What Does Home Mean And Feel Like For A Third Culture Kid?

Home. It sounds like a simple word to define. But it’s a word that has layers and layers of meanings.

For many migrants, third culture kids, parachute families, expats, travellers, interracial couples, refugees, asylum seekers, Asian Australians, Asian Americans, African communities, Indian diaporas and really anyone who has moved around or hangs around different cultural groups, home can be hard to define. Home can be more than one place.

Home is a place and all that space around us.

Home is a place and all that space around us.

There’s always a personal connection to home and each of us understands home differently. What is ‘home’ to someone may not be ‘home’ to someone else.

All my life, home has been ambiguous to me. Relocating numerous times around Australia, Singapore and Malaysia as a kid, it felt like I never stayed in a place long enough to feel a sense of connection with anything and anyone around me. Whenever I felt settled in one place, it was time to pack up, say goodbyes and move again. Growing up I felt every bit the oddball in search of someplace to feel at ‘home’, and the meaning of home.

Home is about the both the tangible and intangible. The Oxford Dictionary defines home as the place where one lives permanently. Audience reception researcher David Morley argues that the home and homeland may not necessarily be a physical place. Philosopher Vincent Decombes proposes home is when one is at ease with the people whom they share their lives with. According to cultural theorist Stuart Hall, for many migrants and descendants of migrants, there is no going ‘home’.

Home. It’s a place as much as it’s a space as much as it’s a feeling. It’s an evolving space of relations and emotions. There are many ways we can think of home:

1.  Place

Home is about geography and location, that place where we spent considerable time and perhaps keep returning to. It could be a house or ‘hometown’ where we grew up. The place where we were born. That college dorm. That house we’re living in right now. According to environmental psychologist Susan Clayton, an individual’s house is part of their self-definition; personalisation happens behind the front door. What makes a place feels like home compared to anywhere else is the familiar and what’s within it that speaks to us: the furniture that reflects our style, that path leading home that we can count on, all kinds of familiar surroundings.

For many on the move, it’s not uncommon to feel a sense of ‘in-betweeness’ in the midst of passing through different places. Throughout my seven years living in Singapore, I was constantly surrounded everywhere by chatter in Chinese, which I never fully understood. For most part I felt out of place, but my classmates were always kind enough to speak some English to make me feel included. This didn’t stop me from knowing my way around Singapore fairly well, though, hanging out at coffee shops and malls that tickled my fancy to pass the time.

Finding our way home can feel like an eternal struggle.

Finding our way home can feel like an eternal struggle.

2. Spatial mindset

More broadly speaking, a home may be a place that we connect with and touches the deepest sentiments within. Or it can be a mindset where we feel most at ease. It could be a quiet, reflective walk by the beach. Celebrating a birthday in a foreign part of the world, feeling empowered. Eating yummy dumplings in Chinatown that leaves us hankering for more because they taste so much like the ones we ate a long time ago.

As such, a home is a space where we feel physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually content. As behavioural scientist Winnifred Gallagher wrote, feeling at home ‘comes from an intimate relationship between us and our most personal place’. Initially when I moved back to Melbourne, for a few years I listened to a lot of Canto-pop music; it was the kind of music I always knew and loved, and a great way to upkeep my Cantonese. These days my interest in music has diversified and I get by with the Cantonese I know in a predominantly English-speaking Australia. These days, lying in my cozy bed is that one place and space where I feel most content, where my deepest, darkest and most hopeful thoughts of the past, present and future swirl in my mind.

3. Control

Home is that space where we feel things are certain and in control, things as we want them to be, emotions in check. Drawing on his study on the homeless and those sleeping rough, social researcher Cameron Parsell argues home is a desired way of living. Similarly, research scientist Maria Vittoria Guiliani argues the feeling of home stems from having some ability to exercise control in a space.

When a space is in our control, we feel we can do what we want, when we want without watching our back. Every now and then here in Australia, I get ‘Hey chink!’ or ‘Your first language isn’t English!’ said straight up to me, be it at work or when I’m casually walking the streets. But I don’t roll out of my cozy bed each day worrying I have to watch out for racism – it’s my choice. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and their opinion is not what I have to agree and live with.

Home lies in the everyday things that we share.

Home lies in the everyday things that we share.

