Where Is 'Home' for an Expat?

Where is home for an expat? - The Strayling

Moving abroad from the familiarity of one's home country can be an exciting and terrifying experience at the same time. But what happens when you visit home after years of living abroad? Suddenly not feeling at home in your own country can take you by surprise. Where's your home now, expat?

Every migrant must have heard the classic, silently judgemental comment at some point of their foreign journey: "So... when will you stop this aimless wander and come back home?" It's a harmless wish expressed by someone who loves and misses you back in where everything is just like in the old days. Someone wants you back there so things could be like they used to - you could stroll around those same old streets, buy those good old local groceries and chit chat away in your native language. It's an invitation to that reassuring familiarity, suggesting that anything and everything you experienced since leaving your home country's soil was just a temporary displacement, like a journey made by Bilbo Baggings, and in the end you can always fly back home into the open arms of your welcoming native land. But does it really work like that?

If you were born and raised in a single country to parents with a single nationality, the case looks clear at first glance: you grew up in Finland to Finnish parents, what's the problem? Your home is in Finland. Stop acting like a special snowflake. However, this blog post is not written with the thought of contesting the idea of 'home country', despite the complexity of that very notion to those individuals who have migrated at very early age  - it's to contest the idea of 'home', and how our sense of home can shift as we ramble on around the world and plant seeds of ourselves in all its different soils.

The experience of migration inevitably involves the confrontation between 'home' and 'away' - to travel is to move, to estrange yourself from familiarity and inhabit an unfamiliar space. That unfamiliarity in a new space goes by the name 'culture shock': the habits we found comfortable, reassuring and deeply rooted in our spine are gone, and have been replaced by some sort of anomaly that only poorly replaces the things you hold dear. If you're from a northern nation like yours truly, entering a southern culture sphere with much less personal space and much more kisses on cheeks can be an absolute shock for someone like us who are used to silently staring at other people from a distance. The 'Away', the opposite of your home, is filled with these anomalies, unfamiliarities and wrong kind of bread. Everything back home was so comfortable.

But as time goes by, your survival instinct kicks in and you start inhabiting this unfamiliar space with more confidence. Kisses on cheeks? Bring it on, bro! Embrace me like the latino you are! A bottle of juice and a bag of crisps for lunch? Whatever you say Tesco, I'll take your meal deal, I'm too hungry to fight it. As the days, months and years pass by, these unfamiliarities turn into familiarities: your every morning starts with a bag of apple-cinnamon oatmeal and instant coffee, you surf the tube system eyes closed and speak the foreign language in your sleep. You're on track with everything going on in your host country, every local celebrity photographed drunk in a bar, every politician embarrassing themselves in public, every reform made to a healthcare policy.

Vancouver Art Gallery - The Strayling

Then you encounter that person. "When will you stop this aimless wander and come back home?" And as the plane lands and you enter that once familiar soil of your reassuringly familiar home country, you expect everything to have stayed exactly as they were since the day you left.

But it hasn't.

Why does rye bread make my tummy ache so bad? Why does Finnish coffee suddenly taste so bitter? What new transportation system? Wait, where did they put that new tramline? No sorry, I haven't really followed the news, don't know what's going on in the politics. Yeah.

The home your family talked about suddenly feels so alien. Why? What did you do wrong? This is your home country, you've missed salty liquorice since the day you left, and died to spend a day in the summery, sunny streets of Helsinki just like back in the days. Why does it feels so... not at all home?

Our understanding of 'home' comes from familiarity. What is familiar is what we feel comfortable with; we surround ourselves with things that make our everyday life run smoothly, simply. What is not often considered in the notion of migration, of estranging yourself from familiarity and your home country is that travelling doesn't only include a spatial dislocation, the act of leaving the familiar place, but a temporal dislocation. My Finland is the Finland of the past, the one I left three years ago: this 'past' is now associated with home that I can no longer return to, because it doesn't exist in the present. This is why 'home' is always a question of memory.

This 'home' we crave for becomes a mythic place of no return - the geographical location exists, Finland is always there if I wish to return to its familiar sounds and smells. But the time and place of the home country we knew has passed on, has morphed the way us emigrants have evolved and changed. The terrifying realisation of not knowing where you are while standing in the middle of that shopping centre you've spent time in since you were five years old - it was renovated while you were gone, and you're now completely at the mercy of your friend to lead you through corridors and shops you've never seen before. The corridors you knew are long since demolished.

