I remember a college student who told me, “I’m from a little nowhere place in Illinois.” And I said, ”Wait a minute. I want to ask you something: Who told you that where you come from
As I’m preparing to leave for a short trip to Hungary – to experience the Paprika Days in Kalocsa for ChiliCult – I’m reminded of a thought that came up in my prior writing about being at home in a place: the thought, that is, of our being like tourists on this world not only when we seek to be super-homeless (a.k.a. location independent), but even when we live in a place without paying much attention to it.
It’s quite common to ask travelers about their travel philosophy – Or get travel writers to simply expound it.
Do you need luxury or go frugal; travel lightly and live out of one bag, or have kitchen and sink with you in your steamer trunk, but need a porter to get around? … All well and good (and I think there’s quite a bit to learn from that), but we spend most of our time off the road, in one place. And yet, how often do people ask, What is your home philosophy?
Of course, you can simply be born to a place, never leave it, know your usual ways around, and feel at home there. Creating deep roots with a place is hardly the worst thing.
In this age of consumerism and car-based cultures, it is only too easy to not really be at home where you live, though. Never thinking about it may be easier than having to think and decide yourself, but it may not only be less truly at home, it also is less prepared for the disruptions that increasingly happen, as people need to get uprooted for education or work, are displaced by natural catastrophes, or want to go somewhere else… and yet, search for a place to call home.
Just Visiting, or Really Living?
The fundamental question I see, then, is to know – or explore – what home you can and want to have. – Do you want to be rooted in a place, have it grow to be your home as memories organically create connections with the place and the people? Or do you want to be more of an island unto yourself, making a home wherever in the world you may go?
A simple acceptance of the place you are is quite commendable and admirable; it certainly is very common – but it can all too easily get parochial or reactionary. If you feel comfortable enough, but still don’t know so much about the place, then you may be living there, but you are just like a visitor.
A deeper intimacy with the place you were born and/or live, on the other hand, is one factor that might actually make it a home. At least a part of the feeling of being at home is, after all, simple familiarity.
And if you want to move around? Then, part of the learning to be at home will still be familiarity, the knowledge of where you are. It will get even more important, in fact.
So, either way, you can’t expect to be totally at home if you just want to wait and see. You may feel it, but you aren’t quite. Truly being at home in this world is an activity – the act of living there, not an instant feeling. Of course, feelings matter, not just familiarity.
Home Is Where…
For many of us, I dare say, home is where you put all your stuff. And whether you are hoarding or deciding to live with just 100 Things, it will be a part of where – or more definitely, what and how – your home is.
Clearly, this is one easy way a place, nowadays, grows infused with memories and (seems to grow) to be comfortable. It’s also an issue where we tend to fall out of balance, however. Not so few people pathologically hoard anything and everything, and even the majority (the present writer included) have lots of stuff that just piles up. It seemed the right thing to get at the time, and then ends up unused or even a second version of something that you already had, and therefore, a waste of money.
Thinking about belongings and the feeling of home, meanwhile, can be another good way of deciding about the importance of things, as well as of turning a place into a home:
When belongings get so overburdening, it seems like the place belongs to them, and so much money goes there, you don’t have as many reserves as you could have, it becomes a problem. You get stuck.
Finding out what (few but good things) you actually need in support of yourself and what you want to do and be, makes it easier to really be, rather than possess (or be possessed by all the stuff ;-) ), however.
Furthermore, having some things which make you feel at home – even, maybe especially, if they should be small “unnecessary” knick-knacks – helps really make yourself at home, no matter where these things may have to be transplanted. In fact, the very process of thinking about it helps already… both to realize what is important, in both practical and/or emotional respects, and to consider your attitude towards (a) home.
Home is also, as the saying goes, where the heart is. It can in part be a love for a place, and it can also be a relationship. Now, there are enough single mothers in my circle of friends to know that relationships don’t always work out as planned, but I think that the value of mutually committing to each other and providing each other the comfort to create a home even in the midst of adverse circumstances is highly underestimated nowadays.
To Accept, and Be Accepted
The matter of relationships also points to the influence of other feelings for a place. Or more importantly, of other people in that place. Many a person, I dare say, has been afraid of moving somewhere else, because the people might be unfriendly, and you don’t just naturally fit in. Many a person I’ve encountered, living abroad, went looking for a place that just felt right, found excitement and pleasure abroad – but kept feeling that the people there just rubbed them the wrong way.
It seems to me that the problem is twofold, at least.
For one, we tend to simply not notice the contradictions which exist in places where we have lived for a while, let alone grown up. Accepting them, even taking them for granted, just comes naturally – but so can a feeling that it’s not quite a home, but just the place you happened to be.
The problem with this is that maybe you also just need to accept another place as it is in order to be able to call it a home – but that is more than a bit passive, and also underestimates how much we typically complain about our home towns, home countries (let alone families ;), anyways…
The other side is the acceptance by others. Having grown up in a place or otherwise fitting in makes it easier to feel at home, of course. Constantly being pointed out as being different – as the noticeably foreign person in China is – hardly helps to feel comfortable. Not being called out as different, but discriminated in more subtle ways doesn’t exactly help, either, though. And always just staying on your native soil is not the modern way…
It’s not a matter of what is the right thing for the others to do – and I’m particularly doubtful when people go to exotic places to find a home, and then complain about the locals treating them as an exotic transplant (I don’t like it, either – but I *am* the exotic one in China) – but rather of doing right by yourself.
Maybe you can find just the perfect place of your dreams, the one to call home. I doubt it, though. Imperfections are what makes life interesting. And, admittedly, complicated.
So, you need to find your own “home philosophy,” by which you decide and do what’s right for you. Handling the imperfections of ourselves and this world is easily the most important aspect of it. Life is a balancing act, after all, whether you never move anywhere, or try and feel at home in the whole world.
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…
- …find a home?, or
- …make a home?
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.