Home is where the ________ is

One of the recurring questions I wonder about as an expat is the question of home. How do different people define it? Where is it?

My own sense of home has been evolving for several years. In my first year in Korea I had been provided a furnished house to share with a roommate. It was comfortable enough, though I recall spending little of my time there and feeling no great connection to it. In my second year I got a new job in a new city, and moved into a small unfurnished place that I found on my own. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to feel like a camper or a backpacker in the place I was living. I had done that for a year in Europe before coming here, and I didn’t want to live out of a bag any more, even if it was just for a year. I was determined to make myself at home.

So I did. I bought a used sofa and armchair, a kitchen table and a couple of chairs, a toaster, a coffee maker, a TV, a mattress, a desk, and a computer. I must have spent my whole first month’s pay on getting the place set up. I didn’t know if I’d be living there for more than a year, or of I’d be selling or giving away all that stuff twelve months later, but I didn’t care. I wanted to feel like I lived there, and I did. In a sense, I was “home” in that I had a comfortable place to live, a stable job that I liked, and a circle of new and interesting friends.

Even so, it would take a few more years – a few more one-year contracts signed, a few more friendships established – before I more fully felt that Korea was my home. It may sound funny to put it like this, but one day I just sort of took a look at myself and said Okay, so, this is my life. It’s hard to say when exactly, but I realized that it was not only easier but more satisfying to keep doing what I was doing than to go back and start over. When that sank in, the question of whether I was home was easier to answer, if only because there was no longer a case to be made for a life on hold anywhere else. This was apparently it.

*

From time to time, friends or relatives in the U.S. would ask me “When are you coming home?” meaning, to New York. As the years in Korea went by, this question increasingly struck me as odd. New York hadn’t been my home in any meaningful sense in several years. I may have been a bit overly sensitive – I knew they were really just asking me when they could expect to see me – but that question, phrased in that way, began to irritate me. When am I coming home? The question seemed to assume that everything I was doing – my fledgling career, my relationships, my lifestyle, my expanding interests and networks – was just some youthful phase, an inordinately long break from the real world, from which I’d eventually scramble back to start living my adult life in earnest in America. From some of the things that were actually said, it was clear that some people imagined my life to be a kind of perpetual holiday. “Traveling and enjoying yourself” was the way one relative summarized my life, never quite understanding that I worked full-time, had bills to pay, an IRA, a family, responsibility, obligations; in other words, a life that was more similar than different to theirs in almost every crucial respect. After a few years of that, Korea became my home more emphatically. To anyone who asked when I was “coming home”, I replied “I am home. You mean New York?”

In retrospect I see that I may have been a bit prickly about it. To be fair, I didn’t come to Korea thinking I’d still be here 14 years later. Until very recently, my plans never extended beyond my current contract year, so I can understand how others would not have considered that this was becoming my home, even if merely by default. More generally, the average American finds it much easier to understand why people would want to immigrate to America than why anyone would willingly leave. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, with a well-established history and mythos of the determined newcomer who battles long odds to live the American Dream. In numerous conversations over the years, I’ve found that the thought of leaving never even occurs to most people, and when it does, they almost always attribute the urge to some dark or suspicious motive. Draft-dodger. Hippy. Ingrate. Traitor.

Still, there was also a more pragmatic reason that question began bothering me. By that point in my Korea sojourn, I had already made my third or fourth trip back to the U.S., even though I had no great urge to go to the States on my vacations. I would have been just as happy entertaining visitors at home or taking a trip somewhere in Asia. The only reason I went to the U.S. at all was, not to be a January tourist in Westchester County, lovely as it is, but to visit family and a couple of old friends. To that point, nobody from the States had made a reciprocal visit. It occurred to me that I was spending three or four thousand dollars every year to fly halfway around the world to visit people, nearly all of whom made significantly more money than a new teacher, just because they assumed that I would want to rush back at every available opportunity to what they were still thinking of as my home.

