In an age where so many of us are geographically on the move, what does the word ‘home’ mean today?
What exactly is ‘home’?
Traditionally, (the) ‘home’ is regarded as a physical place, the place you return to after a hard day at school or work. The place that you call your sanctuary.
In such a mobile world, ‘home’ really isn’t just about a fixed location or the house you live in. The assumption that people live in one place and abide by one set of cultures and norms no longer holds; home today often means more than one country.
Diasporas and migrants constantly associate themselves with dual or multiple countries that they all call ‘home’. Parachute kids or third culture kids (TCK) are whisked to around the world for education by their parents and often these kids thoroughly enjoy their experiences in different lands, even calling these places ‘home’ at times. Travelers or globe trotters who can’t sit still in a single spot have been known to spend extended periods of time in exotic locations where they confidently say they feel ‘at home’.
More and more of us are affiliating ourselves with not only various locations but also a smorgasbord of cultures that all serve to, well, make us feel ‘at home’. As such, the ‘home’ is a rather ambiguous concept today. French anthropologist Marc Augé has aptly proposed that a person is at home “when he is at ease in the rhetoric of the people with whom he shares life”.
It’s also important to keep in mind that ‘home’ has always harboured the ideas of belonging, comfort, acceptance, tolerance and security. These are essentially the qualities that we expect to feel when we feel ‘at home’.
In the (modern) broader sense, especially for TCKs and migrants who are/have settled down in a certain place, ‘home’ is about feeling comfortable with those around us and it is a space where certain local and global elements – be they from the motherland, the places we have traversed or in the new land they currently reside in – are present.
I flitted from city to city growing up and I’m certain I can’t call a particular place home. Some bits and pieces – food, people, music etc. – of every capital I’ve been to have stuck close to my heart. If I could magically reconstruct all of them right in front of me at this moment right here in my room with the wave of my hand, then I would confidently say that I’m ‘at home’.
But this is of course impossible so like any other nomad or migrant who feels lost at times and craves to feel a sense of rooted-ness, of belonging ‘at home’, from time to time, I consciously – and also perhaps unconsciously – seek out to recreate an environment that embodies the ideals of home around me.
For TCKs and/or migrants living in a ‘foreign’ land, (based on my personal experiences) the ‘home’ can essentially be embodied within:
1. A plethora of social relationships
Many of us have family and friends scattered all over the world today and more often than not we actively make the effort to keep in touch with them. I’ve made a whole bunch of friends during my time in Malaysia and Singapore and we hit each other up through phone or Skype when we feel like it.
Don’t we all get fuzzy feelings when our mum back in the motherland or our high school bestie who is living in another continent calls and asks us how we’ve been? Don’t we feel warm inside when we hear what’s happening on their side of the world and/or the places where we grew up, straight from the horse’s mouth? I know I do.
Such intimate conversations are often occasions when we feel like we’re talking to people who understand us (and strangely at the same time we feel grateful when they point out our flaws, criticize us). These ever so fleeting moments that usually take up a mere tenth of our day arguably purport the values ‘home’ – we tend to be treated with respect and accepted for who we are in these circumstances.
And let’s not forget our real world face-to-face relationships in the city we currently reside as they do in fact also constitute a part of ‘home’. My regular chats with the elderly neighbours or the ice-cream seller just round the corner from my place who gives me big scoops of the sweet dessert often light up my day a wee bit.
It feels heartening to converse with people that we see in reality on a regular basis. Whether we know it or not, typically during these instances we are at ‘home’: we feel secure. We are engulfed by the typical rigours of life and plans are unlikely to go drastically wrong. What’s not to take comfort in the familiar?
Sometimes we take pleasure in reminiscing about our previous experiences. Sometimes we also thoroughly seek out these experiences from our past, and deliberately too. There are times where I maniacally search for a particular song that I used to hear all the time while I was in, say, Malaysia, and when I did find the tune I was looking for, I play it over and over again. And I slip into a blissful reverie. With idyllic thoughts running through my mind, of course.
At times we purposefully suss out food that we often ate in the motherland or other exotic places just because we miss eating it. Eating ‘authentic’ Singapore Hainanese chicken rice in Melbourne never fails to make me feel at ease, contented, no matter how sub-par the dish tastes here as that’s what my tasting palate loves. One is a happy glutton.
And that’s why memories can actually be a taste of ‘home’.
3. Cultural values
The values we were brought up with tend to be the anchors that ground our character and personality. When faced with difficult decisions to make, it’s not uncommon to think of similar situations we’ve been through, reflect on our roots and act in a moral manner. Quite a number of us also abide by traditional customs. I make it a point to celebrate the Lunar New Year each year in Melbourne. I and am very proud of my Chinese heritage and absolutely love how united and inviting the local Chinese community are in showcasing the intriguing and enlightening aspects of their (our) culture whether through festivals, food or conversation in broken English.
And cultural values are tied to feeling ‘at home’ in that they provide some familiarity and reliability in a constant changing world, as sort of mentioned above. It’s about being rooted and feeling a sense of belonging to a community that’ll support you if you support them, at least for me.
But that’s not to say that our cultural values don’t change over time and we don’t adopt newfound beliefs or lifestyle practices. After living in Australia for more than a decade, I’ve learnt more about Australian history, sport and culture and what Australia Day means, and I feel more Aussie than ever today.
I feel more connected to my Australian identity than ever before and can confidently say Australia constitutes part of what ‘home’ is to me. Why? Firstly, being Australian feelsright to me – I’m comfortable with it. Secondly, and more importantly, quite a lot of people I’ve met here are curious of my heritage and they have wholeheartedly come to accept me for who I am as a TCK, an Asian-Australian.
Ultimately, the modern ‘home’ is arguably made up of many pieces. ‘Home’ is akin to a complex jigsaw puzzle that is hard to put together. At times, while we have fun putting together the puzzle, some pieces go missing and this is more than a tad frustrating as we can’t finish the puzzle – and that’s the essence of ‘home’.
From this analogy, there is no such thing as a perfect home where we are happy 100 percent of the time.
It’s just like how TCKs and migrants – even travelers and wanderers – feel very much ‘at home’ and at the same time very much distanciated from ‘home’ in a new land. They tend to be content with some aspects of their current lifestyle while at times feel hollow that some aspects are missing or lacking.
At the end of the day, it’s the simplest, everyday things that make us feel at home. On some occasions.
I stumbled upon a song Home:Word last year by California-bred Asian-American band Magnetic North and singer Taiyo Na that perfectly encapsulates the modern idea of the home. Take a close listen to the lyrics. Though the song does sort of imply that home is a fixed location, it just about sums up what I’ve been trying to say about the meaning of ‘home’ today.