What that person asking you to come home means with 'home' is that space you inhabited as the person you were years ago. But it ignores the pain of an emigrant who returns to this space and is put on the mercy of others' hospitality, of accommodating you on their sofas and futons, of letting you use their monthly bus card so you could stop spending your now foreign currency on single tickets. Home is not being on the mercy of public wi-fis as you no longer have a Finnish phone number.

You have become a visitor in your own home country.

The empire State building in New York, USA - The Strayling

The nostalgia of walking the streets once part of your everyday reality only carries you so far. Day by day you start missing your oatmeal-instant coffee breakfast (possibly because that once so familiar Finnish nutrition is now completely alien to your digestion system), your new vacuum cleaner you just bought back in Dublin, the smell of the Guinness factory roasting malt on weekends.

You wanted to return 'home' to your family and friends, to salty liquorice and sunny days in Helsinki, but those expectations you put into this experience inspired by your memories can't be dug up from your luggage you spread on your family home's floor. You're a stranger in your own Finnish skin, speaking your native language feels reassuring and alien at the same time. You accidentally answer to people in a wrong language and get judgemental looks from your friends as you try to explain you don't do it to seem special. It's just... what you're familiar with now.

Your family and friends were not there to see you change. They didn't sit on your back as you were lost in Montréal, they didn't hold your hand as you accidentally kissed someone on the lips while trying to go for the wrong cheek first. They weren't there as you shed your Finnish skin and started asking 'how are you?' from every person encountered, when you learned to chit chat about weather with the Irish. But the same way those people didn't see you change, you weren't there to see your home country change like they did.

The unexpected, unfamiliar space entering your bubble of familiarity in the form of a culture shock, requiring the shedding of your skin, an irritating itch (as put by Sarah Ahmed) moulds you little by little. Travelling is about the surprises in sensation: different smells, different sounds, different tastes and people. As time goes by, those surprises become more and more rare. The shedding. You've become a summary of all your lived experiences around the world and no longer fit into the old mould of that person you were when you first left.

Fishing huts in Porvoo, Finland - The Strayling

This experience of leaving home and returning to an unfamiliar place is the failure of your memories to make sense of those changes: 'failure which is experienced in the discomfort of inhabiting a migrant body, a body which feels out of place, which feels uncomfortable in this place', as put by Ahmed. You can no longer inhabit this once familiar space in the way you thought would be familiar.

My parents divorced when I was very young, and none of us stayed in that home, in that city, after it was all over and life went on. Despite my dreams occasionally still taking me back to that apartment in Espoo, nudging me towards a place my subconscious still believes is my home, it's a place of no return, a space which no longer exists. I believe this experience has affected my abilities to adapt to change, to the feeling of displacement and making myself feel easily at home in an unfamiliar space. 

Exactly the same way I identified my 'home' as the place where (as tacky as it sounds) my heart was as a child - by my family, not in a certain geographical location - I now as an adult identify my home by my Canadian partner, Alex. He's my anchor, the familiarity I will carry with me wherever I go - the mixture of French and English, of chocolate spread on my toast and of rising intonation when asking questions (something I really had to practice so he'd understand I'm asking a question!). The memories created with him are my present, and the memories I have of Finland I will always associate with my 'home country', but no longer with my 'home'.

Home is where your heart is, right?

(This post was inspired by Sarah Ahmed's wonderful article Home and Away: Narratives of Migration and Estrangement, and Avtar Brah's book Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities.)

 Where is your home? Have you felt like a tourist in your home country after moving abroad? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Love, Melissa

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  1. Once again, you nailed it. I left Finland a long time ago so it doesn't feel like home anymore. I don't often tell people about Finnish roots since they don't adequately define me today. They gave me my blond hair, good kiddo memories, love for punctuality and my parents still live there, but that's about it. I've been influenced by my other homeland USA, and also by my ten years in Paris, married now to a Frenchie. I love the unique mix that my life is.

    1. Thanks a lot! It's a topic I'm very interested in even in my professional/academic life so I'm super happy to hear someone else was able to relate to it too. :) It sounds like you've gone through quite a journey! I definitely understand why you prefer not to mention your Finnish roots, it definitely makes people define you through a certain stereotype at first. That's my experience at least: "Oh you're from Finland? You must be a heavy drinker then right haha! You must not like touching haha! You guys are such alcoholics!"

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