Those trips were wiping out a big chunk of my savings for the year, and it began to strike me as unfair. To people who said they missed me, I took to nudging them, saying, “Well, get on a plane and come visit.” To that, folks would often say, “Wow, but it’s so far,” which is true, but isn’t the most compelling excuse to a person who has just done, for the Nth time, the very thing you are claiming it is so hard to do.

I don’t get many visitors from abroad, which I completely understand. Korea is far, it is expensive, and most Americans don’t get long vacations (like I do) and would rather spend them somewhere more relaxing or tropical (as do I). E-mail did a lot to connect me to friends and family back in 1998 when I arrived here, and in the intervening years, Facebook and Skype have further collapsed the distance between us. Many still tell me they miss me. Others are maybe a little more cautious, though I assume that they do too.

*

I’m always a little curious when I hear an expat friend, someone who has lived here for many years, talk of “going home” for the holidays. Are they really living thousands of miles from the place they consider home? Or is it just a habitual manner of speaking that I shouldn’t read too much into? Is Korea just a stop on the way to somewhere else, or have they just not reached the point where it’s easier to stay than to go back (or just not realized it)? I often wonder how other expats think of home. Where is it? What is it?

I asked my expat friends a few questions I put out in a Facebook survey and seventeen of them were kind enough to answer. One question was “Do you consider Korea home? If yes, at what point did you begin to refer to Korea as home and why?” Nine of the seventeen said Korea was home, seven said no, and one responded ambivalently. As you might expect, being married correlated very strongly with the settled feeling: all but one of the Yes group are married, only two of the No group are married (the fence-sitter is also single). Indeed, almost all of them cited being married, having kids and a stable job as reasons for feeling that way, though other things were mentioned too: having health insurance, liking the food, having a nice place to live, and just being happy.

For me too, being married and becoming a step-father have added a few extra layers of sediment over my deepening roots. It’s easier to feel that I belong here when I know there are at least four other people who feel the same way.

I’m curious about those of you living abroad: Where is home for you?

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30 comments

  1. John,
    Very insightful, lucid, well thought out blog. I understand completely why it is you feel the way you do. I, too, had moved away to another city a mere 8 hours away and lived there for over 7 years. I had a handful of visitors come up to visit (mostly my parents who made the trip once a year) and was peppered with the same question: “when are you coming home?” I responded much the same way you did. I had established myself to my “home” with a career, a network of friends and was privy enough to have a home a full time job. I empathicize with your sentiments and fully appreciate why it is you feel the way you do. I am now back “home” in South Florida after losing my job, my house and all that I worked hard for to establish myself. I chose to move back to SoFla out of necessity and am desperately trying to figure out where I want to call my next home.

    1. Thanks for reading and for the kind words, Chris. I’m glad you posted because there’s something I didn’t really clarify when I started the blog, but which you clearly picked up on, is that you don’t need to move to another country to be an expat. Moving from South Florida to North Florida, in terms of distance is roughly like moving from London to Milan. You don’t even need to go that far to find yourself far from “home”, as you know. A lot of Americans have moved long distances within America and experience a lot of the same dislocations that you and I do. I don’t know if they consider themselves expats, but I think the name certainly applies.

  2. Went to Korea to work in Oct, 97′. Returned to Can. Aug, 11′ married with son. Love it here…liked it there. 2 homes. Korea will always be in the picture. Sometimes you have to give your first country a chance too.

  3. I’ve lived in London for the last ten years, and although I love it and in many ways it is home, I don’t feel that I can call it home.
    I also can’t call Seattle home, and although I’m planning on going to the states for an extended period of time, I don’t feel like I’m more partial to one part more than another.

    I think that being away for so long has given America more of a national identity in my mind, and as I’m not the kind of person who is that interested in settling down or having a home, traveling in the states is about as close to a homecoming as I’ll probably ever get.

    Saying that, I’ll always end up back in London. It’s magnetic like that. Maybe that’s what home really means.

