved north to Yorkshire, as the housing is so much cheaper, I simply cant afford to go back, unless I want to put up with the higher costs. Such a drag, but then I don’t miss it so much since its not really open to me to return. (not that its such a great place or anything, though I do have more friends and family there. I wonder, do we really feel home so strongly as we move on out and develop in bigger and better ways? Of course, there’s always nostalgia. Ho hum, I wish we could all just move around without all the silly barriers and nonsense!

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  14. So many Europeans have never left their country, they can’t really fathom what you mean. As a Frenchman born in Pakistan, raised in Africa and living in Latin America, I completely understand your feeling. One tip: “Home” is where you are… (Thanks for the follow. Nice bkog you have. Will be back)
    Brian

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