at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

To [Insert Verb Here] a Home

I write a lot about my life-work on understanding the “Other” – presently, China – and learning to deal successfully with one’s place in the middle, between own and other. The ends of that, learning to be at home in this world, sometimes get hidden behind the fascination of how strange it can all be – both “Own” and “Other.”

“Learning to be at home” begs a question, however:
What does it take for a person to feel at home, and how do you get there?

To be even more exact, do you…

Clearly, ever more people are going in search of a better place to live, whether it be the lifestyle design crowd for their “mini-retirements,” “location independent professionals” looking for their dream location, or expats joining the masses of migrants who go to another place for the better life – or at least better chances – these places are assumed to bring to them.

One of the major aspects of globalization is the easier possibility of moving to another place – as well as the likelihood that you will find “other” people and things in your own locality, where you migh enjoy it or hate it.

Often enough, people enjoy taking on exotic things on their own terms, but could do without the people associated with them. After all, you can take a thing – Turkish döner kebap, American movies, Chinese characters, Japanese Buddhist meditation – and make it a part of your life that fits easily, even as you go about decrying the loss of (Other’s) distinct cultural identity.
Other people, however, actually behave in different ways, probably think a bit differently, making it difficult to be quite so comfortable with them – or not, especially if you don’t appreciate the position the “positive” reactions to foreigners come from and feel easily welcomed.

A major problem of the move to exotic locations is the orientalist, if not nearly colonialist, attitude it can exhibit, which becomes particularly striking when you contrast it with the opposite movement:

Americans or Western Europeans tend to move to an exotic location for the easier life, the relaxed atmosphere, the lower cost of living. One hears not so few complaints about one’s not being accepted, being near-impoverished by the lack of certain amenities – which can start with the lack of cheese and butter in China, to use an example I’ve heard – but tend not to know more than the most basic of words, and not even want to accept their surrounding culture as one to integrate into.

Contrast that with the “real” migrants who move from such poorer countries to the “First World,” only to find that the roads are stil not paved with gold, you are unlikely to go from rags to riches, the higher wages you may make get eaten by the higher cost of living – and you are quite possibly not accepted in your new society, but told to integrate yourself anyways.

In either situation, though, looking for the place that will be perfect is probably an exercise in futility. Nowhere is everything perfect. “There’s no place like home” itself may simply hide the problems behind a veneer of normalcy, a comfortable numbness. And yet, it is true too: if you find a new place that fits, or you realize that your origins are comfortable enough, after all, you can make yourself at home. And yes, I see it like that: it’s not either finding or making a home, it’s a combination of both.

As for me, give me my notebook, let me make a living, and I’ll be all right. By now, of course, there’s the woman at my side, and I’ll be happy as long as she is, wherever that is. For two, things do get more difficult again, though. Still, it only gets more important that you don’t just move past, go out searching, but also do your part – and if it’s only accepting that you will have good days and bad, feel perfect and awful at different times, no matter where you are.