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?