4.   A plethora of relationships

Sometimes in a given arena, those around us makes us feel most at ease, most happy, most content, most like ourselves. It could be those who have got our back even when we are being ridiculous. Those who pump us up with false positivity when we are down. Someone whom we call our partner in crime. As philosopher Ágnes Heller said, going home means going to ‘where we feel safe and where our emotional relationships are at the most intense’. Many migrants experience what post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha calls the ‘third space’, a space where one assumes hybrid identities (emergence of new identities amidst personal cultural conflicts) in order to both assimilate in the ‘new’ land and connect with the ‘homeland’ – identities stemming from a flux of connections over time.

Call me over-optimistic, but I wish every connection could last forever. With every move over the years, saying goodbye to friends never got easier for me. Some of us still keep in touch, and these are the ones whom I freely talk to and laugh with at cultural in-jokes. Meeting people in Australia never has been easy (the introvert and anxiety within me is partly to blame) and initially when I first moved back and met new people here, I’d try and drop the Singapore-Malaysian accent off my tongue which I say I haven’t been able to entirely.

5. Memories

Home is what we used to know, where we were previously. Home is a temporal construct, what has been, what we have left behind and what will never be once again – only to be relived in our minds. In general for some of us that could be the wild pub crawl nights during our university days. That relationship that seemed so perfect but was not meant to be. Historian Benedict Anderson coined the term ‘imagined communities’ which suggests members share a mutual connection though they might not be geographically close. For many global citizens, remembering the past in the present through the subtlest of ways is a means to relive nostalgic times – one never truly getting over ‘homesickness’ so to speak.

These days eating sub-par dim sum occasionally in Chinatown here in Australia reminds me of the times in Malaysia where I ate much better dim sum practically every week at roadside restaurants  and loved it. These days the occasional 30’C day in Melbourne transports me back to the endless humid days in Singapore where I cooled off with iced sugarcane juice and tropical breezes blowing all round.

*  *  *

Comfort. Security. Warmth. Refuge. Togetherness. Solitude. Relaxed. Peace. Belonging. Acceptance. Love. These are typical words and feelings we come to think of when we speak of home.

Home lies in what we've always known, and what we feel in the present.

Home lies in what we’ve always known, and what we feel in the present.

Not all of us will feel like we have some place or space to call home. Not all of us will feel at home all the time. A questionnaire commissioned by the BBC found social classes (e.g. established working class, mobile middle class, emerging affluent class, middle class which is what most Australians identify with) exists today, and hence cultural divisions too.  For those of us on the move or are part of a minority in a given place, it can be hard to feel settled especially when we feel culturally out of place.

Home. It’s about finding a connection with a place as much as it’s about belonging and feeling accepted in that space.

‘Going home’ after a day at work is one thing. ‘Feeling home’ is another thing altogether.

Home is a changing place, space and emotions within.

Home is a changing place, space and emotions within.

Living in Australia over the last ten years, aside from the racist remarks I mentioned earlier, many like to ask me out of curiosity, ‘Where are you from?’. It’s a question I’d rather not hear and don’t have an honest answer to. It’s a question that makes me pause and think about where I fit in, bringing to mind culturally out-of-place instances like I’ve described earlier, reminding me how so often I feel too Asian to be Australian, too Australian to be Asian.

Is a place and space a home when you feel a part of it but others around you think you shouldn’t be a part of it? It can be. In line with acceptance, home is about wanting to see yourself in others, and wanting others to see themselves in you.

For migrants, expats and anyone who feels ‘in-between’, at times we need to assimilate to feel more settled. That can involve assuming a new identity like speaking another language or eating foreign food or even changing your name. In the process of settling in and calling somewhere a home, it’s not something we might feel comfortable with and we might feel like we’re playing pretend. And so there can be the eternal struggle to feel settled. As I wrote in a previous post, there’s no such thing as the perfect home:

‘Home is like a jigsaw puzzle that you can’t put together because you don’t have all the pieces.Home” is the world and the world is our oyster.’

Home is where we are and what we feel in the moment.

Home is where we are and what we feel in the moment.