    1. I have one or two friends for whom the idea of home is similar – they don’t really seem to have one or even be particularly concerned about having one or not having one. I can understand then how home could be the place you feel most drawn to. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Although I have been living back in Canada for years now I still consider Korea my home away from home. The fact that I now have two korean stepchildren and a Korean wife here in TO ( not to mention friends, a butt load of in-laws, nieces and nephews back in the ROK) helps to keep my ties there strong. However, it was after living in Pusan for a couple of years with nice digs, rock’n girlfriend and a sweet gig, that I began to consider Korea home. I surprised myself after a trip of a couple of months roaming around Cambodia and Vietnam when, returning to Pusan from the Kimhae Airport and just approaching the city from acrosss the bridge where the city skyline becomes clear, that I said to myself, “it’s good to be home.” From then on my “hometown” of Toronto was no longer home and I found the reajustment to Canadian “culture” when I did return much more difficult than the adjustments I had to make living in Korea. Here pople were not doing much of anything interesting where back in Korea most of my friends were doing what I was doing, namely, learning new languages and travelling to remote and interesting places. I earned four black belts in haedong gumdo when I was there. Most people in North America have never heard of it. After teaching in Korea for ten years at almost every level I found teaching the barbarians back here intolerable. I left the profession as a result.

    I remember your move to that first apartment in Pusan, John. My boxing buddy KiDong and I heped you move that stuff into your new digs. I also remember your first house warming party there, drinking soju and smok’n blond hash. Good times my friend. (PS I understand that KiDong has a boxing gym in your neighborhood. If you see him say hello. I miss the tough little bastard.)

    1. I remember that well. Haven’t seen Gidong in ages, but will say hi if I do (and can recognize him).

      I feel the same way when I fly back into Busan from anywhere: I’m home. I still get excited to go to New York, but it’s a different feeling.

      Good to hear from you, amigo. Keep in touch.

  5. Great post John, I really enjoyed reading it. It certainly will make me think about my phrasing before I ask a friend that finds his\her home abroad a similar question. Hope you and the family are well.

  6. Hey John,
    I give you a lot of credit for venturing out of your comfort zone and country, kind of like what all of our ancestors did here to the US back 100 years ago. You are trying something different and that’s brave. I can honestly say I know three people total including you who have moved from the US to Asia without it being a company move with guaranteed pay, housing, etc.

    Knowing that unemployment in New York has been over 8% for over four years and I see in South Korea it has steadily been under 4%….what is your take on why so many Korean nationals immigrate here? Is the Queens International marketing department that good?

    1. Hey Tom. There are a few reasons, but the reason that I see most commonly is access to better higher education options. U.S. universities in general are much better than the universities here.

      Or it could just be a kickass marketing department over there in Flushing.

  7. Well done. I bought a few things like furniture, art, and flowers for my flat. Despite the fact that my husband and house are in the US, I would like to be comfortable in Japan. I get the “when are you coming home” all the time, but my position is a temporary one.

    1. To me that was important too; I wanted to feel like I really lived here whether it turned out to be my home for the long haul or not. We Americans are often fond of pointing out the distinction between a house and a home, but I have to say that a comfortable place to live does in fact go a long way toward making me feel at home.

    1. Hello my friend! You know the h— I went through while in Korea, and I became angry and bitter because of it.. Needless to say, I didn’t feel at home. However, during my third year I found a Korean church in which the pastor was very open to foreigners. They had an English academy and missionary school with students from others parts of Asia, Africa, and North America. It was there I found “my calling and place” in Korea. I soon had to leave due to visa issues and I felt like I was being torn from my home. I have been back in the states for many years and Alabama is now my home, but I still miss Korea.

      1. Hey, Rosa! Thanks for visiting my blog. Sure, I remember the Ulsan days well. I give you a ton of credit; I couldn’t have put up with one-tenth of the crap you had to put up with on a daily basis. I can only try to imagine your pain and bitterness, but I have to say that throughout whatever was going on you always handled yourself with such grace. You are a far stronger person than I, and you are a great inspiration to me. I’m glad you’ve found home. Let me know if I can send you a kimchi care package from the old country. Be well and best of luck with everything in the new year.

  8. Left Liverpool 15 years ago. Lived in so many places since then that Im happy to have a bed and a buzz and an income anywhere. Except in Ho Chi Minh City…that place is shite…never be stupid enough to make that place yer home and youll be okay.

