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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