Home, homeless, homeland, homesick… What do you feel right now reading these words? If you ever experienced leaving your home country, the whole set of emotions can eventually arise. It seems that somehow the theme of belonging is deeply rooted in our humanness. Working as a therapist with expats, I often witness precisely this: the relationship we have developed with our “original home” may impact the way we are experiencing our life today, in a new place.
It seems extremely important to make sense of our own life story, a story that always starts somewhere, in a specific family, a specific home and a specific country. Even if that country is far away or even no longer exists, except in our memories.
What does "home" really mean for those of us who have left or who are considering to do so?
For some, “home” comes down to a house or a suburb or a town, for others it is a country. For many of the modern nomads I am meeting through my work, home is more of a continent or a whole set of countries. Sometimes we struggle to answer the question: “Where is your home?” This - simple for some - question then becomes quite challenging. Often, a therapy for an expat becomes a journey searching for the answer to this particular question.
Home is a place where we feel safe and protected. This makes sense, and I guess any home should have this quality.
But sometimes, for some of us, the place where we were born didn’t feel either safe nor nourishing. If that original “home” felt oppressive or traumatizing in some way, leaving could have become a matter of self-protection; the only way to allow the necessary self-development to take place.
I remember very clearly my departure from my native Russia : my first step on the Italian ground, discovering the palm trees and sun-tanned people lively gesticulating around me… I was almost instantly overwhelmed by a feeling of familiarity. Strangely enough, I felt safe and at peace. I didn’t master the language yet, I didn’t know anybody there, but I felt I was back home.
Years later, coming back to my home country, I didn’t experienced anything so intense.
Bad home vs Good home
One of my clients started our first therapy session with a very strong statement: “I hate the place where I come from”. Those first words became the beginning of her journey back to that place which haunted her. Dealing progressively with this old trauma she started her work towards growth and self-fulfillment.
A child may feel angry when home becomes emotionally challenging or unresponsive. This feeling is often so unbearable that the psyche needs to find a way to deal with this ambivalence. Often the easiest way is to split the home in Bad and Good, separating two conflicting parts. Then we can hate one of the two and ignore the other one. Or, alternatively, adulate the Good home and ignore the Bad one. In both cases, we loose touch with some parts of our culture and ourselves. To integrate these parts back becomes one of the aims of the therapy process.
An example of the first case (alignment against the Bad home), is when some emigrants are looking for inclusion, trying hard to melt in the new culture. The cost may be to loose their own language or links to their family who stayed back home. In the second (the idealization of the Good Home), the emigrants prefer to evolve in their restricted social circle, to eat their traditional food and to keep speaking their native language, segregating themselves from the life of the local community.
Dogs VS Cats
In the Western culture we tend to think in opposites. Duality seems the easiest way for us to make sense of the environment. Black and White feel much simpler then too many shades of grey. Do you remember your school teacher asking you to find opposites to the words written on the blackboard?
We often project some of our feelings and thoughts onto our pets. The duality Cat vs Dog is very common for many Western cultures. Pets are often part of our experience of home, of comfort, of that unconditional love that seems to be an intrinsic part of the belonging experience.
There is a belief that cats tend to attach rather to a place in contrast with dogs, which develop stronger links with their masters.
My guess is that, somehow, we intuitively feel this difference: some of us are easily attached to a geographical place and put roots in a specific ground, whilst others would always keep following some quest of a better place to be in.
What would be the opposite of “home” then? Abroad? The rest of the world?
I clearly remember, from a very young age, feeling that I needed to leave. Since childhood I knew I would leave my country, and would explore the wider world. It feels important to make sense of my own experience of expatriation. I left home by choice, willingly and always felt rather excited then burdened by my discovery journey.
I may be one of those who put “freedom” as an opposite for “home”, like many of the expatriates I have met through my work.
I also found that, once the excitement of life in the first two or three foreign countries calmed down, I came in touch with the profound loss: leaving home, even by choice, we loose many links, that would never be restored again. Even if we decide to go back, the world we left behind has changed, as well as ourselves.
To make peace with this loss sometimes becomes one of the key steps in the journey of an existential migrant.
Home is also a landscape we are born to. In visual arts, any landscape, to become interesting to a human eye, needs a character, at least for the scale. If you try a simple experiment and draw a person on a sheet of paper, just this person and nothing else, how does it look? Suspended in the air, lost, flying? And, now try to add a horizon line, and some details of his surroundings, a tree, a dog, a house… How does it change the way you perceive this person? Does he look any different? Try to add another person, what happens then? How does the first character look now?
The more I meet expats, the more I distinguish a common theme in their stories, which actually resonate with my own nomadic journey: our weaker roots allow us to grow more self-reliant. Often the story of a voluntary migration sounds like a very solitary journey. We learn how to maintain distance relationships, we are able to have a romantic date through Skype or participate in a family gathering on-line.
When home becomes such a mobile concept, we become more aware of how much it depends on the people we connect with. In the end, we keep changing ourselves, as much as our geographical position. After all, home is rather a process than a fixed concept. In this constant movement, the relationships become as much “home” as the environment where we are evolving at that particular moment.
Now, with the latest developments in communication technologies, aren’t “others” becoming even more easily movable then a place? Today, we can reach out to a friend or a parent from almost anywhere in the world. We can experience this feeling of familiarity, safety and love, or in other words the psychological comfort we usually associate with home.
It can happen, when we come back to an old home, that we experience a strong feeling of belonging. But sometimes we feel ‘nothing’ or even a deep sense of oddness. Places tend to change, especially once we have left them. They continue to evolve without us, they are indifferent to our feelings and our pains.
With people it is different. We can keep in touch, we can share how our journey is impacting us. When we do so, ‘others’ are usually able to witness our growth, if not understand it.
So, at least with people, we have a choice that we do not have with places: to bring people with us, even virtually, or to leave them behind.
Finally, no migration leaves us untouched. As much as we exalt the excitement of our nomadic life, we nevertheless get in touch with the experience of loss that comes with it.
But making sense of all these feelings, of our relationship with home and people, we can reach a better self-understanding and growth.
Published earlier on http://www.internations.org