  9. To answer your question “where is home?” It’s said, “home is where the heart is.” It’s clear, your heart is and has been in Korea for a very long time.

  10. I just realized that I never responded to this thought-provoking post. Interesting that I didn’t respond, since I myself entitled a recent post “Home for the Holidays.” I am not quite sure how I feel about where my “home” is. I still identify strongly with St. Louis, as I lived most of my life there, have close friends there, and have both of my parents there. I never linked Omaha to “home”, as I only lived there for 6 semesters, despite the fact that college is where I formed wonderful friendships and became who I am. Geneva was “home” for a time, in that I lived with a family and felt a sense of belonging, but I was always aware of how temporary it would be. And while my life is based in Amiens, with my partner, my friends, and my school, it’s hard to respond to other French people that “my home is Amiens” (especially since there’s no good translation of “home” in French) or that I’m “from” Amiens (in the sense that, depending on how you understand, “Je suis de,” this is theoretically impossible in my case). And then the fact that I am a foreigner with another foreigner, who clearly defines his “home” as Tunisia, I tend to associate that concept with “my country of origin.” And of course, everything has been temporary, up until now, and I’ve only been gone four+ months, with no clear idea of when and if I’ll return to live in the United States.

    Great question. Great post. I’m one of those people who thinks that those who choose not to spend money to go see the people they care about, especially if they have that money to spend, don’t understand the sacrifices that those people make the other way around. Hopefully I’ll get to Korea someday (most likely when I have a steady job).

    1. Sounds like your idea of home is in flux as well. You raise a good point about your hometown – I always feel that mine will always be special to me too. I just don’t happen to live there anymore.

      I also agree that some people don’t quite understand the sacrifice that a poor teacher has to make when he, for example, chooses to freeze his butt off in New York while everyone he knows is working when he could just as well (and for the same cost) be chilling on a beach in Thailand.

      Speaking of which: I just got back from from a fantastic 2-week vacation in Hawaii, which is my excuse for the slow response. Thanks again for dropping by.

  11. I’m glad that you told me about this post in your comment on my blog. Like I mentioned in my blog, to me, home is where my family is. I live with a family here in Spain and both of them are also expats (He is from Colombia and she is from Venezuela, but they have been in Spain for over 15 years) and he told me that he was finally able to feel like Spain was home when he married and started his family there. He mentioned that before that it was always difficult for him to leave Colombia when he visited his family. So perhaps once I have my own family, I will be able to think of any place being my home, as long as they are with me.

  12. First of all, I face these questions on a day to day basis too!! My husband and I bought a house in Taiwan over 4 years ago and it is the place where I live and consider home but Canada still holds a special place in my heart and is home to me as well. I spent a month in Canada last year and I remember feeling in awe being surrounded with everything familiar and enjoying everything I love about the place. With that being said, it was great to return to my home in Taiwan. Personally, I like to think that I enjoy the best of both worlds!!! I talk about it more in this linked post! http://foreignsanctuary.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/foreign-sanctuary-familiar-oasis/

  13. The tagline for my bloy is actually “Home is where my suitcase is…” and it couldn’t be more true these days. I always considered the town I grew up in “home,” but that is changing because a lot of my family is moving away. It really makes me feel homeless in a way. Korea isn’t my permanent home, and I probably won’t have one for quite some time. It’s an odd feeling.

    1. That’s an interesting comment, Meagan. The town I grew up in stopped being home to me a long time ago, but it’s still special and I still consider it my hometown. The only person in my family still living there is my mom, and I never really thought about how my relationship to the town would change if she were to leave. I like walking around when I visit and revisiting old memories and things, but she’s really the only reason I go back there at all anymore. Interesting to consider how that might change.

      I see from your blog that you live in Ulsan – is that right? I lived there for a year back in 98-99. I doubt I would recognize the place any more. I met some great people there, but wasn’t a fan of the city itself to be honest. I didnt quite feel like that was home for me either, but I made the most of it. I hope you do too.

      Thanks for dropping by my blog. Looking forward to checking out your blog too.

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