While I’ve built a life here with steady work, a roof over my head and a circle of people who have got my back, calling Australia home feels strange to me. Calling Singapore or Malaysia home feels odd too. Over the years it really has been the fleeting moments that we often take for granted in between shuttling here and there that have struck a chord with me the most. It probably explains why my bed – really all of my beds wherever I’ve lived – is really that one space where it feels right every, single day: always there without a second thought, somewhere I can fall into face first or back flop and still honestly be me and my thoughts.

Home. It’s about where we are going, dreaming moving towards something, someplace, someone, while enjoying the now, enjoying what and who we’ve got.

It’s an arena where we can fall back on and remind ourselves that simplicity is what matters.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?


224 thoughts on “What Does Home Mean And Feel Like For A Third Culture Kid?

  1. This piece makes one think.👍💙

    For me, home now is wherever my family is together. Even from that home, I need a little retreat – the solitude AAthatnd silence that keeps me in touch with my deepest thoughts and lets me recollect.
    Funny, the place I used to call home, the place I am from, somehow felt strange to me the last time I visited with my family. It changed. I changed. My concept of home changed.

    Happy new year, Mabel. 😊


    • ‘It changed. I changed.’ Such profound words, Imelda. Indeed a place can feel different to us though we have always loved it. It’s great that your family makes you feel at home, and hope they don’t get in your way too often 😛 Happy New Year and wishing you well for the year ahead 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This post is amazing food for thought. As a child, I felt that I didn’t fit in for different reasons and couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But ‘not fitting in’ was a HUGE blessing in the end. It shaped me and got me traveling to places / with people that felt more like home. Fast forward to 55 years, where I’ve learned love myself and to feel at home in my own skin. Now I define home as ‘anywhere the anchor drops’. The downside is that I am in a perpetual state of homesickness for the many people and places I have left in my wake.


    • I am sorry to hear that you never fit in while growing up, Lisa. You have such a contagious personality that you seem hard to be liked. But good that it shaped you to be who you are and today, the ocean and world is your home. Sail on and Team Wobbles is cheering you every step of the way. At the rate and adventures you are going, Mr Wobbles thinks you will set some kind of world record 🙊 ✌

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a wonderful post Mabel. I love your interpretation of home on various points. To me home is about feeling comfortable and not just a confined space where you live, sleep and eat. While I never had an opportunity to live in another city for extended time but I have stayed in many cities for months. That did give me perspective. Of being able to compare two different cities and arrive at conclusion on various points
    I love these pictures which you thoughtfully collated. In fact, I love your pictures a lot, Mabel. I like the perspective and wide angle view. Thanks for posting this write up on home which most of us don’t even think about and stirring up a thought.


    • It is a very thoughtful interpretation of home you got there, Arv. Lucky you have managed to travel for a bit to experience some place different, and often it is these mobility experiences that will make you realise what you’re comfortable with. Jaipur looks like such a colourful home 🙂 So true we don’t usually think much about the idea of home…and a lot of the time we take ‘home’ for granted.

      Thank you so much for your kind words on my photos. Shooting landscape and wide angle is what I really like taking images of, and maybe this will continue this year 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a beautiful reflection on a word we use all the time: home. I was moved a round a lot as a young child. I hated the neighborhood where my family settled when I was nine. So, I had conflicting feelings about “home.” I do feel that my current residence is truly a home: I chose it.
    On another note, I am in love with that dumpling. You really gave it pride of place in that bowl!


    • Thank you so much, Linda. You are very kind with your words. So lovely to hear you are happy with where you are living right now and may it be home for a long time coming for you.

      I also love that dumpling shot. The light and shadows were falling very nicely over it 🙂


  5. Hey Mabel….it is soooo good to be back in blogsville and especially here on your site! This is a great post, makes you think. Of course, I’m lazy and hate to think, but still. It’s kind of odd for me to think about “home” because I’ve never felt at home. Home for me, I guess, is where ever I am. I’m for some reason, simply not attached to a place, or (perhaps sadly) people. I love people, but I don’t seem to have an issue with leaving and moving on. happy new year 2018!!


