As an expat living in the U.K. for the past 8 years, the one question I’m continuously asked is “where’s home?” At first glance it seems such a simple question, a courteous way to break the ice during conversation, but it’s always provoked a certain amount of uneasiness in me. I remember how I used to bluster and hesitate in responding; the person asking me might as well have been lounging on a toadstool, smoking a hookah, and asking “whooo…are…you?”
That’s because the question of home is a deeply personal, existential and spiritual topic. Home concerns identity, helping us to situate and find our place in the world. The idea of home can be used as a litmus test, helping us decide who we want to connect with. Expats experience this tension when living abroad, deciding whether or not to remain tethered to the familiarity of an expat community. We also experience this tension when travelling. For example, what happens when you’re on holiday and you see others from your country/state/city of origin – do you move towards them or run away as fast as you can?
Home seems to be many things at once. It’s been variously described as a place, an idea, a feeling, a metaphor, and a way of organising space in our minds. We talk about the differences between a house and a home. We discuss the ideal home, how it’s meant to be a safe haven of refuge and comfort, a place of family ties and warmth. Home is a locus of life and growth, and we form strong bonds with it. We have homelands, homecomings, and homerooms. We talk a lot about it, and use it constantly in everyday communication, but home isn’t always so easy to locate with physical coordinates.
I struggle with the question of home because I’m unable to associate it with a geographical location. I grew up in the Midwest part of the States, and even as a child, I never felt like it was home. I’ve lived in New York City, and that was the same. And now I live in the U.K. but realise it’s also not quite home. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t enjoyed where I’ve lived (and where I live now). But it does mean I’ve continually inhabited a strange place betwixt and between, never quite settling down or feeling completely comfortable with where I’ve lived. The feelings that accompany this strange limbo state alternate between freedom and loneliness. I’m always thinking, where next? How long will I stay? Some of this has to do with being an expat and the transient nature of work. But much of this has to do with my ability to be at home in myself.
It’s taken me time to understand this, but I think it can be expressed very simply. They say that home is where the heart is, but you could also say that heart is where the home is. The true coordinates for home lie in the heart, so when you ask someone about home, you’re really asking them about the state of their heart. Where are their feelings about home being directed? When I came to the understanding that the relationships I’ve cultivated in my life form my personal sense of home, I felt a great sense of relief.
Sometimes people experience a loss or change in circumstance which results in a longing for someone or somewhere that’s now unattainable. It feels as if home has been taken away. As any child knows, homesickness is, in reality, a form of heartsickness. It is a state of being in which we yearn for our attachment and connection to home to be re-established. Fundamentally, I think this connection to home is comprised of two things: rootedness and belonging.
French Philosopher Simone Weill recognised the importance of rootedness, stating that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul” (1). I understand rootedness as the ability to make and cultivate a commitment of depth. Over time, as a tree’s roots grow ever further into the ground, the bond between it and the earth strengthens. It’s nearly impossible to extract it (and if you’ve ever tried to remove a large tree from a garden you’ll know exactly what I mean). We are rooted in our home environment, and committed to the bonds that have been formed, allowing them to grow ever deeper within us.
There is a strong link between belonging and rootedness, where an authentic feeling of belonging is thought to be “the experience of being rooted, by blood, within a place.” (2) Belonging links us, via the heart, to bonds of attachment with primary figures in life. This is kinship, and though it can include biological relationships, it isn’t defined by them. Belonging is thought to be an active process, something constantly cultivated through life experience shared with others. Sociologist Nira Yuval-Davis equates it with emotional attachment, safety, and feeling at home; it is “always a dynamic process, not a reified fixity.” (3) Belonging is a knowing that one is welcome and connected, feeling at home with others, feeling at home in the world, feeling at home in one’s own skin.
Ultimately, we are constantly altering our relationship with home. Moving through life, we continually negotiate the bonds and attachments we have formed with people, places, and things. We form new attachments. Older bonds may strengthen over time, and others weaken and dissolve. Our personal understanding of just what home is may change over time, too. As a living relationship centred around the experiences of the heart, home never really stays the same.
(1) Weil, S. (2001). The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind. New York, NY: Routledge.
(2) Baker, K. (2012). Identity, Memory and Place, The Word Hoard, 1:1, p.24
(3) Yuval-Davis, N. (2006). Belonging and the Politics of Belonging, Patterns of Prejudice, 40:3, p. 197-214, DOI:10.1080/00313220600769331