  6. Another great post and one which has brought back memories of my original home in England. My mom was always looking to better our lot, so as soon as we had enough money to move to a nicer and more upmarket area, that’s what we did. This meant that I left most of my friends behind when I was a teenager. We didn’t have a home phone, so I totally lost contact. When I went to college in a different city at seventeen, I made a few new friends, but after my studies, I got married and moved to another town. Not long after that hubby and I decided to emigrate to South Africa, starting out in a town east of Johannesburg. When we could afford to buy our own house, we moved south of the city and then to a bigger house north of the city, finishing up in an even bigger house closer to the city. Here was where we lived and worked and made friends for about fifteen years, before retiring down to the coast, leaving those friends behind of course. We now live in the USA and have had to make all new friends. I have come to think of this as home, although when we travel back to South Africa, it still feels as though I’m going home’ for a while. Naturally, we’ve had to contend with the different cultures as we’ve changed countries, but somehow have always managed to make friends and fit in. I’m so sorry that you’ve had to deal with so much racism on your life’s journey. Having moved around so much, I’ve learned to accept people for who they are, and not for how they fit into the ‘accepted’ colour or culture scheme. We are all human beings with similar hopes and aspirations and should always treat others with kindness and respect. If we do this, we can feel at home wherever we happen to find ourselves. Happy New Year, Mabel. xx


    • This was such a lovely comment to read, Sylvia, and thank you for sharing your home(s) and where you’ve been. It sounds like you’ve moved a lot and adapted whenever you had to. Sorry to hear you weren’t able to keep in touch with your school and college friends, but hope you still do with some of them whom you met in South Africa. These days with Facebook and all of social media, you never know who you can track down and reconnect with again.

      True. Racism has been a part of my life, and it’s something I will probably I will have to put up with. It does sound like you didn’t experience it much and have a great appreciation for different cultures. From your blog, it is also lovely to read about you and your backyard flying and water friends – they seem like one big family and home 🙂 ‘We are all human beings with similar hopes and aspirations and should always treat others with kindness and respect.’ You said it and I can’t say it better.

      Happy New Year and wishing you the very best for the year ahead ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This posts resonates with what I’ve been feeling for a long time now, both as a traveller and expat. I think home is a place where I feel peace. It’s where I can be me. By that definition, home can be anywhere in the world. 🙂 Happy 2018, Mabel!


  8. A very thought-provoking post, Mabel. For me, home is the actual building that I currently live in. We only moved into this house just under two years ago, but it’s what I call home. Why? Because, as you mentioned in your post, it’s the place where I feel most comfortable and most loved in. However, I don’t consider the city I now live to be my home. Probably because too many other people live here and we can’t all possibly call it home, can we? Then again, maybe those that were born in this city can call it home?
    I could ask many other questions about what ‘home’ means to us, but that’s because your post was so thought-proking.


    • You are the first person to openly say that the building they live in is your home. A house and not a city a home – fascinating and it is what it is to you. I can relate. Sometimes I go out into the city and there are waves of people, and because I don’t deal well with crowds, it’s hard to call that moment home. Maybe that’s the way with you too – and maybe you find it hard to relate with some things about your city.

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Hugh. It really is very kind of you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I’m the same in that I don’t like crowds, Mabel. I can understand why somebody who lives in the same town or city as they were born would call it home, but that’s not the case for me. I was born in a town I never lived in. Even when I revisit it, it does not feel like home. I guess because I’ve never lived there. However, I wouldn’t call places where I have lived before, home. They are more like parts of my life. Home for me is definitely the building that I now live in.


        • ‘They are more like parts of my life. ‘ I like this saying a lot. Sometimes we simply pass through places…and that’s about it. No connection, just passing by. Hope you make many fond memories in the building you live in this year 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Mabel, You’ve got me thinking, which happens with all your thought-provoking posts. Although I’ve moved and made new homes many times in my life, memories of my childhood home are the most indelible even though I’ve spent an equal amount of time in other homes. I guess I feel lucky to have lived in different places and experienced making new friendships, however, there isn’t an equivalent for those lifelong friendships- I guess they would be my definition of home.

    Wishing you a year ahead full of inspiration, adventures and creativity! Thank you for your terrific posts.


    • It does sound like you have been on the move quite a bit when you were younger. That is so true – there is no substitute for lifelong friendships and true friends. They will make you feel great wherever you are. Hope you have a great group of friends to get you through thick and thin.

      You are very kind with your words, Jane. Thank you so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a great analysis! “Home” has always been ambiguous for me too. I grew up living in many houses in my hometown, each of them feeling like “home” when I live there. At 16, I moved across the country for school, first living in a dorm and then having my own apartment. It was a rented space, but the first where I could live alone and truly be myself. In my mind, that feeling of “where I can be myself” has always been my personal definition of home. Now, living in a country literally on the other side of the world from where I was born, I have assumed new identities – “hybrid” identities which feel more real to me than any one specific label. I frequently feel I fit no labels, so when I am forced to act like one when traveling back to my hometown, it doesn’t feel like home anymore. And yet the memories and connections I share with all the people there, both good and bad, make it home nonetheless with all its complications and intricacies. 🙂

    Thank you for writing another such well thought-out post! It triggered many emotions and thoughts within me.


    • It is interesting to hear you associate being somewhere alone as being yourself. As an introvert, I feel you. Having your own space, you learn what you like and set yourself up how you like it. It is refreshing to hear you openly admit that you don’t fit any labels, but go along with some of them momentarily because well, somehow they are a part of your culture.

      Thank you for taking the time to reflect and may home be wherever your heart is 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Mabel, Loved the way you have dissected and analysed the connotation of ‘home’ in detail. I found myself in agreement with each point that you have listed. The feel of a home is about having a deep connection with the location, associating a sense of contentment and also the feeling of having things in control. It is a place where there is a social fabric comprising of relations and friends that one can count on and the place with which one associates memories of a major portion of life. So yes, our home is a part of a person’s identity and I like how you sum it up to say that it is about finding a connection with a place as much as it’s about belonging and feeling accepted in that space.
    Though I have not faced this dilemma, now I understand when you talk about ‘in-between’, feeling and the need to assimilate to feel more settled.


    • There are so many perspectives to home. You are right in saying that it’s linked to our identity, and that it’s something where are and what we feel. These days deep connections can be hard to make since a lot of us move around and travel so much, and people also come and go with our lives – and with social media, sometimes you don’t know what and who to believe anymore. I do think home strikes us when we least expect it, and we might realise it when it is gone or when we move on to something else. It is nice to hear you know where home is, Somali. I do hope that place and space where you are feels like home for a long time to come ❤


  12. Mabel, this was a really interesting study and essay on the meaning of home, and definitely made me reconsider what my own thoughts are on it. Like you, I moved a lot as a kid. For my family, it wasn’t to new countries, but new states and cities, so much so that I didn’t have any friends for longer than a couple years. I think, for a long time, I struggled with not having a “hometown” or deep enough connections to people to attend things like reunions. If I were to really consider it, I think what you wrote summarizes my feelings best: “Home is what we used to know, where we were previously. Home is a temporal construct, what has been, what we have left behind and what will never be once again.”

    I’ve sometimes fantasized going backwards, or trying to recapture what I’ve lost from certain places, but I know even if I went back physically, it would never be the same again.

    Great piece.


    • It sounded like moving was hard for you. Even moving from city to city and state to state can be a whole new experience. Like you, I also don’t get it why people attend reunions…I never feel connected enough to go to one of them. Going backwards is sometimes possible – think visiting a certain place. But you are right in that places are never the same, they change just as much as people change.


  13. Can we have more than just one home? I feel like I have two homes nowadays and each travel, I get even more inspired in finding a new home. I do like one of the descriptions as mentioned by you, that a home is about the connection with a place as much as it’s about belonging and feeling accepted in that space. But sometimes a place grows on us too, regardless how ugly the place is, people could just accept it as their home. Well written post, Mabel..the most important thing to me to feel secure and stay inspired whenever I am home.. ❤


    • Haha, you can certainly have more than one home if you feel that way! It is so true that a place can grow on you, just like how some people can grow on you and you put up with them. If it makes you safe and secure, it’s a good place to be in and no reason why it can’t be called home ❤


  14. Your writings are always very enjoyable to read. It’s tough changing locations especially as a child.
    Somehow we manage but we always feel a sense of loss; yet, don’t know why. I decided when I got married I’d start my own family traditions. I used the memories I loved most to cerate my own traditions. It helped me a great deal. Thanks for having such insight into your journey.
    Belated Happy 2018 New Year Wishes
    Isadora 😎


    • I think you are right in that there will always be a sense of loss when we’re moving on to another place or space that we want to. So interesting to hear you built on the past to create your family traditions and hope they are meaningful traditions for a long time to come. Best wishes to you too 🙂


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